Edward I’s castles, Wales

I thought Wales was supposed to be a grey, cold, brooding, constantly-raining place. Last week, however, as we drove around Snowdonia, the skies seemed to emptying themselves of excess sunshine. Just as well I’d just treated myself to a new watercolour set. I’ve always wanted to visit this area after studying  Edward I, an avid builder: fortifications, planning new towns, a new chapel at Westminster, and eventually the Eleanor Crosses. But the castles of north Wales are the best legacy of his vision and their strength endures. A hero to me, but less to the Welsh. A speedy road trip meant there wasn’t so much time for drawing as my priority was ticking off Conwy, Caernarvon, Beaumaris and Harlech (apologies Flint and Rhuddlan, I’ll be back for you at a later date), but here are a few speedy sketches along the way. I shall have to return, as I think its simply the most beautiful British landscape I’ve ever seen (sorry Scotland, Lakes), and understand now why Turner spent so much time drawing there.

Valley on the way to Llanbaris. I can’t be sure of exactly where, but this is a stop along the A4086 that leads east of Snowdon. I’ve never seen scenery like this, where the slate twists and erupts out of the hillsides, its jagged layers line up against each other as if marching to a silent beat, an invisible, inaudible drum that is incased in the mountains.

Conwy Castle, view from the chapel tower. Being a sentimental creature, I know I’d be moved by re-tracing the steps of Edward I, and in this case even exploring his private chambers and chapels. But there was more, despite these castles being ruins they still have such presence and strength, such visual impact that I was rendered dumbstruck. One minute I’d be romantic, goo-ing over ruins of arches floating over empty chambers and the baby ferns than cover the stone like lace. Another minute I’d be claustrophobic, intimidated by tight, dense muscular towers than blot out the sun and loom down on me and the Welsh they suppressed, lining up to attention like the soldiers within their walls. I was so overwhelmed that I felt I couldn’t draw, what was the point of a sketch when I would need at least a week to do this fortress any kind of justice? I climbed a narrow stair, cold, dark, clutching my sketchbook in one hand and the worn rope handrail in the other. Out in the open I stood in the sun, wind, overlooking the town, sea, port, hills, and beautiful castle. Once my eyes had stopped blinking and got and took it all in and got on with drawing, they brimmed with tears.

An even speedier view from Caernarvon castle, near the watchtower. The jewel in the set, this castle’s striped outside walls were modelled on the ancient walls of Constantinople. Standing on the sea bank outside, it made me so happy to contemplate Edward’s walls over seven centuries after he built them, just as he must have contemplated the mighty walls whilst on Crusade from 1270, around seven centuries after they had been built. This made an odd pictures, as the sun was so bright that it seemed to bleach and abstract the scene, grass became yellow, stone pink, and I could barely discern detail across the distance.

Cymer Abbey. On the east coast, up a long estuary, tucked in-between little fields of a caravan park, sits the ruin of this Cistercian monastery. I’m not it ever was grand in stature, as the monks were fairly poor with little land, eeking out a living breeding sheep. And not helped by the wars, becoming a base for Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd’s troops in 1275, and subsequently occupied by Edward I in 1283. But what’s left after its dissolution in the 1530s is still lovely, and a quiet place to while away some time doodling in the shadows to escape the midday sun.