Richard II: Flint Castle, Wales

It’s either ironic or very appropriate that I’m writing this from Paris as the sun sets and the sky turns from blue to pink to gold; Wales was rocky grey and green and very dull. Not all of Wales, of course! Hay on Wye is rightly famous for books and Hereford for cider. But the north coast of Flintshire is neither inspiring nor interesting, especially in January, which is when I went. After a sunny Saturday afternoon lunch in London with friends and lots of fizzy wine, I got on the Tube and sat across from two women with no overnight bags who I realised were getting the same train I was. “It’s at four forty-six, do you think we’ll be all right for seats?” one said.

“Yeah,” the other said, with an undertone of obviously. “Not too many people going up to the coast this time of year, are they? All cold and wet and black?”

“I suppose so,” her friend agreed cheerfully. “It’s grim!”

Dark fell just after we left Euston. Stations were further and further apart as we passed through the Midlands into Wales, long stretches of black between flashes of gold lights. It was raining when we got to Flint three hours later, and I pulled my overnight bag across the uneven two-lane road to the Swan pub.

I had booked a room there a month before, by calling on a phone and speaking to another person who was also on a phone, and seemed to be opening a physical paper book to check room bookings and writing my reservation in with an actual pencil. She didn’t tell me how much it cost and I was so flustered at having to use words to talk to another person instead of clicking buttons online that I didn’t ask. I got out £100 from the station cashpoint.

The woman behind the bar immediately knew who I was before I opened my mouth. “Two nights, yeah? That’s thirty pounds.” I was briefly confused, since £15 was clearly an absurdly low rate for a private room, but I realised she must mean per night, so I handed her three £20 notes. She blinked at them and handed me one back, then a £10 note from the register. So, apparently not so absurdly low!

I left my bag in my room (dry, warm, what more do you need) and walked to Flint Castle. It’s two minutes from the pub – I would say ‘the centre of town’ but that implies there is enough of the town to have a centre – on the bank of the River Dee where it opens out into the Irish Sea. The river used to be higher, coming right up to the castle wall so kings and soldiers could arrive by boat, but now there’s about three hundred yards of marshy grass between the river and the castle. On the other three sides of the castle is a dry former moat with steep slopes. At night it was black on black, very difficult to see, and the high stone walls and slanting rocky slopes were throwing off my perspective, so it kept jumping out at me and feeling much closer than I thought.

I turned around and went to Flint’s one sit-down restaurant, a curry house, where I had an approximation of a medieval meal: tandoori lamb chops and naan flatbread. Everyone around me had figured out that the restaurant was unlicensed and BYOB, and were carrying white and red plastic bags from the Bargain Booze (“It’s What We Do!”) across the street. I read a doorstopper book about the Percy family and resentfully drank lemonade.

Flint Castle was my choice for Richard II because it’s the setting in the play where the power really shifts from Richard to Henry Bolingbroke. In the first acts Richard has been blithely and confidently throwing around regal power, but when he goes to Ireland to put down a rebellion he returns to find his own country has deserted him. He kisses the beach when he arrives, but the land revolts. He’s captured at Conwy and brought to Flint to await Bolingbroke, suddenly everyone’s favourite candidate for king, who will take him to London as a prisoner.

Shakespeare gives Richard more agency than the historical record: on hearing that the northern lords have left him for Bolingbroke, Richard chooses Flint to make his last stand. He may not be able to prevent his downfall, but he can control the dramatic narrative: he poses on the ramparts and offhandedly compares himself to a sun god before consenting to descend. (The staging of this in the recent Hollow Crown series, with Ben Whishaw in gleaming gold armour smirking down at Rory Kinnear’s scruffy awkward Bolingbroke, is excellent.) Although he officially abdicates in Parliament in London, the moment Richard steps down from the height of Flint Castle is the moment he lets go of his own kingliness.

In the morning I woke up early to catch the sun rising over the castle. Like a lot of medieval castles in England and Wales, Flint’s was wrecked after the Civil War so it couldn’t be used again for in a military conflict.

