O'er the ramparts: Castles in Great Britain

BY RICK STEVES Modified: October 9, 2012 at 9:06 am •  Published: October 9, 2012
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The greatest of Edward's castles — like Caernarfon and Conwy — were masterpieces of medieval engineering. Their towers were round, with no corners to knock off, making them tougher to break through. Their castle-within-a-castle floor plan gave defenders a place to retreat and wreak havoc on the advancing enemy, or just wait for reinforcements. And every castle Edward built had a river or sea exit, so he could resupply — or escape — on the water.

Conwy Castle — my personal favorite — is dramatically sited on a rock overlooking the sea, with eight mighty drum towers. It was a power statement from the English king to the Welsh — who had little more than bows and arrows to fight with.

The castle is built on solid rock, making it impossible for Welsh malcontents to tunnel underneath the walls. The English paid dearly for Conwy’s construction through heavy taxes. And today, with the Welsh flag proudly flying from its top, the English happily pay again just to visit.

Because British castles often protected key roads and rivers, many of them match up with the main sightseer circuit. More than a few are jazzed up with battle reenactments, sound-and-light shows, catapult demos, dress-up costumes, and medieval banquets.

But beyond the touristy venues are the castles I prefer — the forgotten ones. Medieval fortresses are rotting away throughout Britain, their stones picked over and carted away to build other things.

In Scotland, St. Andrews Castle is an evocative empty shell that invites you to fill-in-the-moat, and the ruins at Urquhart Castle, on the Loch Ness, are gloriously situated with a view of virtually the entire lake.

The grassy hilltop at the textbook motte-and-bailey Norman ruins at Pickering, in the North York Moors, is perfect for understanding the fort’s strategic location.

These landmarks from times past tell their stories all over Great Britain. Make time for both castle types — some forgotten, some discovered — in your itinerary. You'll find castle thrills lurking in every direction.

(Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.)

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