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Discovering Britain: Harlech Castle

Discovering Britain: Harlech Castle
27 Jan
2021
For this month’s Discovering Britain viewpoint Rory Walsh visits a Welsh castle with a dry water gate

Perched on a steep cliff overlooking Tremadog Bay, Harlech Castle is a Welsh icon. Completed in 1289 it has shaped Welsh history and identity, plus inspired the country’s alternative national anthem, ‘Men of Harlech’. Ironically the castle was built for an English king, Edward I, to enforce his rule in Wales. The Castle Rock was an ideal defensive site bordered by mountains, open sea, and the River Dwyryd. 

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This dramatic setting forged an equally dramatic history. For centuries, Harlech was a strategic military target. Welsh leaders Madog ap Llywelyn and Owain Glyndŵr both besieged it. During the Wars of the Roses, the castle underwent Britain’s longest siege. ‘Men of Harlech’ describes how Yorkists gained it from Lancastrians after fighting for seven years. In 1647, another siege at Harlech was a deciding conflict of the English Civil War. 

The castle’s natural surroundings encouraged siege warfare. Defences include the Way From the Sea, a wall from which 127 steps drop 200 feet down the cliff to the Gate-Next-the-Sea. This is Harlech Castle’s water gate. Centuries before the resignation of US President Richard Nixon, a castle ‘water gate’ wasn’t a leak but a source of security. For example, during Madog ap Llywelyn’s campaign in 1294, boats from Ireland brought supplies through the water gate for four months. 

From the castle entrance, the water gate is out of sight. The views across the beach and foreshore, however, reveal a contradiction. The sea is almost a mile away. The water gate is visible following the road around the castle, Hwylfar Nant. Directly opposite its stone archway are the railway line to Harlech station and clusters of buildings. The water gate is now firmly on dry land.

During the 1300s however Harlech Castle was right by the sea, at a bend on the coastline before the Dwyryd Estuary. Over time, waves swept particles of sand and rock north towards the river. This material built up at the bend, forming a spit near the castle. The sheltered area behind the spit became a marsh, which eventually developed into the swathe of land that separates Harlech Castle from the sea. 

At the time of writing, Wales had recently completed a 17-day ‘fire break’ and England begun a second national lockdown. Often 2020 felt like living in a siege, keeping us walled inside and watching outside. By the time of publication, 2021 could see new restrictions. Like the Men of Harlech, we may again be cut off from others and relying on supplies from beyond.

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