The British Isles are dotted with literally hundreds of castles, but arguably the most spectacular are in Wales. And there, the most imposing of all is at Caernarfon. (Along with the nearby fortresses of Conwy, Beaumaris and Harlech, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.)
I went back the other day to renew my acquaintance. (Caernarfon is a 45-minute drive from Bodysgallen, long a Harper-recommended property and one of my favorite country house hotels in Britain.) It was a chilly spring day, and the snow was still lying thick on the mountains of Snowdonia, but the castle itself was as impressive as ever.
The English King Edward I, a descendant of the Norman conquerors, began building Caernarfon in 1283 to control the fractious Welsh in his new principality. As well as having a strategic location on the Menai Strait that separates the island of Anglesey from the mainland, Caernarfon Castle was built on the site of the Roman fort of Segontium, which features in the great Welsh saga, the “Mabinogion.” Edward was trying to make the (dubious) point that his authority was a reimposition of a long-established order.
What I hadn’t realized before was that the design of Caernarfon was heavily influenced by that of the Crusader castles of the Holy Land. Edward went on the Ninth Crusade from 1268-1274 and saw all the immense fortresses of the Levant. He was also impressed by the Theodosian Walls at Constantinople, and at Caernarfon he copied their horizontal bands of masonry.
One of the pleasures of travel is that it obliges you to see history from different perspectives. Discovering that a castle in northwest Wales was built in imitation of fortresses overlooking the Bosphorus and the Mediterranean was an unexpected and delightful surprise.