My trip up north!

Well folks, I’m back from my trip to the north of England, and it was absolutely glorious!

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I love a good ruin, as you may know from some of my previous posts, and this trip was replete with them – a Carthusian monastery, two castles, and a stretch of Hadrian’s Wall, to boot!

Mount Grace Priory in Yorkshire was a fourteenth-century Carthusian monastery, where the monks lived in private cells and only came together on specific feast days rather than living communally as with other orders. It was suppressed following Henry VIII’s dissolution, of course, and a private house was built out of one of the guest houses. This house was later renovated in the late Victorian era in the arts and crafts style, while the monastic ruins were preserved out in the back garden. I’m a big fan of monastic ruins – indeed, religious history in general – but was really fascinated by this one, having never come across a Carthusian house before. Really interesting, I have to say!

Just outside of Newcastle, Prudhoe Castle was a Norman castle built shortly after the Conquest by the son of William the Conqueror but taken over by the d’Umfraville family, which I just think is an amazing name! Sometime mid-fourteenth century, the castle was taken over by the Percy family, the hugely important medieval Earls of Northumberland from nearby Alnwick Castle (which you may know as Hogwarts, from the Harry Potter movies). I find it really telling as to the wealth of the Percys, that they basically bought the place for their land agent to live in. Honestly! In the eighteenth century, a new house was built in the middle of the castle, which was uniquely allowed to just decay following the civil war, rather than having any deliberate damage done to it. Seems a bit strange that a country house would inhabit a shell of a castle like this, but I guess it was the height of the romantic period, and such things were fashionable!

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Aydon Castle is on the way out of Newcastle towards Hexham, and was a real discovery for me. Built in the twelfth century by the Reymes family from Suffolk, very much in the manner of setting themselves up as landed gentry in the area. What started as a manor house ended up becoming fortified as it stood on the main road from Scotland, and was being built as the Scottish Wars broke out. Now, I love the medieval period, and something I’m particularly interested in is seeing the domesticity of the era – sure, the big fortress-castles and enormous monasteries and cathedrals are stupendous to look at, but these sorts of manor houses have a much more intimate feel and, while they obviously aren’t indicative of the everyman of this time, there’s something much more “real” about them.

Finally, we come to Hadrian’s Wall! I actually visit the north of England quite regularly, and four years ago I went around a few of the forts in the area, but there was something really cool about seeing just the actual wall this time. This stretch is roughly two miles of mainly vallum – the ditch in front of the actual wall, Scottish-facing side – at Black Carts Turret, part of the stretch associated with the now-levelled Milecastle 29. While the forts were busy with people (and the dreaded school trip!), this stretch of wall was deserted (apart from some cows), which always helps to add to the atmosphere of a site. It had been quite a misty day, and despite the fact the weather was lovely, you could really feel that sense of being at the frontier of the world. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much in the way of parking here, but it was well worth hunting out!

So there you have it, some awesome places to visit if you’re ever in the Durham/Newcastle area!

Catching Up!

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a good documentary, although my Sky planner is full of the things. I’ve decided to try and catch up with a lot of the stuff I’ve been recording, anyway, starting with this two-part series on the Incas. I was always very interested in the Incas, the Aztecs and all that sort of Pre-Columbian, meso- and south-American history when I was growing up, but somewhere in my late teens I seemed to lose interest.

While Machu Picchu is probably the most famous Inca relic, this documentary has introduced all sorts of other sites that look absolutely incredible, principally among them (to me), the Moray agricultural terraces shown in my tweet above. Designed to facilitate crop cultivation at high altitude, it’s another of the really humbling scientific innovations of the past!

Sleeving my entire #LordOfTheRings #LCG collection. Not even halfway done yet… #games

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I’ve decided to sleeve my entire Lord of the Rings LCG collection, a project that has been going on fitfully this past week, but is sufficiently mindless to occupy my while catching up with these things. I think I’ve used around 30 packs, which has allowed me to sleeve four decks, along with pretty much all of the scenarios released to date – not counting print-on-demand or Saga stuff. It’s a demanding task, but hopefully will be worthwhile in the end! Lord of the Rings, I’ve recently realised, is my most-played card game, and I’m concerned that the player cards might not hold up much longer. As it is also my most-beloved card game as well, it’s time to make some effort to protect it against wear and tear, methinks!

