The ‘Our Heritage’ project brings together North Wales’ heritage attractions into an informative portal helping visitors discover the region’s rich history. Here’s our guide to some of Snowdonia’s heritage sites that are included in the portal.
Long before Snowdonia acquired its ziplines, people-powered rollercoasters and leisure centres, the region’s inhabitants were busy building the forts, castles and steam railways that would in modern times become Snowdonia’s heritage attractions.
The Our Heritage/Ein Treftadaeth project brings Snowdonia’s heritage attractions together under one roof, providing snapshots of life in Snowdonia over the past few millennia. Through the Our Heritage website, visitors can learn more about Snowdonia’s heritage, from prehistory to industrial history via the Romans, the Princes of Gwynedd, the castles of Edward I and the area’s sacred places.
Some sites, to the untrained eye, may not look like much; but others, like Bryn Cader Faner near Harlech, are achingly beautiful (Bryn Cader Faner has even been described as “the most beautiful Bronze Age monument in Britain” – and deservedly so).
Some of these sites are truly ancient, and have been here for over 5,000 years; some archaeological finds from North Wales date back further still, to 11,000BC. To think that such sites and relics still exist in modern-day Wales is pretty astounding!
It was several decades after the Romans’ invasion of the south of Britain before these invaders made their way into North Wales. By 77AD Agricola had taken control of the area and established forts in strategic locations, which were designed to help the Roman military machine run smoothly.
Monty Python jokes aside, what did the Romans do in North Wales? They built roads, mined copper, gold and slate, built tile kilns and were shrewd enough to give a certain amount of power to local tribes, who were allowed rulership over ‘client kingdoms’.
Roman rule in Britain ended in 410AD, but here in Snowdonia the Romans’ presence can still be felt in what remains of the forts they built at Segontium near Caernarfon and Tomen y Mur near Trawsfynydd.
The castles of Edward I
Edward I was of the Plantagenet dynasty, which originated in France but came to rule first England and then the rest of Britain for generations. Edward’s plan was bold: not content with being king of England, he must have Wales and Scotland too, and so he set about conquering these nations (if you’ve seen the movie Braveheart, you’re probably already a little familiar with Edward’s work).
In the late 13th century Edward built an ‘iron ring’ of castles and walled towns around North Wales, several of which today enjoy UNESCO World Heritage status.
In the Snowdonia Mountains and Coast region, Edward’s fortresses include Caernarfon Castle, built for the king by Master James of St George. The castle’s ‘striped’ outer walls are said to have been influenced by Constantinople. Local legend says that the Welsh would only accept a Prince of Wales that had actually been born in Wales and who could speak not a word of English; so Edward ensured his son was born at Caernarfon Castle, and indeed as an infant the prince, like all newborns, could not speak a word of any language – English or otherwise!
The Princes of Gwynedd
The rulership of the Princes of Gwynedd was cut short by Edward, but there are still many sites in Snowdonia today with connections to their dynasty, which can be traced back to ancient times and which, at one point, ruled much of Wales.
Although the 800 years that the Princes of Gwynedd ruled the land were often bloody, with wars not just against the English but also among themselves, the princes still found time to forge strong cultural and religious links with other parts of mainland Europe, and were even patrons of music, poetry and architecture.
The lives of the Princes of Gwynedd can be imagined today by visiting the ruins of their castles – like Criccieth Castle, Castell Dolbadarn and Castell y Bere – and even at Bangor Cathedral, where 12th century building work was financed by Gruffudd ap Cynan, a prince of Gwynedd who is buried beside the high altar with his sons Cadwaldr and Owain Gwynedd.
The aforementioned Bangor Cathedral is the oldest cathedral foundation in all of Britain. Its origins are firmly in the ‘Age of Saints’; it was founded in 525 by Deiniol, a nobleman who was granted the land to establish a monastery by Maelgwn Hir, king of Gwynedd at that time.
There are many sites in Snowdonia that originate in this period of history; the church of St Beuno in Clynnog Fawr – an important stop along the old Pilgrim’s Way – is one of them. Beuno is credited with several miracles and the nearby spring, Beuno’s Well, is said to have appeared after he performed one of these miracles.
Speaking of the Pilgrim’s Way, perhaps the most important sacred place in Snowdonia is the little island of Bardsey, off the tip of the Llyn Peninsula. It is said that here lie the bodies of 20,000 saints, and three pilgrimages to the island were said to equal one to Rome.
The final theme of the Our Heritage project is Snowdonia’s industrial history.
From the ancient industries like copper mining at Sygun Copper Mine to the ultra-modern hydro-electric power station at Electric Mountain, Snowdonia is teeming with fascinating industrial heritage sites.
As you’d expect, given Snowdonia’s ancient landscape, the quarrying of slate plays a massive role in the area’s industrial history – and many of the region’s industrial heritage attractions are testament to this. The National Slate Museum in Llanberis is a good place to start, as here you’ll discover just what life as a quarryman was like. Similarly, Llechwedd Slate Caverns in Blaenau Ffestiniog offer a fascinating insight, though at this attraction your guide for part of the tour will be the ‘ghost’ of a twelve year old miner who worked at the quarry in Victorian times.
And let’s not forget how the slate was transported from the quarries… some of Snowdonia’s most popular heritage attractions are the steam railways, which once ferried slate all over the region and out into the rest of the world. These days, the trains ferry people, not slate, and are much loved by all who travel in them.
If you have any interest at all in history, take a dive into the past next time you visit Snowdonia by exploring some of its fascinating heritage attractions; it’s a great way to have fun while learning something new!