For most Indians, mention Wales and the immediate connect is to either Charles, the Prince of Wales, or Cardiff (primarily because of the University and then the castle). But unbeknownst to many, the Welsh region is a wonderful mix of stunning topography, history and traditional, warm, welcoming people and thankfully pristine vistas that make for a traveller’s paradise. The latter is particularly experienced in the northern part of Wales, where you can get lost in the charming little villages full of history and legends, feel invigourated as you walk through the hundreds of English, Welsh and Roman castles that pepper the countryside, or even get a huge adrenaline rush with the latest push towards adventure sports in Snowdonia.
A trip to the UK will be incomplete without having explored the beautiful countryside of Wales, which weaves in stories of King Arthur and Merlin with Dr Who and Alice from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. So, to make things simpler for you, as part of the 2017 Year of the Legends, we bring you 10 places you must see and things you must do when in North Wales.
Soak in the history at the many castles
There are around 600 castles in Wales and though many would have heard of Cardiff Castle in the south, the north has its own treasures. And the first among those would be the castles and fortifications built by Edward I over 20 years when he subjugated the Welsh in the late 13th century, which collectively form a World Heritage Site. Known as the Iron Ring or Ring of Steel, these castles — Flint and Rhuddlan castles in 1277, followed with Conwy, Caernarfon and Harlech in 1283, and finally Beaumaris in 1295, which wasn’t completed — these historically relevant castles were a means for the English king to build a stronghold over the Welsh region and quell the possibility of any uprising by the local princes. In fact, fort locales such as Conwy and Caernarfon even have histories that date long before Edward’s stone structures.
These castles are a must-visit for history buffs, with each boasting of a peculiar characteristic or USP. If Harlech has a wonderful location with a view of Mount Snowdon, Conwy has a lovely town around that would easily take a day to explore. To get to Caernarfon, take a Welsh Highland Railway steam train, which is an experience on its own.
Fun trivia: Did you know most doorways in a castle or fort would have a drawbridge, portcullis, guard windows and murder holes that you’d have to cross? Murder holes…exciting right?
Explore the outdoors in Snowdonia
One of the highlights of north Wales is the Snowdonia, which boasts of the Snowdonia National Park, Llyn Peninsula and the Cambrian Coastline. And let’s not forget Mount Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales, standing tall at 3,560 ft. In fact, Snowdon is known to be the busiest summit in the UK because the 3-hour climb is one of the most popular treks in Britain.
There is much to do in the Snowdonian region for those who love the outdoors and are ardent nature lovers. Peppered with waterfalls, glacial lakes and popular hiking trails (there are various difficulty levels you can choose from depending on where you are). Adrenaline junkies can opt for adventure sports (more on that later) such as zip lining and mountain biking; those interested in industrial history can tour the slate mines (Llechwedd Slate Caverns and the Zip World joints around are a good bet to spend at least a day or two); there castles such as Caernarfon and Criccieth, of course, for the history buff; and no dearth of stunning vistas and towns to amble your time away and go trigger happy.
Fun trivia: If you’re not the trekking or hiking sort, take the narrow-gauge Snowdon Mountain Railway to the summit of Mt Snowdon, which is said to be the burial place of the ogre Rhita who was slayed by King Arthur.
Take a ride on the Welsh Highland Railway
One of North Wales’ premier attractions is the narrow gauge line stretch 25-odd miles meandering through the historic Royal borough of Caenarfon, coast to coast across the foothills of Snowdon and on the harbour town of Porthmadog. Twisting through the scenic Welsh countryside, go back in time as you relax in one of the First Class carriages (and you really should opt for them) as a light tasty luncheon and later a high tea of cakes and beverages are served on your table.
We took the Ffestiniog Rail line (though not all the way to Caenarfon) and were lucky to have one of the two oldest steam locomotives from the 19th century. The journey from Porthmadog to Caenarfon takes about 2 hours, and goes through some of the picturesque countryside Wales is famous for, occasionally stopping at darling small town stations. This ride is a treat for history buffs — after all the Ffestiniog Railway IS the world’s oldest operational railway company — and photography enthusiasts alike.
According to Chris Parry, Marketing Officer at Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways, apparently engineers from India had come visiting the Ffestiniog Railway Line before starting work on the mountain steam engine lines that continue to operate in India in Darjeeling and Shimla. So, this would prove for an added attraction for Indian tourists.
Fun trivia: If you thought only trains in India have a problem with stray animals, think again. Many times these steam trains and their drivers would have to exercise much patience as they follow stray sheep that would stubbornly refuse to leave the rail tracks. Interestingly, one can even hire a whole train for special occasions such as weddings, parties and even funerals.
