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Dolwyddelan Castle

near the village of Dolwyddelan, Conwy, north Wales

Map link for Dolwyddelan Castle

Photographs Copyright 2004 by Jeffrey L. Thomas.

Above: The keep at Dolwyddelan Castle viewed from the south.

Below: The original castle at Dolwyddelan rested atop this rocky
knoll on the valley floor below the later stone castle.

Frances Lynch 1995

Dolwyddelan is traditionally the birthplace of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, though the actual site was perhaps the vanished castle of the rocky knoll in the valley floor (above). There is no evidence for any building at the present castle site earlier than the early 13th century, when the area came under Llywelyn's control. The site covers two routes into Snowdonia, and admirably demonstrates Llywelyn's scheme of defence and control.

Dolwyddelan remained an important stronghold for his grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, and its capture by the English, perhaps through treachery, on 18 January 1283 was a turning point of the Edwardian campaign. It was immediately repaired and garrisoned by Edward with a force kitted out with white tunics, camouflaged for a winter campaign in the mountains. The English maintained a military presence here until 1290, but their long-term strategy of control relied on military and administrative centers accessible by sea, and inland castles became increasingly irrelevant.

Below: approaching the castle from the path leading from the car park,
and stairs leading to the keep with the ruins of the West Tower.

The castle was occupied again in the 15th century, when it was leased to Maredudd ap Ieuan, a local nobleman, who added an upper storey to the keep. In the middle of the 19th century it was extensively restored by the public-spirited Lord Willoughby de Eresby.

The castle consists of two rectangular towers linked by an irregular curtain wall set on the highest point of a narrow rocky ridge. It is isolated from the ridge by rock-cut ditches with counterscarp banks; access was originally by a wooden bridge at the northeast corner (present entry). The keep and the curtain wall are judged to be the work of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth. The keep was then only two storeys high. A basement was accessible by trapdoor. The great room was heated by a large fireplace (now restored) and provided with a latrine in a narrow wall-chamber. This room had a steeply pitched roof; the gable line can be seen on the inner face of the south wall. Its doorway at first-floor level was strongly defended, with a drawbridge at the top of the outer stairs. The collapse of its defensive porch has exposed the drawbridge pit.

Below: close-up of the Great Keep at Dolwyddelan.

The curtain wall accommodates itself to the irregular outline of the rock. The entrance was very simple; there are no stone steps to the wall-walk, so wooden stairs must have sufficed. Two latrine chutes can be seen at the north corner. Though now reached from inside the west tower, they pre-date it.

The secondary nature of the west tower is proven by straight joints at each end where it abuts the curtain wall. This tower, a little larger, but less seriously defended than the keep, is believed to have been built by Edward I. Its ground-floor doorway and windows have sandstone surrounds, the only instance of imported stone being used in the castle. It had an upper room with a large fireplace and its own latrines.

Below: three views of the ruined West Tower.

The alterations made by Maredudd ap Ieuan in 1488 increased the accommodation and convenience, but it must have remained an austere dwelling. He added a third story to the keep, providing another large, but unheated room. The floor joists (not restored) were set on a rebated wall. In the west tower, Maredudd provided an external stair (now gone) to give more convenient access to the upper floor. The 19th-century restoration concentrated on the keep. Floors, walls and battlements were recreated, together with a prominent series of projecting stone beams.


Jeffrey L. Thomas

The first thing you should know about the site is Dolwyddelan, like most of the castles of the native Welsh princes, is set amidst spectacular scenery. The castle guards a mountain pass through the Vale of Conwy, and it's the beauty of the surrounding countryside that visitors first notice. First of all, if you ever find yourself around Conwy about to head south for Betws-y-Coed or Dolwyddelan Castle, do yourself a favor and skip the A470 in favor of the adjacent B5106, which will take you straight through the heart of the beautiful Vale of Conwy.

Hop back on the A470 at Betws, and continue south for about 4 or 5 miles until you arrive at the castle. Before coming to the castle you first pass through the pleasant village of Dolwyddelan. Don't miss the great castle pub sign in town! Once out of town, you'll soon see Dolwyddelan's lonely keep sitting majestically above the surrounding countryside. The castle and car park are on the right side of the road and there's ample parking. Chances are, you'll be greeted by one of the many sheep that keep watch over the castle. One such ambassador served as our guide last year (1995) leading us almost all the way up to the visitors center, her "bleatings" seemingly welcoming us to the castle (or perhaps announcing our arrival?).

If you arrive in the morning, don't be surprised to see a few camp tents pitched conveniently on the side of the hill. There are wonderful walks all around Dolwyddelan, and the area is very popular with hikers. A castle, great walks, and a nearby, yet un-busy town make the area a great choice for a holiday.

Again, as is the case with other Welsh castles, be prepared for a bit of a hike to get to the castle, and if you have a problem with hiking around sheep, you may want to remain at the visitors center - high enough itself to offer some great vistas. But then again, if you do that, you'll be missing a spectacular survey of the surrounding countryside from the top of Dolwyddelan's keep, so I would recommend braving the sheep!

The square keep at Dolwyddelan is quite large and intact. There is a nice display on the history of the castle housed in the keep's main room with its large fireplace. To get to the top of the keep, climb the stairs from the display room and be prepared for some spectacular scenery. Even a gloomy day cannot diminish the majestic views Dolwyddelan offers from this vantage, and any disappointment at the scarcity of the ruins is quickly replaced by an appreciation of the strategic advantages the site offers and the incredible beauty all around. Generally, Welsh castles are a little more difficult to get to, but typically offer far more spectacular surroundings than Norman and Edward castles. You only have to visit a Dolwyddelan, Castell y Bere, Dinas Bran or Carreg Cennen to understand the difference, and you'll probably find yourself wanting to linger longer at these sites than most others. Dolwyddelan is quietly one of the most beautiful places to visit in this area of Wales. So next time you're in the Snowdonia Mountains, make sure you allow time for a side trip to Dolwyddelan Castle. It will be a Welsh castle experience you'll not soon forget!


Additional Photographs of the castle

Inside the Keep at Dolwyddelan Castle

Two views of the top of the keep at Dolwyddelan.

View of the countryside from the top of the Keep.

Below (2): the line of the curtain wall connecting the two towers can be seen in the two views below.

View of the West Tower from below.

 

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Copyright 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas