Beaumaris: the perfect castle?

Beaumaris is one of the prettiest seaside towns in North Wales. The name Beaumaris comes from the Norman ‘beau marais’, meaning ‘fair marsh’. It’s certainly fitting. This lovely little town boasts a waterfront location, a thriving art scene with number of boutiques, galleries and stylish restaurants, not to mention the stately castle that rules over it all.

Beaumaris has lively cafês, stylish eateries and fantastic accommodation. The shopping opportunities are fantastic too, numerous quality independent traders inhabiting the pastel-coloured and picturesque Georgian buildings.

Brief and glorious: the life of Beaumaris Castle

The Anglo-Saxons occupied the ancient village of Llanfaes in 818. This Viking settlement was referred to as Porth y Wygyr (Port of the Vikings), but was subsequently recaptured by Merfyn Frych, King of Gwynedd. It remained a vital strategic settlement from then on.

Beaumaris Castle is the last fortification in English king Edward I’s ‘iron ring’ of castles in North Wales; fortresses that represent Europe’s most ambitious and concentrated medieval building project.

The purpose of this string of castles – stretching from Flint in north to Harlech in the south – was to remove the need for massively expensive military campaigns from England and to subjugate the native Welsh people, discouraging future rebellions. Edward, effectively, put his men ‘on the ground’.

The site was chosen for its proximity to the Menai Strait, purely for practical reasons. Llanfaes was an established trading post and men and supplies could be readily ferried in from further up the coast.

The Welsh population of Llanfaes were summarily evicted from their homes by the English and set up in a new town, ‘Newborough’ (of the famous beach), 12 miles away.

Like so many English castles in North Wales Beaumaris was designed and built by King Edward’s favourite engineer, Master James of St George. Work started in 1295 but stopped in 1300 when Edward was distracted by his Scottish campaigns.

Around £11,000 had already been spent on Beaumaris but the castle was incomplete and work didn’t recommence until 1306, when Edward became increasingly concerned about the possibility of a Scottish invasion of Wales!

By 1330 Beaumaris was still only partially built but the money had finally run out. A total of £15,000 had been spent on the project (equivalent to almost £8 million today) and it is said that just another £684 was needed to finish it, a paltry amount in today’s money but hundreds of thousands in the fourteenth century.

The revolts of Owain Glyndŵr once again kick-started work on the castle in around 1400, with the construction of the town walls commencing around 1407 but the castle was never properly maintained and fell into disrepair in the years that followed.

Its prominence waned but the castle enjoyed a brief spell of importance during the English Civil War as a strategic outpost between England and the king’s Irish landholdings.

The perfect castle?

Many historians view Beaumaris as the finest Edwardian castle in Wales; a triumph executed by the experience and inspiration of James of St George in the biggest and most ambitious venture he ever undertook.

Most arresting is the castle’s ingenious concentric design. This walls-within-walls design was not a new feature but a hallmark of Edward’s castles – in North Wales it can also be seen at the castles of Flint and Rhuddlan. It was a surprisingly economical design which allowed a small garrison of soldiers to defend a much larger structure.

Beaumaris is often cited as an example of the perfect concentric castle. In design terms, it was a defensive masterpiece.

Surrounded by the first line of defence – a deep moat – a strong outer ‘curtain’ wall dotted with no less than ten towers enveloped an inner castle. If assailants forded the moat and breached the outer wall they would face another set of defences, trapped in no man’s land between the curtain wall and the inner bailey… certain death if archers manned those walls.

Where to go

Beaumaris Gaol

Beaumaris Gaol in Steeple Lane is a fortress-like facility that dates back to 1829. Innovative for its time, this jail had toilets in every cell and a treadmill water pump, but it has a grisly history.

Visit the condemned cell or experience the darkness of the punishment cell. Handle chains and fetters last worn by prisoners a century ago.

The site is open daily between April – October, and on weekends and school holidays out of season.

Hop on a Puffin Island Cruise

From Beaumaris Pier, you can enjoy a pleasure cruise to soak up the views of the Snowdonia Mountain Range, Penmon Lighthouse and Puffin Island.

Arriving at Puffin Island you’ll have the chance to see as many as 12 species of sea birds, including puffins, guillemots and kittiwakes, in their natural habitat. The island is also home to a colony of grey seals who love swimming in the shallows and basking in the sunshine. Curious bottlenose dolphins and harbour porpoise often surface near the boat to keep you company on your journey.

Cruises can be booked online, by phone 01248 810379 or at the booking kiosk next to Beaumaris Pier.

Penmon Priory

Penmon Priory is an early Celtic monastery that was established in the sixth century by St Seiriol. The site was ‘Victorianised’ in 1855, but the Norman nave is original; it has the finest Romanesque carving in North Wales, with rounded arches and characteristic stone pointing.

You’ll also see a beautiful old dovecote, most likely built around 1600.

The church is open daily, and guidebooks are available.

Eating & drinking

Red Boat Ice-Cream Parlour

This famous ice-cream parlour is housed a stunning medieval building with a modern and inviting interior. Red Boat is well-known for its authentic Italian gelato in a range of flavours, including classic strawberry, mascarpone and balsamic vinegar, and bara brith.

It’s a really popular place offering, in addition to ice cream, a fantastic breakfast menu plus pizzas, soups and light meals.

The George & Dragon Pub

For over six centuries, drinkers have been sipping ale within the walls of this historic tavern. Don’t be deceived by the elegant Georgian exterior, it’s one of the oldest pubs in Wales. Bursting with olde-worlde charm, including low beams, brasses and a roaring fire, it’s a cosy spot for some lunch or a pint after a day exploring the castle and town.

Images courtesy: Beaumaris Castle dock © Copyright Jeff Buck and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. Beaumaris Castle gate By Steve Collis from Melbourne, Australia (Beaumaris Castle (HDR)) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Beaumaris Gaol and Promenade courtesy of Visit Wales, Crown Copyright 2016.