Explore the Victorian city of Llandudno and ride the Great Orme Tramway
Llandudno is a Victorian era seaside tourist city that is a perfect amalgamation of chic, old world sophistication and small town charm. Located in the Creuddyn Peninsula which leads to the Irish Sea, the seaside resort has earned itself the title of ‘Queen of Welsh Resorts’ and justifiably so. Spend a day exploring the various architectural influences on the facade of the Victorian, Elizabethan and Georgian Era buildings that are distinctly visible, and while there, take a ride up to the Great Orme in the tramway that has been operational since 1902.
The extraordinary journey begins at Llandudno’s Victoria Station and goes right up through the winding roads of the Great Orme, where you’re treated to a view of not only the city, Snowdonia and Anglesey but also as far out as Scotland. While there, explore the Bronze Age copper mines, Iron Age fort, Stone Age remains (dating back to 3,000 BC) and the 6th century St Tudno’s Church. Particularly look out for the wild Kashmir goats grazing on the hill.
Fun Trivia: If you’re a bibliophile, download the Alice app and walk around the city discovering the various characters from Alice in Wonderland and see them come to life once you’ve found them. It’s a visual treat!
Adventure and history awaits at Llechwedd Slate Mines and Zip World adventures
Buried hundreds of feet under Snowdonia’s mountains, lies a history that dates back around 170 years. A rock revolution that defined generations of families in North Wales – the slate mines. Now defunct, these slate quarries and mines have stood witness to an industrial revolution that shook modern-day Wales.
Just about a year old, take the deep mine tour to go 500ft under ground in Britain’s steepest cable railway where the highest cavern is at 150ft into 10 of the 14 floors as you’re introduced to the mine workers, their life of hardship, try your hands at some primitive mining tools and the ‘lake’ at the end of the tour is simply breathtaking. (Try and get a Deep Mines tour with Valerie Williams, who is not only a great guide but also the first woman to work in the Welsh deep mines since 1846!)
Not only that, the owners have joined hands with Zip World adventures to bring visitors a whole new experience with the Bounce Below – multiple level trampolines (they boast of being the world’s first subterranean playground) – cavern zip lines, overhead zip lines over the quarry and in the forest area around, go around the still functional slate quarries on trucks or if you’re a sport junkie then try out the various mountain biking and trekking trails.
The nearby village of Blaenau Ffestiniog is a great place to anchor yourself for a day or two to experience all the sport that the region has to offer.
Fun trivia: Interestingly, the deep mines are now used for something quite unusual — ageing cheese! Yep, as walk through hundreds of metres underground, being educated on the harsh history, unbeknownst to you are thousands of cases of cheese that acquire an unusual and lovely accent because of being aged in the slate mines. You can sample (and even buy) the cheese at the café above ground.
Be mesmerised and find your muse at Portmeirion Village
The wonderful ‘heritage’ village resort of Portmeirion is the result of one man’s dream — architect Clough Williams-Ellis, which took him half a century to assemble starting 1925 with bits and pieces collated from across Britain and ‘assembled’ together to make an aesthetic Italianesque village that is not only a sight to behold but a delight to live in. Many would associate Portmeirion with the drama The Prisoner, which was shot here, or as a favoured haunt of The Beatles.
Though budget travellers would have to just make do with a day tour, those willing to shell out a bit more should definitely consider spending a night here at one of the 58-odd rooms and 13 self-catering cottages, each of which have a fascinating history (that you should enquire from the delightful and encyclopaedic Meurig Jones, the attraction manager at the village). There are also architectural plays by Williams-Ellis — from painted windows to trick sculptures — that would delight both adults and kids. Around 70 acres of beautiful woods around the village has interesting pathways and a fascinating array of flora and foliage.
Fun trivia: There are 33 mermaids — Williams-Ellis was apparently fascinated with mermaids and dolphins, which also forms the logo of Portmeirion — spread across the 120-acre property. Can you spot all of them? Also, make sure you see the massive 17th century plaster ceiling that cost the architect a ‘Herculean price’ of £13.
Walk through nature – both manicured and wild – at Bodnant Garden
One of the most beautiful and famous gardens in the world, spread over 80 acres, Bodnant Garden is home to many rare and award-winning champion trees from across the world. It boasts of thousands and thousands of species of plants (so much so that even the head gardener can’t remember how many), around 350 varieties of rhododendrons (many of them from as far as the Himalayas, India, China, Japan, etc.), tulips, magnolias and daffodils are the highlights of this botanical gem. It’s most famous though for its Laburnum Arch, the longest in the UK, which flowers during May-June.
