Harlech castle

Harlech: with its infamous castle, aircraft crash and Guinness-world-record street

Harlech, in the county of Gwynedd, is a small town blessed with its location inside Snowdonia National Park. It lies on Tremadog Bay, a large inlet with magnificent views over the surrounding countryside. Nestled within mountains and rolling hills, the small town has a population just shy of 1500; over half (51%) of locals habitually speak Welsh. Harlech manages to capture the feeling of a small welsh village despite its physical size.


Before 1966, Harlech belonged to the Meirionydd District; now it is located in the county of Gwynedd.

The town’s name seems to originate from the welsh word Arddlech, a combination of *ardd (*meaning high) and *llech (*meaning **rock.) This of course is referring to a rocky outcrop on which its landmark castle stands.

Throughout history, the castle and town have been the site for many sieges, in part due to the castle once being the residence of the infamous Owain Glyndwr in the late Middle Ages.

During the 15th century, during the memorable War of the Roses, Harlech played somewhat of a component. The town was held by the Lancastrians for a total of seven years, until surrendering to Yorkshire troops in 1468. This story was immortalised in history textbooks and the song Men of Harlech, which depicts events during the seven-year siege of Harlech castle from 1461 to 1468.

Harlech castle

harlech castle welsh coast
Photo: Dave Noonan

This landmark castle is an incredible site, stoic and worthy of its dramatic history. Its story begins in the 13th century, when it was built by Edward I during the invasion of Wales, between 1282 and 1289.

Madog ap Llywelyn, the leader of the Welsh revolt of 1294 and 1295, sent his forces to besiege the castle for several months, which was only defended by a mere 37 men. Consequently, the castle quickly fell to Madog’s forces.

After capturing the castle in 1404, prince Owain Glyndwr – the leader of the Welsh War of Independence – chose to live there for five years. Later, the castle played a part in the War of the Roses, and then became a stronghold for the king of England, Henry Tudor, in the 1480s.

Atop a large rocky outcrop overlooking the sea, with the backdrop of the rugged Eryr peaks, the castle is an imposing site. 108 steps rise steeply up the rock face and lead to this grade I listed world heritage site. A ‘floating’ footbridge allows access to the castle, which is guarded by two thick rings of walls – a wall within a wall – that would have made the castle impassable to hostile forces. It’s no surprise then that it took months before the castle fell during the welsh revolt.

Aside from the impressive architecture, Harlech Castle is worth visiting for the fantastic views over the local area and the impressive sunsets over the sea.

The town

The long narrow high street is built on a hill and provides worthwhile views of the nearby Tremadoc Bay from the top, meeting the sea at the bottom.

Flanked with pretty stone cottages, the high street is filled with independent local shops. Visitors can fill their stomachs at the Harlech cheese market or the Y Groser Harlech Food Emporium. Alternatively, the castle gift shop, opposite the castle, serves the town. The Harlech pottery, a thriving local business, has been open for around 50 years.

The town has multiple highly-rated cafes. The castle cafe provides amazing views of the castle whilst its sister cafe, Llew Glas Cafe, sits in the cobbled square in the heart of the town and provides an array of freshly baked cakes. The Cemlyn offers a wide variety of teas to sample and different views depending on where you sit. A front seat looks down the towns, whereas the back terrace provides views of the castle and the Llyn Peninsular.

Ffordd Pen Llech

Harlech’s claim to fame is that – for one whole year – it had the steepest street in the world. Ffordd Pen Llech beat its opponent, Baldwin Street in Dunedin (New Zealand,) in 2020.

To receive the Guinness world record, Harlech had to meet 10 separate criteria. In a true show of town spirit, the community came together to find the proof needed; this included old documentation and plans for the street, which took hard work and dedication to find.

The street was measured as having a gradient of 37.5% at its steepest point.

However, the Guinness records decided to change their requirements for measuring the street’s steepness, and sadly Harlech lost its title – just one year later.

Harlech beach

At the bottom of this almost record-worthy hilly town is Harlech beach. Many sand dunes lead to this nice sandy beach, located at foot of the castle. It is known as a good surfing spot. However, what was found near here is far more interesting than the beach itself.

An aircraft was discovered here

In 2007, a WW2 fighter aircraft – a Lockheed P-38 Lightning – was discovered around Harlech. Nicknamed the Maid of Harlech, the aircraft fell to its watery grave in September 1942 during a gunnery practice mission. The pilot, the 24-year-old Second Lt Robert F Elliott from North Carolina, survived the crash but was reported missing in action just a few months later.

The aircraft’s exact location, however, has remained a mystery closely guarded by those who know it. It is buried under the sand, submerged by water, somewhere around Harlech.

Cadw, the Welsh government’s historic environment service, gave the aircraft scheduled status in August 2019 after the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) stated that they wanted to salvage it. This meant that the site is now protected for its historic and archaeological interest.

The crash site has been described as “one of the most important WWII finds in recent history.”


The town is set in Snowdonia National Park, perhaps the most beautiful place in the whole of Wales. The Rhigos, a range of mountains, occupies the eastern backdrop; the long interrupted beach provides fantastic views over the Ceredigion Bay to the west.

The ‘zig zag’ beach path carves a route through grassy dunes and across Harlech and Llandanwg beaches. Following this steep path, either up or down, will reward you with glorious views of golden sand.

Another worthwhile walk is the Ynya Estuary, a hidden gem that can only be reached when the tide is out. The path takes you to Ynys Gifftan, a spot right in the middle of the Estuary; it is completely isolated when the tide is in, becoming a very calming and still location.

The Bryn Cader Faner is another path worth following. It leads to a prehistoric site – the Cairn Circle. Rough pillars of slate have been arranged in a rough circle, the shape of a huge crown, hence the nickname ‘Welsh Crown of Thorns.’ This formation has survived for thousands of years, originally a burial site in the Bronze Age.

At first glance, Harlech seems just like any other town. However, it is filled with historical and cultural gems, from the impressive castles and the aircraft crash to the (almost) steepest street in the world.


Cover picture: Harlec Castle Roman Grac