The fast A55 motorway may mean that the North Wales coast is very accessible, but, fortunately, this hasn’t tamed the wilder aspects of this stunningly beautiful area. Without doubt, Snowdonia is the crowning glory of the region. A tightly packed bundle of soaring cliff faces, jagged peaks and plunging waterfalls, the area measures little more than ten miles by ten, but packs enough mountain paths to keep even the most jaded hiker happy for weeks. The folds of the mountains may reveal some atmospheric Welsh castle ruin or decaying piece of quarrying equipment while the lowlands are perfect for lakeside rambles and rides on antiquated steam trains.
Snowdonia is the heart of the massive Snowdonia National Park (Parc Cenedlaethol Eryri), which extends north and south, beyond the bounds of Snowdonia itself (and this chapter), to encompass the Rhinogs, Cadair Idris and 23 miles of superb coastal scenery. One of the best approaches to Snowdonia is along the Dee Valley, a fertile landscape much fought over between the Welsh and the English. There’s a tangibly Welsh feel to fabulous Llangollen, a great base for a variety of ruins, rides and rambles, as well as the venue for the colourful International Eisteddfod festival. Pressing on along the A5 – the region’s second main road – you hit the fringes of Snowdonia at Betws-y-Coed, which is slightly twee but great for gentle walks and mountain biking. As you head deeper into the park, old mining and quarry towns such as Beddgelert, Llanberis and Blaenau Ffestiniogmake arguably better bases, while on the eastern fringes of Snowdonia, Bala tempts with whitewater rafting down the Tryweryn.
To the west of Snowdonia, the former slate port of Porthmadog is home to the quirky “village” of Portmeirion and two superb narrow-gauge steam railways: the Ffestiniog Railway and Welsh Highland Railway. Beyond lies the gentle rockiness of the Ll?n peninsula where Wales ends in a flourish of small coves and seafaring villages. Roads loop back along the Ll?n to Caernarfon, which is overshadowed by its stupendous castle, the mightiest link in Edward I’s Iron Ring of thirteenth-century fortresses across North Wales.
Two historic bridges span the picturesque Menai Strait between the mainland and the island of Anglesey, a gentle patchwork of beautiful beaches, ancient sites and Edward’s final castle in the handsome town of Beaumaris. Back on the mainland, the university and cathedral city of Bangor is the area’s most cosmopolitan haunt, while Conwy’s gritty castle and narrow streets huddle around a scenic quay. Victorian Llandudno is easily the best of the seaside resorts.
Across the Menai Strait from Caernarfon, the island of Anglesey (Ynys Môn) welcomes visitors to “Mam Cymru”, the Mother of Wales, attesting to the island’s former importance as the national breadbasket. The land remains predominantly pastoral, with small fields, stone walls and white houses reminiscent of parts of Ireland or England. Linguistically and politically, though, Anglesey is intensely Welsh, with seventy percent of the islanders being first-language Welsh-speakers. Many people head straight to Holyhead and the Irish ferries, but this would be to miss out on Anglesey’s many charms, among them the ancient town of Beaumaris, with its fine castle, the Whistler mural at Plas Newydd and some superb coastal scenery. The island was the crucible of pre-Roman druidic activity in Britain, and there are still numerous Neolithic remains redolent of the atmosphere of a pagan past.
The original inhabitants of BEAUMARIS (Biwmares) were evicted by Edward I to make way for the construction of his new castle and bastide town, dubbed “beautiful marsh” in an attempt to attract English settlers. Today the place can still seem like the small English outpost Edward intended, with its elegant Georgian terrace along the front (designed by Joseph Hansom, of cab fame) and more plummy English accents than you’ll have heard for a while.
Beaumaris Castle might never have been built had Madog ap Llywelyn not captured Caernarfon in 1294. When asked to build the new castle, James of St George abandoned the Caernarfon design in favour of a concentric plan, developing it into a highly evolved symmetrical octagon. Sited on flat land at the edge of town, the castle is denied the domineering majesty of Caernarfon or Harlech, its low outer walls appearing almost welcoming until you begin to appreciate the concentric layout of the defences protected by massive towers, a moat linked to the sea and the Arab-influenced staggered entries through the two gatehouses. Despite more than thirty years’ work, the project was never quite finished, leaving the inner ward empty. You can explore a number of inner and outer wall walks, and wander through miles of internal passages in the walls.
LLANGOLLEN, just six miles from the English border, is the embodiment of a Welsh town, clasped tightly in the narrow Dee Valley where the river runs beneath the weighty, Gothic bridge. This was an important town long before the early Romantics arrived at the end of the eighteenth century. Turner came to paint the swollen river and the Cistercian ruin of Valle Crucis; John Ruskin found the town “entirely lovely in its gentle wildness”; and writer George Borrow made Llangollen his base for the early part of his 1854 tour detailed in Wild Wales. The rich and famous also came to visit the “Ladies of Llangollen” at Plas Newydd. But by this stage some of the town’s rural charm had been eaten up by the works of one of the century’s finest engineers, Thomas Telford, who squeezed both his London–Holyhead trunk road and the Llangollen Canal alongside the river.
Llangollen is heaving all summer, and never more so than in early July, when for six days the town explodes in a frenzy of music, dance, poetry and colour. Unlike the National Eisteddfod, which is a purely Welsh affair, the International Music Eisteddfod draws amateur performers from fifty countries, all competing for prizes inside the 6000-seat Royal International Pavilion, and at several other venues. The eisteddfod has been held in its present form since 1947 when forty choirs from fourteen countries performed. Today, more than 4000 participants lure up to 150,000 visitors, and there is an irresistible joie de vivre as brightly costumed dancers stroll the streets and fill the restaurants.
The eisteddfod is followed by the less frenetic Llangollen Fringe, with a number of more “alternative” acts – music, dance, comedy and so on – performing over the third week in July.