Time to relax #StarWars #novels

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Over the last few weeks, I’ve been enjoying a return to some classic Star Wars with The New Rebellion, one of my all-time favourite stories from the Bantam era! Published in 1996, the story details the efforts of the Force-sensitive Kueller to set himself up as a new Emperor. Some of the story is a little, well, daft, with occasionally unclear motivations for the characters, but overall, it still stands up for me. I really enjoy the way the story is paced – it’s a big book, 532 pages in paperback, and has pretty much exactly the right amount of story within its pages. This could so easily have been padded out to form a trilogy, which would probably have diminished its impact, I would say. Lots of plots, lots of intrigue, and lots of subterfuge, with Han returning to his smuggling roots, Luke doing some Jedi stuff, and Leia going up against former Imperial senators. Even the droids have a significant part to play in the plot! Really good stuff.

Only a couple of things really detract from it. First of all, the chapters are fairly short, and a significant number of them end on cliffhanger-style “tune in next week to see if Han survives being shot in the ass” sorts of things, which kinda gets old after a while. Also, the title kinda bothers me. While “rebellion” is defined as armed resistance to the established order, within the context of the GFFA, “rebellion” conjures a different sort of sense to that which is portrayed in the novel. We see very little of Kueller and his forces until the very end, which is kind of necessary for the plot, but this means the novel is primarily one of intrigue and subterfuge – the sort of novel that I really, really enjoy, but it just feels like the title is a bit misleading.

But that’s all pretty secondary. The novel is great, and if you can still manage to find a copy, I can definitely recommend you pick it up!

#StudioGhibli #awesome

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Last week, I read this excellent post from fellow blogger, travelling in my bookcase, which reignited my interest in Studio Ghibli. I was first introduced to these anime films back in 2008 by an ex-girlfriend, with the classic Spirited Away, and really enjoyed the everything about it. We watched a couple of others, which I also enjoyed, and while I had often thought of getting some of them to watch again since we broke up, it wasn’t until now that I did anything about it. Having had an amazon voucher burning a hole in my pocket for about three months now, I hope you’ll agree, I’ve made a sound investment with it!

In the coming weeks and months, anyway, I’m sure these will be featured as I get through them!

#PathfinderACG #Pathfinder #DrunkenMaster

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Games now. Last week I finally got round to getting a copy of the new Wrath of the Righteous core set for the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, having had the character pack and adventure pack two delivered from my Paizo subscription. While I haven’t actually played a game with it yet, I have found myself returning to the Rise of the Runelords game, playing with Sajan, my drunken master Monk, which has been pretty good anyway! I’m still only playing through Burnt Offerings, so there’s still a long way to go, but it’s good to be within this universe once again, though the card game can be quite repetitive so I’m not intending to play this a lot. But I have made up a new deck using the Wizard class deck, for the necromancer, Darago. Looking forward to seeing how that works with the adventure! The class decks are pretty exciting, anyway, so it’s good to see they’re going to be putting some more out this year – including that for the Monk!

Since watching the new Titansgrave series from Geek and Sundry, combined with the recent focus on the Pathfinder ACG, I’ve been feeling the need for a RPG adventure in my life. Soon, hopefully!

On the subject of card games, though, FFG has released a couple of expansions for the LCGs in the last week, and taken another look at the upcoming Great Devourer for the Warhammer Conquest LCG. The Tyranids were always going to be fun to play, and the previews for this box definitely support that idea. Of course, I’m still looking forward to the Necrons more than anything, but it looks great all the same. Some guys have recently started a LCG group at my local store – after that demo of Android Netrunner I gave, no less! – so I’m hoping to get in some more games there.

The Thousand Young expansion for Call of Cthulhu is another deluxe expansion that’s looking pretty exciting, as does Attack Run for Star Wars, the latter bringing a brand new Fate card that looks really powerful! I’ve recently made up a Sith deck for this game, in the hope that some more games aren’t too far off. We’ll see, anyway!

