Wales is a country I’ve seldom visited… other than a day’s hiking trip a few years ago, I don’t think I’ve been since I was a little kid holidaying with my parents. And when I say little, I mean too young to remember!
With a few days off work in mid-September my initial idea was to book a last-minute trip abroad to enjoy some sunshine. But with good weather forecast for the UK, and the risk of having to quarantine on return from anywhere abroad, after a bit of searching I decided on North Wales as the destination. And I’m so glad I did!
I started the trip with some history and a visit to two castles on the North coast… Caernarfon and Conwy. Having to pre-book timed tickets to limit visitor numbers and enable social distancing, I was stuck seeing the castles in the wrong order for my itinerary though, having to drive half an hour past Conwy in the morning to reach Caernarfon by 11am, before then going back the way I came to Conwy for 3pm. Advice… book earlier than the day before you plan to visit!
Reaching Caernarfon a little early meant that I had some time to walk around the old town, and being early on a Sunday morning, it was very quiet and peaceful.
The old town is surrounded by the town walls and has some quaint streets and pretty buildings, making it a really nice place to have a wander and stop for a coffee after the morning drive.
Walking through the narrow streets there was no need to check where the castle was on the map… the towers could be seen looming over the town in the distance and made for some great views down the deserted streets and alleyways.
Entrance to the castle is £5.20 (currently at 50% discount due to renovations works), or free for Cadw and English Heritage members (a surprise bonus I found out when booking), and I’d say it’s well worth the fee.
The castle is very impressive (placed 315 in Lonely Planet’s 500 Best Places On The Planet) and is largely intact, enabling you to explore the grounds as well as walk on the walls and follow the interconnected tunnels between the towers.
One thing I would say is if you want to learn about the history of the castle as you walk around it then the additional guidebook would probably be worthwhile (I can’t confirm as I didn’t get it, I relied on Wikipedia), but there isn’t an audio guide included or any signs to read on the way. There is however a museum and exhibition at the end which details the history of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, which includes a strange fact that since 1777 the Regiment has paraded a goat as a member!
In contrast to Caernarfon being very quiet and peaceful, Conwy was absolutely heaving when I got there! It was 3pm and the sun had come out and it was nearing 25°C, so I guess that’s understandable though.
My journey to Conwy took slightly longer than I’d planned as well and I missed my 3pm slot at the castle. But luckily there was still space for the 4pm entry, and so I got to go in with that group instead (I’m not sure why they were only letting in the timed groups all at once though, surely staggering throughout the hour would be better for social distancing?!)
As with Caernarfon Castle entry is free for Cadw and English Heritage members (£8.80 for non-members), and again I’d say it’s worth the fee if having to pay.
The castle structure is largely intact but has a more ruins feel to it than Caernarfon did, with more exploring of open spaces and walking on the walls rather than inside tunnels (although this may have been down to restrictions as some areas did seem to be roped off).
And again, as with Caernarfon, if you want to know more of the history of the castle, you might find the additional guidebook useful as there are very few information signs and no audio guide (Wikipedia again acted as my guide).
The castle is only a couple of minutes’ walk into the centre of the old town and the quay. Other sights to see are The Smallest House in Great Britain (the red house in the photo), and Aberconwy House, a museum of a 15th century merchant’s house.
Due to time I didn’t go inside the small house as there was quite a queue and it was closing soon, and Aberconwy House was still closed due to COVID. So I had to make do with photos from the outside. The town is well worth a look around though!
In-between my castle visits I stopped at Anglesey on the way (hence being late to Conwy Castle!). Whereas the weather on the mainland was nice and warm, on Anglesey the sky was dark and gloomy, and the wind was getting stronger and stronger the further I went!
Knowing I didn’t have loads of time before I had to make it to Conwy, I headed straight for Holy Island and South Stack Lighthouse, with the plan being to have a cliff top walk.
As often happens on my road trips though my attention gets caught by signs on the way, or I’m not paying enough attention to the sat nav, and so take a few unplanned turnings leading to some deliberate and some accidental stop offs!
