If a raven were to glide into Caernarfon, it would be met by a hodgepodge of salt and pepper slate roofs, punctuated by terracotta chimneys and the pearlescent shine of Velux windows offering themselves up to the Welsh sun. This mosaic of tiles, smattered in oil like patches and porcelain splashes, fans out from the castle walls like a pigeon’s wing unfurled in flight.
As the humble pigeon lifts his wing, he reveals an unexpected riot of colours. Visable are the bounding apricot hues, ceruleans, cyans, delicate cottons and eggshells of the houses and shops below. In the distance, the hills curve and jut like the profiles of variously sized crocodiles, all lying next to each other, in roughly textured olive coloured lumps.
This is Caernarfon, and all this is visible from the battlements of its dour medieval castle.
In 1283, the flinty demeanour of Edward I and his war machine in Wales had turned its hand to oppression through castle building. The walls of the city enveloped the town in their iron grip. Long Shanks (so he was known) wasn’t the first to think that Caernarfon would make a superb fortification in a conquered nation – indeed the Romans, and then various Welsh Princes, had had similar ideas when imposing on the Welsh. It was the perfect spot you see, bordered on two sides by the Afon Seiont and the Menai Strait.
If you climb the ramparts you can look across to Anglesey Island. It would have been a terrifying spectacle in its day and the castle was never even technically finished. The visionary architect of this vast polygonal structure was James of St George, who is now immortalised within the pages of UNESCO for his work. The castle is therefore protected from the whimsey of short-sighted planners. James’ design was cribbed from Constantinople and the architecture soldiers observed during the crusades. His middle-eastern inspiration gave him the idea of striping the interior walls with different coloured stones. And until rock crumbles, this structure will live on in its drizzly position, protected.
This last century, the castle has played its part in the royal pageantry that reminds us, essentially, that the world is not fair, when it played host to the crowing of Charles (Queen Elizabeth II’s son) as Prince of Wales. A loop of flickering grainy film, repeating on a small screen within the main tower, shows Charles perching nervously on the thrown during the ceremony. He looks lost and awkward and a little unsure of himself, but perhaps we all would, especially knowing the ghost of Edward the Ist is looking down on us with his coldly competent stare. For Edward’s world was dangerous and power was for those who could take it, and castles were for Kings.
As I cling rather tightly onto the railing of one of the towers, I try to pry back the hands of time and peek through its veil. The pewter coloured bones of the castle and walls are already in place – the hills and the sky and the sea are unchanged. Small fishing boats rock on an indigo sea as they would have done centuries ago. I imagine mud and straw and rock. I imagine cold air and strong smells. But it is difficult to peel back the facade much further. I look at the artist’s representation of the castle when it was just a fledgeling; it had a cluster of small buildings teaming inside its silvery shadow like bluebottle maggots in a carcass. Still its history didn’t unfold before me with any lucidity.
Sometimes it does. Sometimes a connection between place and time is so strong that you can feel history calling out to you from the ether. But not here.
Housing up to 200,000 visitors a year, Caernarfon is a carnival castle, inviting all those that visit to revel in the very physical joys it has to offer: from gazing upwards and feeling cowered, to running your hands along cold stone, climbing all eight towers and even that tingling feeling in your toes as you tempt fate by looking over the walls. It is a playground.
Kassie (my sister dearest) wore an almost luminescent orange, furry jumper that day and decided to peer over every rail with complete disregard to her centre of gravity. I had echos of the comical thump she’d make as she hit the parched lawn in my ears. She sniggered (rather like an evil cartoon character) and ran on. I’m not afraid of heights, but I am (I soon realised) afraid of castles. I saw far too many human-sized holes through which I could imagine soft bodies plummeting through. And yet, I guess no one else did. Even Charlie (another sister of mine) didn’t seem to mind, and she hated mountains because of their height. But perhaps, they all have castles running in their blood whilst I have mountains. And that’s much better surely?
They’d all be serfs anyway…