Spring is the best time to visit the garden which has been around for five generations of the McLaren family in Wales, with big trees dating as far back as the 1700s. What’s unique about Bodnant is the different styles of landscapes — from the natural wild, to a little more structured during the Victorian period to a very formal (and absolutely stunning) manicured section during the Edwardian period. If you love flowers and plants, you can easily spend a couple of hours hiking through the pockets of Rhododendron forrestii, magnolia, eucryphia, embothrium, camellias, pseudotsuga menziesii (douglas fir), pinus radiata, sciadopitys verticella (Japanese umbrella pine), chamaecyparis pisifera (Japanese false cypress), sequoiadendron giganteum (giant redwood) — many brought back by 19th and 20th century explorers.
And though the garden is open to the public 362 days a year, right at the centre is the impressive Georgian mansion house — still privately owned by the Aberconwys — overlooking the sprawling gardens, while giving onlookers a treat for the eyes.
Fun Trivia: The garden has been so designed that visitors will always have the opportunity to see flowering trees irrespective of the time of the year, with pockets divided by the season. In the spring, there are swathes of daffodils, magnolias, rhododendrons; roses, lily ponds, herbaceous beds and wildflower meadows in summer; a kaleidoscope of rich leaf colour in autumn; and sparkling, frosty landscapes in winter.
Experience the charming quaint villages of Beddgelert and Betws y Coed
These darling little villages in Snowdonia make for idyllic places to spend a day or two if you want to experience the charming Welsh life. Surrounded by numerous dramatic waterfalls and scenic trekking trails, these two villages lie at a confluence of beautiful forested valleys, natural rivers (with good fishing for those interested), stone bridges and easy access to more prominent attractions like Portmeirion, Anglesey, Caenarfon and Penrhyn castles and the Snowdownia National Park.
Fun trivia: Beddgelert (which means Gelert’s Grave, referring to Prince Llywelyn’s dog Gelert) has an interesting story associated with it. It’s said that once Prince Llywelyn came home to find his hound with his mouth bloodied. Instinctively thinking that the dog must have harmed his young son, the master plunged his sword into Gelert, killing him instantly, only to find his son safe inside and the body of a mighty wolf Gelert had slain inside. Full of remorse, it’s said the prince never smiled again and buried Gelert in the meadow, after whom the village is now named. Does the story sound vaguely familiar? (Hint: replace Gelert with a mongoose and the wolf with a snake.) As for Betws y Coed, or the Church in the Wood, we’ll let you find out the story with this one (Check for artist David Cox).
Visit the Smallest House in Britain
This is one of the highlights of the adorable historical town of Conwy. The bright red house nestled on the quayside, which is probably why it’s also called Quay House, is just 10ft x 5.9ft was built as an infill between cottages and the Conwy castle wall. It was actually lived in from the 16th century till 1900 — and its last tenant was a fisherman called Robert Jones who was all of 6.3ft tall — after which it was declared uninhabitable. Since then it has become a tourist attraction, and entry to the house (when open) is just £1, and lady dressed in traditional Welsh attire is usually at hand to tell you the history of the house and show you around (provided you can fit in!) While in Conwy, don’t forget to visit Plas Mawr, the Aberconwy House and Conwy Castle, of course.
Fun trivia: Once all houses across Britain that had no toilets were being razed to the ground, and the Quay House would have been too had it not been for Roger Dawson, the then editor-owner of the North Wales Weekly News. Dawson ran a nationwide campaign through his paper asking people to contact him if they thought theirs was the smallest house in the country. He then went around with a measuring tape to verify the claim, and eventually it was indeed established that the Quay House was Britain’s smallest. This status was later confirmed by the Guinness Book of Records.
Take a selfie at LLANFAIRpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch
This is one for the quirky travellers and a delight for those who like to have a check list. Imagine having bragging rights to having visited the place with the longest name in Europe, and second longest in the world. Do your homework and make sure you can pronounce the name. This is more of a photo stop than anything else, but a quirky one. If you’re staying the night at Porthmadog or Portmeirion, then you can easily drive down here, or even take a train to/from Holyhead.
Legend has it that the town actually had a much smaller name, but the owner of the station shop wanted more business, so he sent his nephew up onto a monument asking him what all he could see from there. The kid said, “Saint Mary’s Church in the hollow of the white hazel near a rapid whirlpool and the Church of Saint Tysilio of the red cave”, which translates to the 58-letter LLANFAIRpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch in Welsh, and that’s apparently how this little town became world famous. Great business strategy, eh? There is still a shop there for tourists to pick up souvenirs.
Fun trivia: This is the longest place name in Europe, but the longest in the world is a New Zealand peak called ‘Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu’. Now, can you say that?