Visit historic Conwy
Julian Humphrys marvels at the architecture of a North Wales town that has frequently found itself at the forefront of national affairs since it was built on the command of Edward I
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With its imposing castle and extensive town walls, Conwy boasts some of the finest military architecture in Europe. The castle and the town it dramatically overlooks both date from the late 13th century, and were laid out on the orders of King Edward I following his victory over the Welsh prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. Conwy Castle was one of a chain of fortresses built to secure the English king’s hold on North Wales, and was completed in just five years under the supervision of Edward’s master Mason, James of St George.
The town, which was for many decades reserved for English settlers, was originally intended as a centre of administration for the local area, and Aberconwy Abbey, a major religious house, was relocated to make room for it. Although in the end Caernarfon took over that role, Conwy was frequently at the forefront of national affairs.
In August 1399 Richard II took refuge here from the forces of Henry Bolingbroke, soon to reign as Henry IV. Two years later the castle was captured by supporters of Owain Glyn Dwr, who tricked their way in while the garrison was at prayer. The castle escaped relatively unscathed from this episode but the town was thoroughly sacked and its houses burnt to the ground. However, reconstruction soon began and the stone and timber Aberconwy House, at the junction of Castle Street and High Street, was one of the properties to be rebuilt at that time.
By Elizabethan times Welsh gentry were settling in Conwy, and Robert Wynn’s splendid Plas Mawr, or ‘Great House’, dates from that period. During the Civil War, Conwy Castle again saw military action as it was held for the king by John Williams, Archbishop of York. In 1646 it was one of the last Royalist strongholds to surrender and in 1665 it was partially slighted, but the castle and town walls were left essentially intact.
By the late 18th and early 19th centuries Conwy was attracting the attention of historians like Francis Grose, who appreciated its historical significance, and artists like Paul Sandby and JMW Turner who enthused over its beauty.
In 1986 its historical importance received worldwide recognition when – with Beaumaris, Caernarfon and Harlech – it was made a World Heritage Site as one of the ‘Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd’.
1. Conwy Castle
The castle was begun in 1283 and completed in less than five years under the direction of Edward I’s master mason, James of St George. The craftsmen and labourers involved in its construction came from all over England. The design of the castle is adapted to the rocky outcrop on which it stands and features two adjoining wards that could be defended separately in times of emergency. The more secure inner ward housed luxurious royal apartments. Edward, however, only stayed here on one occasion – at Christmas in 1294.
2. Town Walls
Built at the same time as the castle, the town walls are some of the best-preserved in Europe. They’re three-quarters of a mile in length and include three twin-towered gatehouses and 21 wall towers. You can walk along large stretches of the walls and enjoy some spectacular views of both the town and river, but it’s also well worth looking at them from ground level. Don’t miss the 12 stone latrine outlets which jut out from the wall near the Mill Gate.
3. Aberconwy House
This is the oldest surviving house in Conwy. Originally a merchant’s premises, it was one of the houses that was built after the town had been captured and destroyed by the supporters of Owain Glyn Dwr in 1401. Tree-ring dating suggests that its jettied upper story was built a couple of years after the battle of Agincourt. The ground floor now contains a National Trust shop while, upstairs, furnished rooms show daily life from different periods of the building’s history.
4. Plas Mawr
The late 16th-century Plas Mawr is probably the finest surviving Elizabethan townhouse in Britain. It was built in the 1570s and 1580s for Robert Wynn, a local businessman, diplomat and courtier and – with its stepped gables, lookout tower and elaborate ornamentation – was a striking statement of its owner’s wealth and taste. Recently restored, its ornate plasterwork is lavishly ornamented with brightly painted symbols: Tudor roses, heraldic badges and classical imagery. An excellent audio tour describes how the house was lived and worked in.
5. Suspension Bridge
Thomas Telford’s iron-chained suspension bridge was built in 1826 to bring the main Chester to Bangor road across the river. The restored tollhouse has been furnished in the style of the late Victorian period. In 1848 the bridge was joined by Robert Stephenson’s tubular railway bridge. A third bridge was added in 1958 to carry modern traffic into the town.
6. St Mary’s Parish Church
The parish church of St Mary’s marks the location of the Cistercian Abbey of Aberconwy, the burial place of numerous princes of Gwynned, including the powerful Lleweyln the Great. In 1283, to make room for his new town, Edward I arranged for the abbey to be moved eight miles up the Conwy valley to Maenan. The church incorporates some of the abbey church’s original stonework.
Conwy Tourist Information
Conwy Castle, Plas Mawr and the town walls are in the care of CADW:
Phone: 01492 592 358 (Castle)
01492 580 167 (Plas Mawr)
Aberconwy House and Telford’s suspension bridge are in the care of the National Trust: