Good Heavens: A Real Sand Castle?


We did not go inside the castle on our recent visit to Harlech on the Mid-Wales coast. To tell the truth I’m rather offended by the tyranny that these brutish bastions of Edward I  represent. He, the irascible English monarch (1272-1307) built a whole string of overbearing fortifications between 1277 and 1304 (Caernarfon being the very grandest), this in a bid to subjugate the Welsh. Of course, in a nice twist of historical irony, the castles are now major international tourist attractions, bringing welcome income to the Welsh economy. (Take that, Edward Longshanks!)

What interested me was a little photo exploration of the castle’s present setting.

For instance, the header photo is something of a trompe l’oeil. Quite misleading in fact. The castle does not sit among the massive sand dunes that have invaded much of the Welsh coast over past centuries and are still growing. It sits on a 200 foot (61 metres) eminence of ancient Cambrian rock (the Harlech Dome), whose footings were once lapped by the sea, and where ships bringing in supplies would once have docked.

So yes, here we have a fascinating case of falling sea levels, or rather, rising land levels. Parts of  Britain’s landmass have risen, and apparently some are still rising (e.g. Scotland) in response to the post-glacial ice weight reduction (isostatic rebound), as in ten thousand years after the event, while others, e.g. south east England, where there are newer rocks and/or compacting clay strata (as in London), are sinking or eroding each year.

Geology has much to answer for. It is ongoing, never static.  A pity that most of us (and that very much includes Mrs. Farrell) know so little about it, or the forces that have shaped and continue to influence the planet. I seem to remember my geography teacher, aeons ago, telling us that Britain was tilting. And it’s far from being the only place where geology is still  moving upwards or downwards. [e.g. an unrelated phenomenon in the Pacific where satellite data show many atolls and islands are growing in size rather than eroding].

But back to Harlech. There’s a diagrammatic reconstruction of the early 14th century castle’s outer defences and setting above the sea here:



This photo above gives you a glimpse of the golf course that lies between Harlech  (castle and lower town) and the massive dune system behind the now distant beach.

And looking from the other direction:



It should be said that the Welsh people did not take English oppression lying down. There were a good few revolts and uprisings, and one in particular in 1400 under Owain Glendwyr, an actual Prince of Wales (as opposed to the  fabricated English ones of recent times). He captured Harlech in 1404 and made it his family home and military HQ for four years. He also held his second parliament there in 1405. However, for all that, Welsh rule was short lived. English forces retook Harlech in 1409 during the reign of Henry V.




Looking from the castle towards North Wales, to Eryri, the mountains of  Snowdonia, and the plain below where once there was sea.




It is intriguing how things change, and how if we fail to grasp in what ways they change and why, we truly risk  losing the reality plot. As we headed to the beach I was amused by this sign on the golf course:


Where once there was passage for ships, the biggest risk is now flying golf balls. Who’d’ve thought it.

And finally an old image of the castle around 1890-1900 courtesy of the Library of Congress on Wikipedia:

Harlech Castle c 1890 Library of Congress


More about the Morfa Harlech dune system HERE. Yes, it is still growing.


Lens-Artists: One Subject Three Ways  Patti wants us to look at our subject from different angles.

40 thoughts on “Good Heavens: A Real Sand Castle?

  1. WOW Tish – that old image really tells the story of the changing environment! Wonderful images and an interesting story to go with them. Since we have absolutely nothing like your castles here in the US I’m always intrigued when you feature them. Terrific images and a perfect subject for the week.

  2. I know what you mean about the castles in Wales (I nearly said ‘Welsh castles’ but that would be wrong!) But I do rather like Harlech, mainly because of that dramatic setting – a bit like Bamburgh in Northumberland. You can see the same impact of retreating coastline at Rye in Sussex, where a gate that once led to the sea now does no such thing, the sea being a mile or two away!

    1. It is hard to beat Harlech and Bamburgh for setting. But am interested to hear about the distant sea at Rye – so much coming and going along our coastline, though land reclamation drainage might account for some areas where the sea has retreated. And then the east coast has a lot of unstable geology. Interesting to think how in the era of many successive (15) Ice Ages we were joined to France across the Channel. And to mainland Europe across the North Sea. And how 300,000 years ago in a warm interglacial it was 5 degrees hotter than now, and southern England was tropical and occupied by giant lions, elephants and rhinos, macaque monkeys, spotted hyenas and hippos.

      1. Yes – I wonder what the history of our country would be had we remained attached to Europe in some way? Rye is one of the Cinque Ports, like Winchelsea – all once on the coast, now a couple of miles inland 🙂

  3. Interesting stuff, Tish. I felt your outrage but I do love castles and often overlook their original purpose. I find it sad that our small island has so many divisions. We need to unite and look to the future.

    1. I absolutely agree about the need to unite, Jo. Not sure that’s an objective for those in power though – the whole system is based on division/opposition/attitudism/clanism.

      1. Oh gosh, Jo. How very awful. I am so sorry. Vested interests indeed. I hope your son can find some good advice. When ‘the system’ kicks in it is so intimidating but not necessarily unopposable.

  4. impressive images. And I always love learning about places I haven’t been. Beautiful, and I am grateful for the challenge that took us in all directions to see the landscape. Love it.

    1. Thanks as always for appreciative words, Donna. I’ve known parts of Wales all my life, but it’s only now that I’m truly appreciating its astonishing landscapes.

  5. As Sarah mentioned, my first thought was of Bamburgh. I haven’t visited Harlech but it does look impressive. Love the photos too – the wider views and then the close ups. Interesting facts too.

    1. Thanks, Jude. It’s a fine spot between sea and mountains. It’s even still on a main railway line – the Cambrian – which runs up the coast beside the sea. Rather fancy a trip on it.

  6. Fascinating bits of history, Tish. Thanks for them. I love the castles in Wales although as you say, their origins weren’t the best. But the irony really is delicious. Enjoyed your bits of snark as well. 🙂

  7. Great post, Tish. I loved the images and the bit of Welch history. And the irony…as Janet mentions…is delicious. How the conquerors’ castles are now income-producing tourist attractions for the Welch. It’s true that so many of us know so little about geology. We should know so much more…. You showed us great perspectives here. The golf ball warning is priceless.

  8. Not sure if Britain is tilting but the strata are certainly slanted, with the hard bits in the west sloping down to the soft bits in the east. Given that Harlech’s estuary has risen, tilting would imply that the Cinque Ports should have deeper harbours, rather than the receding (proceeding?) shorelines that actually happened. No matter: if you can find the time, there’s a marvelous book by Simon Winchester entitled “The Map That Changed The World” about the origins of geology and its conflict with the Biblical time line.

    1. Thanks for these insights, Malcolm. Tilting perhaps isn’t quite the right term (not at all geological!). Still, Scotland appears to rising, so something’s going on. Silting is presumably a factor too around the coastline – all the sand-dune growing. And then you have segments of eastern England that, bit by bit, simply disappeared – e.g. Dunwich. But then I have to remind myself that the part of Shropshire that we live on was once somewhere off the Comoros Islands. Hard to get one’s head around that amount of shifting and shunting across the globe.

      Thanks too for the reading tip.

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