Seasonal Archaeology: Beaumaris Castle

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Beaumaris Castle, North Wales

A visit to Bangor University at the end of March to give an industrial archaeology seminar provided a good excuse for some rapid castle exploring. The clear skies and bright sunlight of early Spring were a pleasant surprise, with the northern Welsh mountains providing a crystal clear dramatic back drop. That meant an opportunity to explore four castles in one day (Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Dolbadarn and Dolwyddelan), two of which I had never visited.

Beaumaris was first on our list and one of those castle sites I had yet to investigate. Having arrived before the castle opened my wife and I took the opportunity to explore the medieval walled town and the recently restored pier (designed by Frederick Foster and opened in 1846, rebuilt in 1872 and extended in 1895). The light continued to be crisp and the air clear, so that the white-washed walls of the old courthouse glowed in the early morning sun.

Inside Beaumaris, the claustrophobic nature of the castle’s concentric design became oppressively apparent. Once through the southern gateway the massive walls of the inner and outer wards lowered over us.  The southern and northern gateways sat like stone block houses, squat and immoveable, though surprisingly the northern gatehouse had large airy windows facing the inner ward. The whole complex had been surrounded by a moat, which still survived on the northern, western, and part of the southern sides. Yet this culmination of Edward I’s castle building campaign to suppress the newly conquered Welsh, a fortress whose design put it at the apex of castle development, was never completed, despite a building programme running for a decade from 1295 to 1306. Money ran out and the contemporary politics changed, leaving Beaumaris stranded like some cold war airbase of the mid-20th century, an expensive military installation in the wrong place.

Beamauris&Fire

New threats to the future of Beaumaris castle? A moorland fire burns on the Welsh hills south the castle in March 2019, a sympton of climate change.

Its design was altered and the site finally finished, one storey short, in the 1340s. Although garrisoned in the 15th and 16th centuries by the early 17th century it was abandoned, a romantic ruin for the Buck brothers to sketch in 1742 and for the painter Turner to visit in 1798. In 1925 the guardianship of the castle was transferred from the Bulkeley family, owners for several centuries, to The Crown. In 1986 it became part of the UNESCO World Heritage multi-site ‘Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd’.

Yet threats remains and on the day I visited smoke from a moorland fire across the Menai Straights drifted across the horizon. This was a reminder of a largely dry winter and the potential impact of climate change on this ancient landscape and the seemingly solid bulk of the castle. Indeed, the smoke from this moorland fire could be seen from each of the four castles we visited that day, and our journey home took us passed a second moorland fire near Corwen, the potential damage to the archaeology of the area clearly visible in the orange flames leaping skyward.

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