North Wales not only has some of the most dramatic scenery in Britain, it also boasts pretty villages, historic towns, medieval castles, and a real welcome in the Snowdonia hillsides!
They may not be as high as the Alps or the Pyrenees, but for the thousands who head to north Wales each year, Snowdonia is the perfect place to visit the mountains. For me, it combines the ideal escape with the kind of activities that leave me feeling refreshed and invigorated.
Snowdonia, in very general terms, covers a large area of northwest Wales, and takes its name from the highest peak in the range, Mount Snowdon. The landscape is a network of deep grassy valleys, which rise to rugged bare rock peaks, laced with glistening lakes, rivers and waterfalls. It’s a region that needs to be explored to fully appreciate it, and that, in most cases, means a lot of walking.
Snowdon itself is always high on my list of priorities, as it seems to be on everyone else’s. If you plan to stay in Llanberis, the lively and very agreeable small town at the foot of the mountain, then you generally need to book well in advance. The Dolafon Hotel, in the High Street, is a pleasant bed and breakfast establishment at sensible rates. It’s close to the start of all three of the walks to the summit, and to the Snowdon Mountain Railway. If your budget runs to it, I prefer the more luxurious Legacy Royal Victoria Hotel, which also has an excellent restaurant.
The marked routes to the top of Snowdon all begin in the town, but the most popular is a fairly easy five-mile walk. The path is well signposted and not too strenuous. I prefer this route not because of its untesting nature, though, but because it affords some of the best views along the way. Once you’ve travelled a short way above the town, the railway bends around and teases you with the frequent trains, each full of passengers who are using no effort at all as they pass you en route to the top. But for me, that’s cheating. I may take the easiest of the walks, but at least I can say I’ve climbed Snowdon. If you do plan to use the train, it’s also advisable to book at least a day or two beforehand, as in the summer months this can also be full before you arrive.
Having been to the top of the highest peak, and walked back down for a well-earned hearty meal, I planned the next excursion to be the complete opposite. The Llechwedd Slate Caverns are one of my favourite places to visit in the area, offering trips deep underground. There's a choice of tours, but the Deep Mine trip is the most spectacular, even if you may have to queue for a while to take your turn. You are whisked deep below the surface on a steeply angled railway, and then escorted through a series of huge caverns, following the story of a young miner from the mine’s Victorian heyday. The sound and light sequences are very impressive, as is the amazing underground lake. Afterwards, I like to wander around the re-created Victorian Mining Village, complete with village shops selling old-fashioned sweets and gifts, and a village pub.
I find much of the beauty of the Snowdonia National Park is to be seen just as you travel around. Almost every road through the mountains has the wow factor at some point, with pretty villages, cascading waterfalls, stark peaks towering above you, or lush green valleys stretched out below you. There are plenty of stopping places at the best viewpoints, and I have learned never to plan my journey times based just on the distance between two points. In this area you need to factor in photo-stops about every two miles!
There are many smaller places of interest, too. The Conwy Falls, just above Betws-y-Coed, for example. A small, nondescript café and gravel car park has a gate in one corner where – once you have dropped a pound into the slot – it allows you access to a woodland path, under a sign that reads ‘to the waterfall’. By the time I stood there, I could already hear the water thundering in the distance, and 10 minutes down a winding and fairly steep track led me to not one, but a series of impressive falls surrounded by high cliffs on all sides.
Although it’s the mountains that draw me here, I do also like to visit some of the historic coastal towns of North Wales. Caernarfon is extremely impressive, with its huge castle dominating the waterfront. Penryn, Llandudno, and Bangor also have plenty to offer. But if you only have time for one, then head to Conwy. It’s not too large – a walk around the top of the city walls will take you only 20 minutes or so – but I enjoy the old town centre, and especially the massive castle, which guards the estuary of the River Conwy. You can also visit, two people at a time, Britain’s smallest house, which sits on the quayside.
The town’s defences were built by Edward I, as part of a series of castles designed to keep the Welsh in check should they have designs on invading England. How ironic then, that so many centuries later, most of the visitors it now sees are English, visiting this most beautiful part of Wales.