The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Conwy comprises its medieval castle and town walls, and incorporates its medieval church and buildings: notably Aberconwy House. Yet it also presents many striking examples of neo-medievalism from the 19th century. This blog recently considered one of these: the fountain and statue of Llewelyn Fawr. Yet Conwy also sports a significant cluster Victorian medieval ‘time tunnels’ – 19th-century railway architectures that evoke the medieval past.
I wish to address the Telford suspension bridge, built from 1822-26, in another post. In this context, it provided the precedent for an even-more grandiose neo-medievalism: the railway bridge. Dating from 1846-1848, designed by Robert Stephenson, it is a single-span box girder construction with massive rectangular turrets flanked by pairs of round towers, each with a bartizan overlooking the river. These monumental arrangements are squatter than the adjacent castle but out-size the 13th-century castle’s round-towers. Their twin apertures allow a pair of tracks to cross the River Conwy, linking Anglesey and the north Wales coast to England.
I can’t imagine these medieval monsters ever ‘complementing’ the ruins of the adjacent medieval castle. In contrast, I feel these medieval architectures are in robust competition with the medieval. Articulating the early Victorian vision to not only surpass Telford’s road bridge, the towers conquer and colonise the medieval past, rather than respect and honour it. This is mirrored by the experience of being a passenger on this line. As one enters the tunnel by train, you are transported into an imaginary medieval past and pass by its ruins.
South-east of Conwy’s railway station is another equally important colonisation of the medieval ruins of Conwy. Here the railway line had to break through the medieval town walls, and a neo-Gothic four-centred arch was constructed to adorn the aperture in 1847 (Taylor 1990: 56-57). Again, by linking up and making continuous the line of the medieval enceinte, rather than interrupting it, the medieval past is harnessed rather than respected by the railway. Rather than just a ‘skilful and considerate handling’ by the railway builders, I feel this is an appropriation of the medieval past by the railway. Hence this is another time tunnel, allowing the 19th-century traveller to pass through the Middle Ages on their journey.
The railway not only brought more visitors to Conwy from 1848, the LNWR paid for the repairs to the railway side of the town walls and the rebuilding of the castle’s broken tower in 1875 (Taylor 1990). My sense is that Conwy’s medieval past is very much colonised by the 19th century and subsequently, many/most visitors experience it through this lens.
The sense of travelling through time is particularly enhanced here through its Victorian neo-medieval mural aperture, railway journey alongside the enhanced castle walls and by disappearing into, and emerging from, its boxed crenellated railway bridge.
Taylor, A. 1990. Conwy Castle. Cardiff: Cadw.