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A Brief History of

The Castles of Wales Website

In The Beginning there was nothing, a great void....

Yes, I primarily set up the Castles of Wales website because of my fascination with and fondness for Welsh castles and Welsh medieval history, however, believe it or not, the catalyst for setting up the site was actually a dispute over the use of the Welsh language. Not many people know about or remember this story. Long ago when Dinosaurs walked the earth, in the early, early days of the Internet before the World Wide Web had become available, there were a few online services where you could read news, do email, and chat with other people. These were the first services to offer a graphical user interface, which was quite exciting at the time. Raise your hand if you remember Prodigy (Sears), Compuserve, and (later) AOL.

Compuserve featured a fairly popular chat room for Wales. It was a place where you could connect with other people interested in all aspects of Wales and Welsh culture. History, genealogy, language, travel, as well as other topics were the focus of most conversations. The site had a Welsh moderator and there were frequent posts in Welsh, which helped some of us learn a bit about the language. And herein lies the problem.

When the Welsh moderator quit, Compuserve’s “parent moderators” didn’t bother trying to find a replacement. Instead they simply removed all posts in Welsh and refused to allow any further posting in Welsh. That’s right, here we were in 1995 and the Welsh language was being banned on Compuserve. Shades of the Welsh not! (Y Gadair Ddu) One forum member offered to become the new Welsh language moderator, but that didn't work out and the ban stood.  I guess they thought we were passing top secret information to foreign spies, or perhaps committing unspeakable illegal acts using Welsh as our cover. (I do not speak Welsh but I still love the language.)

Needless to say, our little group wasn’t very happy. Although some chose to stay and fight (which was futile), I and several other member simply quit Compuserve. The leader of our merry band of malcontents, Dale, then came up with the idea of launching our own Welsh site on the web, which was pretty new at the time. And that’s what we did. Each person took a different section of the new site (travel genealogy, language, history, etc.).  I wanted to do the genealogy section (my other all-consuming hobby) but that had already been promised to someone else, so I took history, concentrating on Welsh castles and Welsh medieval history. My college undergraduate degree was in history and I have always loved studying history. I had begun working on my own family genealogy in the late 1980s and had discovered that my Welsh ancestors were coal miners from Brynmawr in what was then Breconshire. My wife and I had the opportunity to meet Dale on our trip to Wales in 1995, although I can't remember if this was before or after the "Compuserve Incident." Dale and his family lived in the Ceiriog Valley (Dyffryn Ceiriog) near Llangollen, and he and his daughter showed us around the area one afternoon. I thought that was a very generous thing to do and it was great to finally meet someone from Wales I had been corresponding with.

Unfortunately the new website didn’t last long (I don’t even remember the name). Also, by this time I had become a bit frustrated with the site because I wanted to add more photos to my history section and there simply wasn't any more room for me to do so. Photographs took up a lot of server space and bandwidth, and in the early days of the web most of the focus was still primarily on text. Hard to believe but most early websites featured text and graphics, but not necessarily photographs. I had a different vision. Despite bandwidth limitations, I thought the web would be a perfect medium for photographs.

I had already visited Wales a few times, and had a bunch of photos for different castles so I decided to launch my own site in 1996. I registered the domain name “castlewales.com” and set about trying to figure out how to create a website. These were the days before front-end web-writing programs. You had to write your own web page HTML code, character by character, line by line in Windows notepad, then upload the result to your site. You had to learn HTML; how to manipulate text, headers, line and paragraphs breaks, bold text, image maps, links, and graphics placement, so that the result was something viewable and legible. I purchased several books (remember books?) and attempted to teach myself how to write webpages. (Some would say that I never really learned.) I was no programmer but I did the best I could. My initial pages were primitive, and still are to a degree.

Before long I was able to upload a modest site using my own photos and essays that looked OK. The problem was, I needed to find experienced and knowledgeable historians and researchers willing to contribute to my fledgling effort. I searched around and started contacting people who I though might be interested in helping. The site scored a major success when historian, researcher, and author Lise Hull agreed to contribute articles to the site. Her knowledge of and passion for Wales and Welsh castles are obvious in the many articles she has written. Her contributions gave the Castles of Wales its important initial legitimacy. Soon other historians and authors began contributing their expertise as well, including Paul M. Remfry, John Northall, Catherine Armstrong, Richard Williams, Adrian Pettier, and Daniel Mersey. These contributions, as well others, (in my opinion) have created a substantial, diverse, and well-rounded resource. I have also contributed some of my own castle experiences and observations along with a majority of the photographs.  

As I took additional trips to Wales, and as cameras improved, I was able to add larger, high resolution photographs to the site. For some castles, I added as many photos as I could. (You simply can't have too many castle photos, in my estimation.) Therefore while some pages here feature only one or two photos (maybe none), there are some that feature 20 or more good photographs. That was a bit of a problem in the days before high-speed T1 and better Internet connections, but not much of a problem today. (Remember 1200 & 2400 baud modems?)

Branching out a bit I began writing pages featuring some of the abbeys, priories, holy wells, and churches found throughout Wales, as well as pages featuring certain pre-medieval sites. There are definitely connections or lines running through these sites that intersect directly with Welsh castles, Welsh rulers, and Medieval Welsh history. I thought they were worth mentioning too. I also became interested in the so called "lesser-known" or vanished castles, many of which have few visible remains, and decided to put these front and center. While the histories of some of these castles are unknown, others played important roles in the story of Welsh-Anglo relations, enjoy impressive defensive positioning, or are set in stunning locations. I love visiting these castles too, as do many others. While the better-known castles, (Caernarfon, Chepstow, Harlech, Caerphilly, etc.), are wonderful to visit and explore, there's quite a lot to be learned about Welsh history from these less familiar castles. 

You may be interested to know (bragging here) that the Castles of Wales website was literally one of the first half-dozen sites on the web providing information about Wales. Twenty eight years later we're still here and all of those other early sites are long gone. I can't think of too many sites with this type of lineage. We were the first site on the web to provide information about Welsh medieval history, the first to tell that history from the Welsh perspective, and the first to feature castles built by the native Welsh princes. Much of our focus on Welsh-Welsh history is down to John Northall and the late Richard Williams who demonstrate both pride and eloquence in expressing their Welsh patriotism via their essays. We were also the very first site to offer certain history pages in the Welsh language (take THAT, Compuserve!). Sian Beidas graciously translated about 20 of our pages into Welsh, focusing on Welsh rulers and Welsh castles. It was a modest but very important effort. I can't remember if Sian was part of our original Compuserve group, but she may have been. I should also mention that the Castles of Britain website created by Lise Hull, and The Gatehouse, created by Philip Davis, are castle sites that have also been on the web for quite a number of years.

Fast forward to 2023-24 when, after years of inactivity, I finally began updating the site. I started adding new information, new features, new photographs, and began the long process of repairing and updating broken links and fixing pages suffering from irregular or misaligned text and photos. I've also recovered and re-linked pages that had become unlinked from their parent page. I rewrote the main page and created new main menu selections. As of May 2024 this process seems to be nearing the finish line.

Our website doesn't look as slick or as polished as other sites, but that's OK. The purpose of the Castles of Wales website has always been to provide educational, thought-provoking information accompanied by decent photographs in an easy to navigate format, and, despite the site's technical limitations, that remains true today. I have looked into modernizing the site but because there are hundreds of pages and graphics here, there are few vendors willing to take on such a project, and even if they did the cost would be prohibitive.

That's about it. Thanks for visiting and I hope you will continue doing so for many years to come! Diolch yn fawr iawn!

Jeffrey L. Thomas, May 2024

 


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