Ahhh… Caernarfon; A small town on the river Seiont, of around ten thousand inhabitants and not without considerable fame. This is entirely due to one structure, its castle, built by Edward Longshanks from 1283. Today it is the considered as the crowning achievement of Longshank’s Welsh building programme, bringing tourists into the town by the cart load. But there is far more to Caernarfon than some old symbol of conquest. It can be a strange place, even intimidating at times, but scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find a place that has far more to offer the casual visitor than what you might initially suspect…
Getting there is easy as pie. If you’re in the car you can leave the A55 just before you cross the Menai, following the signs and passing by the old Vaynol estate, which is unfortunately a private residence, and Felinheli, where once happened the mighty battle of Moel-Y-Don; where the Welsh forces of Llewelyn ap Gruffudd surprised a 2000 strong army of English infantry, causing a rout across the Menai straits during which many of the English drowned. Felinheli these days is much more peaceful and quiet. If you have time and the weather is good then a walk around this pleasant little village should certainly be on the agenda. If you don’t have time then feel free to head straight on to Caernarfon where you will find plenty of car parking, much of which is free. If you are not in a car then busses run regularly from Bangor and Porthmadog, the Bangor busses passing through Felinheli if you have a desire to stop there. A return ticket is reasonably priced too, just a few pounds from what I recall. This is also the end of the line for the Welsh Highland railway, though prices for it are quite high. I’ll come back to that later.
The bus station, if you can call it that, is not the nicest part of town. The busses pull up along one side of a narrowish road (called Pool Side) and along one edge of this road, the side which the busses park on, a large, concrete car park which really isn’t pleasant to look at dominates. It’s all dark and gloomy and hardly welcoming. Across the road you have an assortment of low rise, minor and unimpressive stores; a bookmakers and an Argos most prominently. You may find things a little nicer if parking in one of the many car parks around the town, especially those down near to the Menai and by the old docks area. But wherever you end your journey, car park or bus station, you will certainly notice that as you walk through the place that almost every building looks worn or neglected or sometimes even uninviting. They come in all shapes and sizes and have varying ages but most, you will find, have a similar, haggard appearance; often painted in faded pastel colours with paint that is now flaking away from the walls. Whilst this may not sound very appealing it is actually all part of the charm of Caernarfon. It perhaps feels, walking through the some of the streets, particularly those within the walls, that the place has been lost to the wilderness and you’re the first person to come across it in years. Caernarfon feels likes an old town but not in the usual way of chocolate box, Tudor beamed houses and narrow, cobbled streets. It is, you will notice, a different kind of old town. And that makes it special, in a way.
Turning right at the end of Pool Side you will come to a road lined with an assortment of small shops; a butchers and a barbers as well as some independent clothing stores and banks. At the far end you’ll find a Netto, a Morrisons and the nationally renowned Caernarfon fun centre; an indoor adventure playground inside an old church and suitable for kids and grown ups alike. There’s even Laser Tag and Go-Karting on site. If you’re in a large group, say a coach party or similar, you can book in advance and as a bonus you’ll get the place to yourself. This is, I think, evenings only though and you do need a group of around twenty in order to book. Otherwise you may have to share with other people. It does live up to its name though and if acting like a grown up child is your sort of thing then by all means, you must pay a visit here. I have been myself (a few times) and although when I first heard of it I wasn’t convinced (and indoor adventure playground? Pah!) I would now definitely recommend it. As I said, it lives up to its name and I’m sure it can make even the sourest of grumps crack a smile.
Turning left at the end of Pool Side, meanwhile, will quickly bring you to the heart of Caernarfon town: Castle Square. The defining feature here is, of course, the castle, but we’ll ignore that for the moment. The must see here is the statue of PM David Lloyd George. Political officianados will probably want to pose with him. It is without a doubt a finer statue than the one opposite the Houses of Parliament (where he looks slightly vampiric in my opinion.) The square is surrounded by an assortment buildings. On the far side (if entering from the direction of Pool Side) you’ll see a neat Georgian terrace punctuated in the middle by a distinctive white building. This is the ‘Y Castell’ hotel and as well as offering four star rooms (if you’re looking for somewhere to stay) they also have a bar (where the food is of the classic pub variety) and an ‘A La Carte’ restaurant, though be forewarned that you do have to book in advance for that one.
