Conwy. A great town, by day and night
PUBLISHED: 11:19 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 16:12 26 April 2016
There's always a lot to see and do in Conwy, one of the world's most impressive walled towns, as Paul Mackenzie reports
The builders of Conwy's town walls must have been pretty proud of their work. As the mortar set around the last stone they would have stepped back to admire their work and seen an imposing grey edifice stretching right around the town.
They would no doubt be delighted to know that the impenetrable wall they built more than 700 years ago is still in good nick, but they'd probably be a bit less chuffed that thousands of people now breach the defences every day on roads which cut through their wall.
The walls of the enormous castle would still pose a challenge for anyone hell bent on invasion (although for a few quid they could get in through the castle shop). But if someone were intent on getting in the hard way they'd be well advised to visit Brian Tunstall first.
He runs the Knight Shop across the road from the mediaeval castle. From there, and Brian's associated online shop, it's possible to buy just about everything you might need to storm a castle.
The walls of the shop are lined with swords, helmets and shields and he can even provide suits of armour, cannons and the sort of heavy, spiky weaponry which would give modern day military health and safety officials a nasty turn.
'We can get pretty much anything,' Brian said. 'We have supplied things for all sorts of films and television; we've sent stuff to Dr Who, the One Show, the Globe Theatre and Disney - they wanted two suits of armour they could arrange as sleeping guards looking over Sleeping Beauty. We have even supplied suits of armour to Deal or no Deal for their Hallowe'en special. We also have a lot to do with the Royal Armouries and we supply the National Trust and English Heritage and stately homes.'
Brian, who is originally from Southport, added: 'It is a very niche market but I've always loved knights and castles and tales of chivalry and I have always had a passion for swords and castles. You only get one shot at life and I think you might as well do what you want to do.
'We are also starting a sword fighting school where we'll teach sword skills using 15th century manuals. It will be the only one of its kind with full time instructors. Everyone is familiar with Eastern martial arts but our own traditional skills have been lost over the centuries and I think that's a great shame.'
His Conwy-born partner Nia Blackwell's not so sure about that, though; she doesn't share Brian's passion for weaponry and castles but he is determined their son, three-month-old Rafe ('I chose his name, it's mediaeval.') will grow up with stories of the days of old when knights were bold.
It's easy to evoke those times on a stroll around Conwy. And it is a town that demands a stroll, with this many fascinating sights, lovely buildings and stunning views it's impossible to rush anywhere.
And just about wherever you wander you'll be able to see the towering grey walls of the castle, almost perfectly preserved. Edward I ordered it to be built in 1283 after he had defeated the Welsh and established English control of the Conwy valley.
A series of Welsh rebellions had convinced him that a network of heavily fortified castles was needed to subdue the natives. The castle, which overlooks the Conwy Estuary, has massive walls and eight huge round towers which give it a presence as intimidating today as it would have been when the builders finished, just four and a half years after planning permission had been granted and work began.
Edward also built the town, for the English naturally, and surrounded it with those walls to keep those pesky Welsh out. It did its job and eventually, as the natives became less rebellious, Edward turned his attentions to picking fights with the Scots.
But in 1403 with the English distracted, Welsh hero Owain Glyndwr led a rebellion which took the castle but then he gave it back in exchange for a ransom. It is now looked after by Cadw who care for historic buildings all over Wales and every year hundreds of thousands of visitors marvel at the castle and its spectacular views of the walls, the quay and the mountains.
Those tourists constitute the only invasion you're likely to encounter in Conwy these days. They come from all over the globe to savour the charming town's many delights; as you admire the buildings, shops and breath-taking views, you'll hear all manner of accents and languages which highlight Conwy's international appeal.
This is a town full of character which is packed with fascinating sights along every higgledy-piggledy cobbled street and winding lane. Mountains apart, the castle is the biggest thing you'll find round these parts, but if you're after something a little more modest, try Britain's smallest house. It's a tiny red-walled cottage by the quayside which was once owned by a six-foot fisherman with a stoop. He didn't have the stoop before he lived there, mind.
The only bad backs around the corner at Plas Mawr are caused by people craning their necks to see the beautiful Elizabethan fixtures, fittings and furnishings. This is among the best preserved homes from the period and is open to the public throughout the year.
In most towns - especially ones as compact as Conwy - staff at the tourist information centre would trumpet about the castle, the smallest house and Plas Mawr until they were blue in the face, the cows had come home and the donkey had lost its hind legs. But the staff at the Conwy centre next door to the castle have plenty more to talk about.
There are the other historic houses and museums, galleries and studios and the marina and nature reserve, for instance. And that's just in the town itself, not the wider Conwy Valley area which is packed with pretty villages, wonderful walks and stunning scenery. And it doesn't include any of the long list of events, fairs and festivals staged throughout the year in and around the town.
Anyone who fails to breach those walls really is missing out.