Sunday, September 17, 2006

Saturday, 16th September – Conwy

Today was our day to see Conwy. It is a very pretty town, set on the estuary of the Conwy River, with an intact set of medieval city walls surrounding the town, a huge castle dominating the view, and within the walls a cluster of authentic cottages & shops. The best preserved medieval town in Britain, they say. There are lots of “ests” in Conwy – the smallest house in Britain, the best-preserved Elizabethan town house in Britain, the oldest house in Conwy, and (according to Fodor) the castle “which preserves most convincingly the spirit of medieval times”.

We started our day with a walk along the city walls – very scenic but not recommended to anyone with a fear of heights (aka Shelley)! The walls were built by Edward I when he built the castle, because he needed some loyal (i.e. tax-paying) subjects living nearby to fund the construction and running of the castle – so he offered land grants and other bribes to English settlers to live near the castle and the walls were essential to protect them from the marauding Welsh.

The castle itself was fascinating. We took a guided tour which was excellent – the guides really know their material, and really bring it to life. Only the stone of the castle remains, everything that was not bolted down was sold for scrap after the English Civil War. Possibly this is what makes it so authentic, because other castles (and there are plenty) continued to be used and modified over the centuries. One thing we learned from the guide was that although they did pour “noxious substances” down on uninvited guests, boiling oil was way too expensive to waste, as well as there being nowhere on the castle walls to make a fire. Also he said the castles were not so much military centres but more administrative offices! Our illusions shattered - that’s what comes of learning all your history from the movies.

The smallest house in Britain is a real house, 6 feet wide and 10 feet high (2 stories). It was apparently a mistake, as they were building a row of houses (back in Elizabethan times) and ran out of space as they came up to the city wall, but built a tiny house there anyway. I hope the rent was cheap! It was set for demolition in 1900, until the owner did a trip around Britain measuring all the small houses to establish that this was indeed the smallest, and it has been a tourist trap ever since.

Aberconwy House was built in the 14th century, which certainly makes it very old. It survived war, fires, and Victorian “improvers”, and now belongs to the National Trust. We were a little under-whelmed – the house was interesting, but there was little information available so we didn’t really know what we were looking at. By contrast Plas Mawr, which is run by CADW (pronounced ‘cadoo’ – the Welsh historic monuments mob) was excellent – it’s a beautifully restored Elizabethan town house (as opposed to country house) built in 1585. Admission included an audio tour, with information about the history of the house and the period, as well as details about the restoration of the property – some parts were left to show you the condition it was in, while others were restored to their original state, which was fascinating. (The little machine we carried which contained the audio tour was labeled ‘time machine’).

By now it was after 5, and our legs were getting quite tired. We drove to nearby Llandudno, which was a popular seaside resort in Victorian times, and still evokes a wonderful sense of faded gentility. The entire waterfront is lined with elegant Victorian hotels, and there is a large fun pier. We promenaded for a while (as you do in a place like this – you can’t just walk) and then had dinner in a pleasant café. It is a natural bay, bracketed at each end by big hills (called the Great Orme and the Little Orme – orme means sea monster in Norse), and the “beach” is your typical English pebbles.

Back to Conwy to get some photos of the floodlit castle. Another exhausting but marvelous day.