A day in…Harlech

By | Category: Travel destinations

Harlech Castle is perched on a hill overlooking Cardigan Bay

The small North Welsh town of Harlech is known for two features; the castle and the song. But the castle is not that large as castles go although it is perched on the edge of a hill overlooking the flat landscape below so it seems mightier than it is. In some ways it is like Stirling Castle which also looks over flattish land below.

It must be the song then through which the village is so well-known.

The song commemorates a siege of the castle but which one? There was one in the early part of the fifteenth century when Henry V besieged the castle inside which forces sympathetic to Owain Glyn Dŵr and another in 1461 which lasted for seven years.  Were the music and the words written as early as this? No. The first recorded printing of the tune is over three hundred years later. As to the words, no-one seems quite sure who may have written them. The Bodleian Library in Oxford has words for the song only as long ago 1830 suggesting that the widespread popularity of the song came much later. Internationally appeal it is suggested only came in the twentieth century when films stated to use the tune and lyrics.

at Duffryn Ardudwy is the Duffryn Burial Chamberr

Duffryn Burial Chamber

Whenever that recognition came about, the town and the song are, today, inextricably linked so it was to the castle that I made my first stop. If you go by train (and the journey along the coastline from Machynlleth is spectacular and much more scenic than a car journey) then be prepared for a steep walk up the hill from the station to the castle. If you drive there is a smallish car park immediately next to the castle (chargeable)   and there is free parking along many of the adjacent streets.  The roads are narrow though so larger vehicles may want to park slightly further away if the castle car park is full.

But if you are driving and coming from the south, make a brief detour on the way to see the Dyffryn Burial Chamber which is found on the right hand side of the main in Duffryn Ardudwy. Sandwiched up a little lane between a school and the backs of houses, the burial site is on a hill where dozens and dozens of stones surround the two graves. This 6,000 year old Neolithic site is free to visit and is where early man would have buried the dead along along with grave offerings which would have been passed into the tombs by using the gaps between the stones. Today, the capstones are still in place and the site is shielded by a tree from the sun or rain. One sign provides the information you need to understand the site so no longer than thirty minutes will see you back on the road to Harlech.

inside harlech castle

from the inside, the castle looks like how everyone envisages a castle to be

The castle there is part of an UNESCO World Heritage Site, commonly known as the Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd, along with three other castles, Beaumaris, Caernarfon and Conwy. These castles are considered the finest, if not the finest thirteenth and early fourteenth century castles in Europe. This status honours not only the castles but one of the great architects of the time, James of St George, whose legacy can be seen not just in these castles but others in Europe as well.

But, as I said, Harlech is quite small and compared to Caerphilly – the second largest in the UK after Windsor Castle – it seems more like a war fortification rather than an enclosure to protect local inhabitants.

Today, entry to the castle is via a Victorian mansion next to it which has been turned into a visitor centre complete with a theatre for showing a brief film about it, a restaurant and a shop. From the restaurant balcony there is a bridge walkway into the castle and, as you go, you can see below a small display area that explains some of the history of the castle. Largely there is no protection from the elements except when you walk up the towers so a wet day would not be the best day to pick to visit it.

Looking down from the castle. at the right behind the buildings is the golf course, to the left a holiday park with the beach beyond both

The thirteenth century castle scans the coastline for many miles around up to and beyond the Afon Dwyryd estuary and beyond to the mountains of Snowdonia and the Lleyn peninsula. Picture snappers were hogging the best vantage points on the day I visited emphasising the views that are available from the ramparts and tower on clear days.

But behind the castle where the entrance is, the castle has a lesser view but the “moat” is deep and easily defended from a land attack. Maybe James of St George who also became constable of the castle conceived of it, principally, as a defence from a sea attack.

From the castle there are views over the long sandy stretch of beaches reminding the visitor that Harlech is one of many seaside resorts along the Cardigan Bay coastline. But before your reach the sea there is another tourist attraction. The Royal St.David’s Golf Club, which is 123 years old was opened at the time of the golfing boom in Victorian Britain  and was so named because Scotland and England had golf courses named after their patron saints but Wales did not. Unlike the others it has never hosted the “Open” but then, nor has any other Welsh golf course.

Just off the main street is a cobbled square and restaurant where you can recover from the hill climbs

Beyond the course is the beach and all around the side roads that lead from the main A496 are holiday homes, guest houses, mobile homes, caravan parks and hotels reminding you that today, tourism is the economic mainstay of the area.

To the right is Morfa Duffryn, a national nature reserve which also draws visitors apart from on very windy days. On those days the shifting sand dunes can dump sand in astonishing large amounts which can require rangers digging the paths out again! Primarily people come to see the wild orchids and the other rare wildflowers that inhabit this seemingly inhospitable place.

In the town itself, there is a mixture of the same types of accommodation, but staying there means a walk down the hill to the beach and an invigorating walk back.

Harlech attracts visitors for its beaches as well as the castle. In the middle of the picture on the left is Morfa Harlech

On the walk you will see some huge Victorian houses which recall that time when Harlech was a busy destination for those coming for genteel holidays. That gentility continues and you won’t find well-known brand named shops but rather local ones, a restaurant set back from the road with its own little, cobbled piazza, some antique and bric-a-brac shops as well as the inevitable estate agents listing holiday lets.  Like the castle the church stands high on a hill watching over the road the meanders up the hill from the main road into the town.

From Harlech, the obvious draw for the visitor is to head north for a dozen miles until you get the internationally known Italianate town of Portmeirion. Can Harlech and Portmeirion be visited comfortably in the one day? No, Portmeirion awaits another day. Harlech and the surrounding area are more than enough for a leisurely day out!

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