Remember this? It was set to be released in June, I seem to remember, but that seems to have been pushed back to next month now, I suppose in reflection of the Marvel comics being delayed, too. I haven’t kept up with the comics in years, but the Secret Wars storyline does sound vaguely interesting. Beware of following that link if you want to avoid spoilers for the comics, however!!

What’s that Volume 1 all about, on the lower-right? Hmmm!

I haven’t played Legendary for a long while now – not since February, in fact – so should probably make some effort to correct that soon… I’ve finally found the new Fear Itself expansion to Legendary: Villains on sale here in the UK, so looking forward to seeing that when it arrives in my hot little hands… I seem to recall reading somewhere Iron Man will be a commander in his enchanted armour…

While we’re on the subject of comics-based games…

DC Teen Titans

The fourth core set for the DC deck-building game, Teen Titans brings, well, the Teen Titans to the game, with playable heroes such as Red Robin, Wonder Girl and Beast Boy. Man, I love these names! The most interesting aspect of this one is the Ongoing Abilities that certain cards will have. Something that very few deck-builders incorporate (as far as I can tell), it’ll be interesting to see how the game plays when you have more options available to you on your turn. It’s coming out next quarter, along with another Crossover Pack with the Arrow TV series. I’ve not watched the series, unfortunately, but I believe it’s awesome. However, this pack uses stills from the show rather than comic-style art, so I’m currently thinking I’ll pass on this one. Later in the year, we’re getting Legion of Super Heroes with some time-travel mechanic, and then a Watchmen Crossover Pack, presumably before the end of the year, which gives a co-op with defector flavour to the game. Interesting…

My (second) trip to Orkney

Hey everybody!
Yesterday, I got back from a trip to the Orkney islands off the north of Scotland, my second such trip there. While the weather could have been better, I have to say, it was still a pretty amazing experience, as I got to see much more than I did last time. It’s still only my second trip to Scotland, which is pretty crazy when you think where the islands are actually located…

Scotland

Anyway. I arrived late on Monday due to delays flying from Edinburgh, and as I was leaving early on Thursday morning, I only had two full days there. And how different the weather was on each of those days! To start with, anyway, I visited the famous Neolithic village at Skara Brae again, as it’s kinda required when you’re on the island, being so famous and all…

If you followed the link to my earlier blog above, you’ll notice just how much better the weather was this time around, which you can really see when you look out at Skaill Bay:

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It was pretty beautiful, I have to say!

From Neolithic living to the Iron Age now, and I next revisited the Broch of Gurness. Still a jumble of stones, it’s nevertheless an interesting and imposing structure:

The weather was already beginning to change here, and didn’t improve for the rest of my trip.

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To the south of Mainland Orkney is a small collection of islands linked together by road. This was only made possible following the construction of three concrete-block barriers built during World War Two by Italian prisoners of war, who also converted two Nissen huts into the stunning Italian Chapel:

The Churchill barriers were built to protect Scapa Flow, the body of water surrounded on three sides by islands which formed the safe harbour for the British Home Fleet during both wars. More on that later, anyway.

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Day Two was very grim, though some really awesome sights were featured nonetheless!

From a very wet and windy Standing Stones of Stennes and Barnhouse village, I trundled off to the reasonably-dry Kirkwall, the capital of the islands. I’ve been here before, of course, though this time managed to visit the Cathedral properly, as well as the Orkney Museum, which has some pretty amazing stuff!

The museum was really interesting. It’s always good to visit places like Skara Brae and see where folks lived in the past, but the items on display in the museum show a much more intimate level of detail that I, for one, find really fascinating.

From Kirkwall, I took a long route along the south of the island, pretty much skirting Scapa Flow. The second-largest natural harbour in the world (after Sydney), and as well as providing the safe harbour for the Home Fleet during the wars, it was also chosen as the place to scuttle more than 70 German ships following their defeat in World War One.

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About mid-way along the coastline is the village of Orphir, which has the remains of an Earl’s Bú, which I believe is analogous to a manor house (rather than the Palace of the Earl of Orkney at Kirkwall), and in the Norse years, this would centre on the drinking hall. Orkneyinga Saga, collected in (I think) the twelfth century on Iceland, tells some pretty colourful stories that take place around this area, and is well worth investigating if you have the time!