Until very recently the ruins were open to the public, with picnic benches and iron handrails around the flat grassy donjon. A friend of mine who grew up in the area remembers playing D&D inside as a teenager, and it does look like an absolutely perfect place for bored north Welsh seventeen-year-olds to drink cider and mess around with orcs. But it’s locked up now, and the council implies people were behaving badly and it was too difficult to keep safe and clean. I don’t know whether there was a genuine ASBO problem or the council just didn’t make the castle a priority in a probably-squeezed budget, but it seems a shame that people can’t go inside any more, especially since all the work to make it visitor friendly has already been done and there’s no cost other than maintenance.

The sunrise was beautiful, although after standing still in the marshy grass for twenty minutes I felt water seeping into my right sock and realised my boot was leaking. I took a few more photos, walked back to my room at the pub to change shoes and hang up my socks on the radiator, and realised it was nine a.m. and I had seen everything there was to see in Flint.

(I’m being unfair. There’s also a Tesco.)

Now (stay with me here) I don’t really get on with Richard as a character. I admire his language, but I have difficulty empathising with him. His lyrical speech and royal identity crisis to me just feel like an argument for republicanism and state-sponsored poetry. Bolingbroke is obviously not exactly elected either, but if he isn’t chosen directly by the people he at least seems to be trying to represent their interests. Basically as far as I can tell,

Richard II: Born in warm, sophisticated Bordeaux. Passionate about doing food properly and invented the fork. A great patron of the arts, he liked affection so much that he did that classic medieval king thing of handing away money and titles to charming young men who appeared to like him. Slightly androgynous or at least consciously played up Male Beauty in a queering way. Really enjoyed orgasms (his and other people’s). Likes: women and men equally as long as they are charming and attractive, wine and glittering things.

Henry Bolingbroke: Born in cold, rocky Lincolnshire. Simple and Rough and Northern. Did not shave often and had perennial stubble in a Harrison Ford kind of way. Trusted no one, not even his own children (except his second son John, who took after him in seeming earnest while really being a sneaky little shit) and was so stingy with favours that it prompted the Percys, his former BFFs and the family that had helped him yoink the throne, to join with the Welsh (the WELSH!) and rebel against him. Had stoic Northern sex with his wife to produce the requisite amount of identikit sons (four), and avoided eye contact with everyone the next day. Favourite food: chips and gravy eaten out of a paper cone while standing next to a stamping horse and listening to an arms report.

So when I watch productions of Richard II it’s mostly to see what they do with Bolingbroke, who as written by Shakespeare can be earnest, calculating, ambitious, generous, chilly, warm, self-knowing, self-delusional and any combination of the above. For Richard, aside from delight at watching good actors have fun with his performativity (Ben Whishaw again deserves mentioning, as does absolutely the best Richard II I’ve ever seen, Sami Metwasi), he mostly makes me want to jump onstage, tear down the throne room walls and start waving the red flag.

But sitting in that tiny pub room in the far end of Wales with wet feet and nothing to do, I would have killed for a museum or a wine bar, or even a cinema or bookstore. And I was very uncomfortable because I know which of those two rulers would have founded one for me. I have always liked to think of myself as someone who prefers industrial cities and working-class locals’ to fancy upper class toffbait, and although that’s true, the fact is I’m still writing this from a flat in Paris with a view of the Eiffel Tower and a glass of bubbly next to me and not from, well, a pub in north Wales.

Not that Flint is a total shithole! Everyone I met was lovely (if not very chatty), the food, wine and lodging were cheap and good, and the air smelled cleaner than it ever gets in any city. However, it is about as far as you can get from London without hitting Scotland. You can hardly even spend money there; I left with around £45 even after paying for two dinners and two nights’ accommodation. And they’ve locked up the most interesting thing in the town! I’m still not going to turn Ricardian any time soon but I do have a lot more sympathy for Team Art And Nice Things now that I’ve spent a Saturday night and Sunday trying to amuse myself north Wales style.

ETA: Flint castle has reopened to the public! It’s free and open 10am-4pm (according to Cadw, the Welsh government’s historic monuments service, in September 2014). Go forth and D&D! Thanks to Rhiannon for the info.

Leave a Reply