Chapter 21: The Front Row Of An Ancient Empire

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Beaumaris Castle
With the Irish Sea on our right, we rolled west through Penmaenmawr and LLanfairfechan.

"If you look across the water, you can begin to catch glimpses of the Isle of Anglesey," said my friend.

"We're coming upon the Menai Strait," Sherlock Holmes continued, "which separates Anglesey from mainland Wales. The northern end of the strait was once guarded on the Anglesey side by Beaumaris Castle, a very ambitious bit of military architecture, which, though never finished, is still enormously imposing -- and was even more so in its time."

"I've never seen so many castles, Holmes," I said.

"There's a reason for them, Watson," he replied. "Centuries ago, before the great sailing ships made intercontinental colonization a feasible ambition, this northern edge of Wales was the front row of an empire. English kings, notably Edward I, spent enormous sums trying to conquer the rebellious Welsh, and these castles may be the most vivid reminders of those times that we still have today.

"But to appreciate them, you have to get behind the fairy tales. It wasn't all about princes and princesses, Watson. These castles were military bases, providing safe havens for occupying armies.

"Some of the dungeons and torture chambers were very well-used," he continued. "The English were ruthless in putting down Welsh insurrections."

Bangor University
The train continued to roll, through Talybont and into Bangor, where Gareth Williams had attended the University -- beginning part-time at the age of 13, and emerging with a first-class degree just four years later.

"Gareth Williams must have been an amazing youngster, and his childhood must have been most unusual, at least by the standards of his peers," I suggested. "How many of them were destined for university at all, let alone so young?

"It would have taken a toll on his parents," I continued. "They must have been very proud of him, and pleased by his success, but having a son leave home so soon would be difficult for most families, I should think."

Holmes seemed lost in thought and did not reply. Soon we crossed the Menai Strait onto Anglesey via the Britannia bridge, and found ourselves at a little village with an impossible name: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.

Two bridges cross the Menai Strait.
The name is not authentic Welsh: it was "artificially contrived in the 1860s" to give the station the longest name of any in the U.K. Unlike some of the passengers, we did not stop to have our photographs taken next to the sign. And, if my eyes weren't fooling me, Holmes was beginning to grow impatient.

"St Mary's church in the hollow of the white hazel near to the rapid whirlpool of Llantysilio of the red cave?" he said. "What kind of name is that for a little village?"

The train rolled on through Bodorgan, then Ty Croes and Rhosneigr. "We're almost to Valley now, Watson. Gareth Williams would have taken this train ride many times on his way home from the university."

I felt another sudden chill as I realized how precisely we were following in the dead man's path. But it passed quickly. We rolled through Valley, where Gareth Williams' parents live, and across a causeway onto Holy Island. "This is it," Holmes announced. "We'll be in Holyhead in just a few minutes.

Holyhead as seen from the railway station
"I've made reservations at a hotel near the station, Watson," he said. "That will be our base of operations for the immediate future."

"What are you hoping to find here?" I asked.

"I don't care what we find," Holmes replied. "I just want to know more about him. Other than a brilliant mathematician and an avid cyclist, who was he? Was he an evil man who may have been killed for a good reason? Or was he a good man who was killed for an evil reason? We may never find out in London, Watson. But we can hardly avoid learning something here."

"Do you suppose this young Welshman was planning his own insurrection?" I asked.

"That is one of the scenarios I am currently considering," the great detective answered. "If so, his rebellion was certainly put down in a most brutal fashion."

As we carried our luggage to the cab that would take us to the hotel, I could feel the chills in my spine returning once again. They did not go away for a long time.

Postcards from Beaumaris Castle:
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