The round church at Orphir is also the only such example in Scotland, modelled on that of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It also has a great view over Scapa Flow:

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To conclude, it’s back to the Stennes area, and the mighty Ring of Brodgar!

I was staying at the Standing Stones Hotel, which is not far from the collection of monuments that make up the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, and I must say, the hotel was really nice this time around. Especially, the food! My goodness, it was immense…

food collage

The entire trip was pretty great, though I’m still not a big fan of flying. I’d like to go again, and do a spot of island-hopping, as there is so much more to see on the other islands, but I think if I do, I’d definitely drive up and take the ferry…

Until next time!

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My trip to Berlin

Hey everyone!
It’s six years to the day (I think) since I was in Berlin, so wanted to do a quick little blog with some of my pictures from that trip.

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It was truly, truly excellent, I must say. Germany seems to really know how to ‘do’ Christmas, which really helped with the atmosphere and such, but even with all that aside, I can’t tell you just how lovely the place was.

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The famous Brandenburg Gate.

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The Reichstag, just the other side of the Gate.

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Remnants of the Berlin wall often jut up along streets. For a large part of its course (perhaps even the entire course, I’m not sure), there is still some form of reminder laid into the pavements, certainly there is around the Brandenburg Gate.

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Checkpoint Charlie, another reminder of the Cold War era…

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There will be more Christmas lights coming, but seriously – how good are the Germans?!

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Berliner Dom, the Cathedral of the city.

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The Altes Museum, home of some of the most famous Egyptian art and artifacts (while I was visiting, at any rate):

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Even more famous, of course, are the Amarna artifacts:

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Unfortunately, I went to Berlin with a new, untested camera – only a point-and-shoot affair, but still, it really wasn’t very good, and a lot of my interior shots were wasted. Sigh. Moving on! Berlin has a whole “museum island”, and right next door to the Altes Museum, we have the Pergamon Museum!

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There are some truly megalithic sculptures in this place. It was quite late in the day when we got here, so unfortunately we didn’t explore properly, but there are still a lot of fantastic things that I did see!

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The Ishtar Gate! Oh my goodness! I had no clue that was there! I was really happy to have seen this as well!

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Berlin by night at Christmas is truly awesome, such as here, as Unter der Linden:

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Again, my terrible camera:

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We actually went round the Reichstag’s glass dome that night, but my pictures are all terrible. However, I remember it being really quiet (it can be packed during the day)

For day three, we went to Potsdam, to take a look at the famous Sanssouci Palace of Frederick the Great:

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Frederick the Great was King of Prussia from 1740 to 1786, and is well-known for being both a great military leader along with his lavish patronage of the arts (he was, among other things, a skilled flautist). Sanssouci was built in the 1740s as a retreat from Berlin, the name meaning “without a care”.

Of course, you don’t have to go to Potsdam for rococo magnificence…

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Schloβ Charlottenburg, built by Frederick’s grandmother Sophie Charlotte of Hanover (not, I assume, single-handedly). There is a pretty awesome Christmas market in the vicinity of the palace, too…

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And here’s a chocolate Reichstag…just because…

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Remember I said Berlin knows how to ‘do’ Christmas…?

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So there you have it, my friends! I absolutely adore Berlin, and can’t believe it’s been six years since I was there. With a bit of luck, I’m hoping I can go back next year…

An interesting read

Morning everyone!
I shall apologise in advance for a quiet weekend from me, as I am still recovering from nearly two weeks of migraine and almost-migraine, so don’t want to spend too long staring at a screen. But I have taken delivery of a very interesting little book that I thought deserves some attention, so lo! Here it is:

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The House of Wisdom is a look at the Arabic culture that really flourished in the traditional European ‘dark age’. That is a contentious issue, of course, and one that I don’t want to get into right now (because I’m still delicate, y’know). However, I have long been intrigued about this era, and especially since I studied it as part of my degree back in 2012. Focusing on the survival of medical knowledge from Ancient Greece and Rome through the Islamic lands, the degree course really whetted my appetite for more!

I’ve only started to read House of Wisdom, but it nevertheless appears to be a really interesting read, so I can definitely recommend it to folks who are interested, and also if you’re not entirely sure what I’m banging on about and want to know more!

