The keep of Dolbadarn Castle perches on a small, rocky hill at the foot of the dramatic Snowdon Massif. Built by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth in about 1230, it guarded the main route through Snowdonia’s mountains to Anglesey, the stronghold of the princes of Gwynedd.
Llywelyn died in 1240 and, 15 years later, his grandson Llywelyn ap Gruffudd gained control over Gwynedd by imprisoning his brother Owain Goch for more than 20 years in Dolbadarn’s tower. Edward I’s army captured the castle in 1283.
Inspired by the story of Owain’s imprisonment, celebrated Romantic landscape painter JMW Turner made several sketches of the castle on his tours of 1798 and 1799. As well as being attracted to Wales’ spectacular landscape, he also took a great interest in the country’s medieval history and people.
Captured on canvas
His finished work, entitled Dolbadarn Castle and painted in oil on canvas, shows the keep silhouetted amid the mountains, with a small group of figures beside Llyn Padarn in the foreground. With the history of the area in mind, Turner exhibited thepainting in 1800 with these lines of poetry referring to the incarceration of Owain Goch.
How awful is the silence of the waste,
Where nature lifts her mountains to the sky,
Majestic solitude, behold the tower
Where hopeless Owen, long imprison’d pin’d,
And wrung his hands for liberty, in vain
During the summer of 1792, Turner embarked on his first tour of Wales along the Wye Valley. Two years later, he visited the Llangollen area, resulting in an impressive work of Valle Crucis Abbey, with a girl tending pigs in the foreground.
In 1795, fired with enthusiasm for Wales’s spectacular scenery and ancient buildings, he travelled west to St David’s in Pembrokeshire, filling two sketchbooks with drawings of castles, mills and seascapes. His most ambitious tour was in 1798 when he journeyed alone on horseback for seven weeks through south and north Wales.
After his tour of 1799 of Snowdonia, where he painted Dolbadarn Castle and Llyn Padarn, he rarely visited Wales again and turned his attention to Switzerland’s mountains.
Visiting the castle
Dolbadarn Castle is free to visit and only a short climb from a car park at the southern end of Llanberis. Only the lowest foundations of the castle’s outer buildings still stand, but the remains consist of a substantial keep and footings of other buildings, including a hall in the northern corner of the site.
Defended by a portcullis, the keep’s entrance was on the first floor with a storage basement below, accessed by a trapdoor and ladder. You can still climb the spiral staircase, although the wooden floors have long since been plundered along with many of the building’s stones. But it’s not hard to imagine the view Owain gazed at during his long years of captivity.
HOW TO GET THERE
Dolbadarn Castle stands at the south-east end of the Llanberis Pass off the A4086.
40 High Street, Llanberis
Large portions, lots of choice and good local food (below).
86 High Street, Llanberis
This award-winning licensed restaurant uses Welsh produce.
Plas Coch Guest House
High Street, Llanberis LL55 4HB
Offers a fine breakfast menu and eight en-suite bedrooms.
Snowdon Mountain Railway
Llanberis LL55 4TY
Take a train to the top of Snowdon for inspiring views.