Across the other side of the square you’ll see a row of brightly coloured, though less architecturally pleasing buildings. These are mostly shops and cafés although there is also a pub here (The Morgan Lloyd) which is a bit more proletariat than Y Castell. There are two roads leading off on the left side of the square; a church, a post office and a bank in the middle. The road on the far right (next to the post office) will take you to ‘Cofi Roc,’ a cafe bar and nightclub. It describes itself as ‘North Wales biggest nightclub’ though I think this may be a slight exaggeration on their part as I think Bangor has (or at least HAD, as far as I know) one that was bigger. Further down the road you’ll come to the ‘Villa Marina,’ serving exquisite and fine Italian foods (this one is definitely worth checking out) and further along still you’ll come to the Albert Inn, another pub that serves food. Down the left road (next to the bank) you’ll find the main shopping street. It isn’t very long by any means but there is room for a KFC, Subway and a Boots as well as a few other big name stores.
Just beyond the square, on the far side from the Pool Side entrance, you can find the station for the Welsh Highland railway, the longest heritage railway in Britain. It runs for twenty five miles and takes you through stunning scenery, past Yr Wyddfa and through Bedgellert, running along past (but unfortunately on the wrong side of) what I described in The Rebels as ‘the British equivalent of Mount Rushmore,’ Pitt’s head, and eventually to Porthmadog. Although children under three and up to one child under sixteen can travel free, fares are still quite steep. A third class return to Beddgellert will cost you the best part of thirty pounds. If you are prepared to pay that then by all means, go for it as the views are spectacular, particularly going past Yr Wyddfa.
Heading back in the other direction (towards the Castle) will bring you to the old town, a moderately sized area built on a grid pattern and enclosed by a defensive wall (built by Longshanks at the same time as the castle.) Sadly the walls are in no fit state to walk around but you’ll still find plenty to entertain within. At the heart you’ll come across the market hall. A few years ago this was a place that made up for its lack of architectural merit or size by having oodles of charm. It was small and,I’ll admit, mostly limited to the sort of things you can buy at a scuzzy car boot sale but that didn’t make it any less charming. There was this really good second hand book stall in there and it was a proper joy to flick through. Alas, whilst the building is still there the market itself is no more, replaced by a bar, restaurant and craft brewery. I’m not against craft breweries, not by a long chalk, but this particular craft brewery has come at the expense of one of the few (perhaps the only) permanently standing markets in the area. If there is one thing this corner of Wales needs more of, it is markets and I would have much rather seen the market improved and turned into something really special than have it become a craft brewery. Still… What is done is done and there is no use complaining. I’m sure the beer is nice and knowing how charming the old building was I’m sure it is a perfectly decent place to eat or have a drink.
Throughout the old town you’ll find plenty of other bars, hotels and tea shops to take your pick from as well, if one craft brewery isn’t enough for you. The Black Boy Inn serves good local food and also offers accommodation, some of which come with what they call a ‘mini-kitchen.’ Rumour has it that the inn is haunted by a nun but according to what I can find she’s harmless so there’s no need to worry about her. It is interesting to note that the area immediately around the inn was once Caernarfon’s red light district but, thankfully, that sort of trade moved on a long time ago. Nearby you will also find The Hole in the Wall, which is quite nice, and (just outside the walls by the castle and the Menai) The Anglesey Arms. Although if bars aren’t your thing then the tea rooms will certainly compensate. I recall on my first visit to Caernarfon, many years ago, I strayed in one little tea room (near the market building I think it was). It was, like a lot of things in Caernarfon, quaint and old fashioned. But the reason I remember it is because the waitress serving lady manning the counter was so nice. I ordered chips and when I tried to pay she insisted that I put my money away until I’d eaten. I could quite easily have skebabbed without paying but that would have certainly been dishonest. Also it would have been extremely cruel to the nice waitress serving lady.
Built into the far, northern corner of the old town you’ll find the old church of St Mary’s, built in 1307 as a place of worship for the town garrison. On the inside it is a quite ordinary church but worth a look around if church architecture is your thing (and why wouldn’t it be?). On the outside, however, there is more than a touch of Assassins Creed about it. It looks the kind of place where the guards never go and where you can always find some shady informant, a bench to hide on and a Templar flag sitting above the doorway. Leaflets are also available inside for those who want more information.