My trip to Anglesey: Penmon

It’s a double feature! Part one of today’s Anglesey trip featured an excellent visit to Beaumaris Castle. I followed that by a trip further east along the coast, to Penmon.

Penmon Priory

Penmon lies to the east of Beaumaris, and is notable for the long history of its church, which stretches back to the sixth century AD. Founded by St Seiriol, a friend of St Cybi who founded Holyhead on the opposite end of the island at this time, the early monastery was attacked by the Vikings in the tenth century, before the current buildings were established in from the middle of the twelfth century. Shown above is the chancel, which is a significantly later addition, but the tower, transepts (one of which is on the right in the picture) and the nave are all dated from the original Augustinian house.

St Seiriol's Well St Seiriol's Well

No great saint would be complete without a holy well, of course! St Seiriol’s Well was used, as were most holy wells, for reputed healing properties until at least 1811.

Penmon Priory

The monastic buildings at Penmon Priory include the refectory, or dining hall, as shown above. The building to the right in the above photo is the dovecote, which post-dates the suppression of the monasteries. The Jacobean landowner Sir Richard Bulkeley, with a mansion just outside Beaumaris, had the dovecote built sometime after 1600. The Cadw guide tells us that, in the days before farming had advanced to keeping animals fattened all year, doves and pigeons provided an important source of meat in the winter months.

Penmon dovecote

The monuments at Penmon also include a number of crosses, now kept in the Priory itself, which date to the time of the Viking invasions:

Penmon Cross

Penmon Priory

I really like Penmon. The close-siting of the monuments of a small monastic community gives a really strong impression of what life must have been like in these early Christian foundations. The remote location serves to add to this feeling, too – much better than the St Cybi monuments, which are within the town centre of Holyhead.

Penmon

Just a little farther on from the Priory, there is a fantastic reminder of Anglesey’s rich industrial past. The Flagstaff Limestone Quarry was originally operating from around the 1830s, though limestone had been quarried at Penmon much earlier, as Beaumaris Castle was made out of the stuff.

Flagstaff Quarry

A small confession, here: I love industrial archaeology. While I think I will always be a medievalist at heart, nevertheless I find the remnants of our industrial past simply irresistible. The remains of the Flagstaff Quarry buildings can be seen from the coastal road on the approach to Penmon, and I was ridiculously excited once they caught my eye:

Flagstaff Quarry

If I ever get round to writing travelogues of my previous trips to Anglesey, first on the list will be last year’s trip around Cemaes-Bull Bay, where I came across the ruins of Porth Wen brickworks and was almost faint with joy! Truly, truly magnificent!

Flagstaff Quarry

I think what excites me so much about industrial remains is the fact that everything we see had a working purpose to it. As much as one can say that every inch of a castle is intended to be a defensible structure, or an abbey is intended to glorify God, things like these massive banks of lime kilns here made things. People worked here, and they made stuff. It’s just really, really exciting to be among such buildings!

Flagstaff Quarry

I have spent a lot of time in quarries – there’s a massive limestone quarry not that far from where I live – but I can’t pretend to know a lot about what I’ve seen here today. The Royal Commission site tells me that there is a crusher house still standing, which could potentially be the structure above – that would certainly explain the chutes coming out of the walls, if not the chimney as a means of powering the rollers – but I don’t know.

Flagstaff Quarry

What I do know, however, is that this place was awesome! And so picturesque, too!

Flagstaff Quarry

Leaving our industrial past behind momentarily, however, we come to the final stop on this tour: Penmon Point.

Penmon Point

This is really what drove my trip today. I’d seen a lot of this view over on twitter for a while, and had been wanting to get up to the island to see what it’s like for myself. Pretty damn amazing, I think you’ll agree! The island to the right in the above pic is, of course, Puffin Island, once home to possibly the largest colony of puffins in Britain until a plague of rats reduced their numbers. The island was the site of another monastic foundation of St Seiriol, who is said to be buried here. There are apparently ruins of a church on the island, but it is strictly off-limits due to the bird-breeding programmes.

Penmon Point

So there you have it, an excellent tour along the eastern tip of Anglesey! It’s well worth a visit, and on an excellent day like today, you really ought to get out there and see the sights!

Penmon Point

My trip to Anglesey: Beaumaris

Beaumaris Castle

Hello everyone, and welcome to another trip-focused blog! Being off work this week, I’ve got several trips lined up, beginning with what turned out to be an absolutely incredible trip to Anglesey! I love that island so much it’s untrue, but with perfect weather, it was just grand! So let me share some snaps with you of stage one: Beaumaris!

Obviously, any trip to Beaumaris these days almost has to include the famous castle. Built from 1295, it was the last of the four great fortresses constructed by Edward I in an ‘iron ring’ around the Snowdonia strongholds of the Princes of Gwynedd. By the time work had begun at the castle, the last Prince, Llywelyn ap Grufudd, had been dead for thirteen years, and the Edwardian invasion of Wales pretty much successfully concluded, but revolts throughout the final years of the thirteenth century showed a need for visible English dominance still.

Beaumaris was the only castle Edward built on Anglesey, its location chosen expressly for the purpose of supply by sea. The Welsh town of Llanfaes that already existed at the site was seen as the most prosperous in the whole of Wales, benefiting from its location on the main route between Chester and Holyhead, and beyond to Ireland. It was also the final resting place of Joan, the daughter of King John and wife of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth ‘the Great’.

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That the town was also built on a marsh was of little consequence to Edward – the need for symbols of might and dominance was never far from his mind, so placing his castle here was the natural choice. Before work began, however, the revolt of Madog ap Llywelyn, a distant relative of Llywelyn the Last, broke out across English-controlled Wales. This revolt is most startling to me because it was led by a chap who had once been on good terms with Edward. Anyway, at one point the revolt razed the incomplete castle at Caernarfon, and the sheriff of Anglesey, Roger de Pulesdon, was lynched. The revolt was brutally quashed by the English, and it was perhaps in response to this that work was ordered to begin immediately at Beaumaris.

Beaumaris Castle

The castle was built on flat, open ground, which is probably why the architect, Master James of St George (see picture below), was able to make it the almost-perfect concentric fortress that it is. For years, the English had been building castles in Wales in this manner, perhaps most notably at Rhuddlan and Harlech, but at Beaumaris, the example is really quite stunning.

Edward I and Master James of St George

The castle was built speedily, with stone quarried from nearby Penmon, and within about ten weeks or so, there was enough standing for the records to describe the king as staying in thatched buildings ‘within the castle’ here. Some pretty amazing records survive, showing that the castle was costing about £270 a week to build in the first season, and was projected to run around £250 a week throughout the 1296 building season.

Beaumaris Castle

However, almost as soon as the conquest of Wales was considered complete, Edward turned his attention north to Scotland, and began waging wars up there. The consequence was an increasingly tight budget for all of the royal castles in Wales, and the records show that labourers and other workmen were leaving the site in droves because they weren’t being paid. As 1300 loomed, expenditure on the castle was virtually nonexistant.

Beaumaris Castle

The work was resumed early in the fourteenth century, but on nowhere near the scale that it had been taking place earlier. The primary focus was to secure the site, and complete the curtain wall circuit across the north and west (shown above). The reason for this was a commonly-held fear that the Scots might join forces with the simmering Welsh and attack the castles of north Wales. While the curtain walls were completed, work on the castle was eventually halted around 1330.

Beaumaris Castle

As an incomplete castle, Beaumaris has a peculiarly squat appearance in comparison with the other royal castles of Wales. No turrets here! The outer curtain towers were left at pretty much single-storey, and the work continued just long enough to secure the towers of the inner ward around a storey higher. A survey of 1343 estimated costs to bring the castle to completion at £684. This work wasn’t carried out, evidently.

Beaumaris Castle

But that doesn’t detract from the fact that Beaumaris is a superb castle, and is justly referred to as a perfect design. For years now, I’ve thought of Aberystwyth as my favourite of the Welsh castles, but walking around Beaumaris today, it makes me think that I may have to revise that opinion! An excellent day out – you should all go! Now!

Beaumaris Castle

Beaumaris Castle

Beaumaris Castle