Passing out through the walls by the church you’ll soon come to the Caernarfon maritime museum. It costs a pound to enter and although there isn’t a great deal inside what there is is still pleasant. Just beyond is Caernarfon’s modern, urbanized and 21st century dockland area which is, I’ll admit, an area I do not know all too well. There is a little harbour area full of small boats, which is pleasant, but mostly this part of town is comprised of hotels (including a Travellodge and Premier Inn). There is a restaurant here, Yr Habwr, but the major attraction is Galeri, a big arts centre where you’ll find cinema screenings, talks, concerts, comedians, exhibitions, workshops and theatre performances. This is the cultural centre of Caernarfon and it is where all the artsy types gravitate towards. But don’t let that put you off as its a great place to visit and a lot of the events are really high class and worth the price of the ticket. As a bonus, if you get hungry there is also an on site café.
Back in the other direction a jolly walk can be had along the shores of the Menai, with views over to Ynys Mon, if you skirt around the castle and cross the little bridge over the river Seiont. This area hasn’t been built upon so much of it is unspoilt green fields and open countryside. Turning back around there are some magnificent views of the castle in the distance and, on a nice day, as it gets further away, it becomes all too easy to lose yourself and imagine that you’ve entered some mystical fairy tale land. Following this road (though it might be a bit far to walk for a lot of people) will bring you within spitting distance of the lovely blue flag beach at Dinas Dinlle as well as Caernarfon airport. If you’re currently thinking you can get a flight to Magaluf from here, you can’t. It’s only a tiny, local aerodrome sort of place but you can book a flight that takes you on a spin around the local area (two-three days advance notice is essential.) They offer plane flights or helicopter flights or if you are feeling really adventurous you can even take a flying lesson.
Heading back into the town from the south you will pass the remains of the old Roman Fort of Segontium. All that stands above the ground are a few stone walls but it is well preserved. It is split in two by a main road though most of the visible fort, including the barrack blocks and praetorium are on the east side of the road. The west side has only a bath house, part of a courtyard house and some outer walls remaining. Most of what you can see today was excavated by Mortimer Wheeler in the 1920s. There have been excavations since then but parts of the site (particularly west of the road) remain unexcavated. But maybe that is a good thing as it is not unusual for the site to suffer from vandalism. It is, alas, situated in one of Caernarfon’s less desirable quarters so do not be surprised if you see more than a few broken bottles and bits of glass hanging around. There used to be a museum on site but at the time of writing it is closed and I am not sure when (or if) it will reopen.
And that, of Caernarfon, is everything… Apart from the castle. It is worth visiting but in my opinion it is not as good as the other Edwardian castles. It is nice, don’t get me wrong. You can spend a good hour wandering around all the passages and rooms and they have a very interesting museum on site which is dedicated to the regiment of the Welsh fusiliers. But for me it just isn’t as good as everyone claims it to be. The main problem I have with Caernarfon is that it is not a strong defensive structure. It has defences but they are superficial at best. All of the other Edwardian Castles in Wales have round towers whereas Caernarfon has hexagonal ones, making the building frightfully easy to undermine. Most of the others, with the exception of Beaumaris, are built on high, strategic ground. Caernarfon is on ridiculously flat ground and in a position that is hardly the best in terms of strategic placement. There are large windows on the outside and the most important building, the Eagle tower, is in a horribly exposed position. In reality it is not really a castle but a palace, a royal palace, and was never meant to actually be a big defensive fortress. It was only ever meant to look impressive. Edward I designed it to be a massive ‘F**K you’ to the Welsh (in quite a number of ways.) It is nothing more than a massive symbol of oppression and conquest, built solely to keep the local populace in their place. It is big and on one level it is an impressive structure, worth visiting, but it is not the best castle in Wales if you ask me.
Either way, there is certainly more to the town than the old symbol of oppression which it is famous for. As you have read, there is far more to see and do and far more history within this small place. It may not be the prettiest town, some parts are downright ugly, but beneath the veneer is a real gem, a grubby jewel in the crown of North Wales.