The first stop was an accidental one at the New Oval, the home of Holyhead Hotspur FC after taking the wrong exit on a roundabout. Being a big football fan I like to try and go to matches when I’m away, and although there’s no chance of that at the minute with crowds not being allowed into grounds, it was still good to see a football pitch in person after so long!
The next stop was a more deliberate one at Porth Dafarch, when coming to a T-junction I saw the beach to the left and so went there instead of taking the right turn that the sat nav wanted me to.
It wasn’t exactly sunbathing weather with the cloudy skies and strong winds, but with the waves crashing into the rocks and the sea-spray reaching the top of the surrounding hills, it did make for a nice fresh walk!
With the unplanned stops done, next up was South Stack Lighthouse itself. Parking in Elin’s Tower car park, this left a cliff top walk past Elin’s Tower, a castellated folly used as a watch tower during both the First and Second World Wars, before reaching the top of the 400 steps down to the Lighthouse.
And if I thought the wind was bad at the beach, it was absolutely crazy here on the top of the cliffs!
Checking the weather app on my phone it said gusts up to 70mph, which made even taking photos a challenge! More than once I had to prop myself up against a rock to steady myself enough for the photo not to be blurred, and I was glad of a wrist strap on my phone, when trying to take a selfie it nearly got blown out of my hand! (I’ll include said selfie so you can see how crazy my hair is in the wind!)
Even though the sign at the top of the stairs said the lighthouse was closed, I made the trip down to see how far I could get. Bracing against the wind and ducking down low enough to be hidden from the gusts I managed to get all the way to the bottom, before being stopped by a locked gate at the entrance to the bridge to cross onto the final island where the lighthouse sits. Never mind, with the strong wind and my wariness of heights, I’m not sure I would have fancied going up to the top anyway!
With the itinerary of day 1 done, it was time to head to Porthmadog and the hotel I’d booked for the night. As with the tickets for the castles, I left the booking to the last minute and was surprised how busy everywhere was given the school holidays were over. After a while of searching, I settled on a room in place called the Royal Sportsman Hotel.
It offered adequate if not luxury accommodation, but the surprising highlight was definitely the food! Choosing to eat in the bar rather than the restaurant, I had a nice pint of a local blonde beer along with Welsh Lamb Rump with minted crushed potatoes, garden pea puree and a redcurrant sauce. And it was delicious!
And then breakfast the next morning didn’t disappoint either… with an extensive menu to choose from I opted for a full Welsh breakfast which set me up well for day ahead! (I’m not sure what the difference was from an English breakfast though)
After breakfast and the busy sight-seeing day before, the morning of day 2 was a chilled one spent walking around Porthmadog and nearby Harlech, with a stop at the beautiful beach thrown in too (and this time it was most definitely sunbathing weather!)
The walk in Porthmadog took me to the harbour and the neighbouring Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland station, where a steam train was just pulling out of the platform.
And then I hit the beach in Harlech to top up my non-existent tan (I stopped to get some sun cream on the way as to not burn my pasty skin), I had a wander around the town and saw another impressive castle… a 13th century fortress perched on top of the hill overlooking St. Royal David’s golf club (I must remember my golf clubs next time) and the Irish Sea.
The castle is closed on Monday’s and Tuesday’s, but after yesterday’s trip I was a little castle’ed out anyway, so the view of the outside was enough! The morning was about rest and relaxation, not more historic sight-seeing!
The beach definitely offered some R&R, with the golden sand stretching as far as the eye could see and the glorious blue sky and sunshine above making for a picture-postcard scene.
Stopping at a petrol station to grab a nice and healthy lunch (there wasn’t a lot of choice in my defence!), I headed into the mountains of Snowdonia for the afternoon, for a drive on the mountain roads before taking the train up to (almost) the top of Snowdon.
Taking the A498 through Beddgelert, I pass Llyn Dinas and Llyn Gwynant on the way up into the mountains. There are a few lay-bys where you can pull over and stop to admire the views, and I highly recommend that you do!
Pulling into one a few minutes after going passed Llyn Gwynant, the view down into the valley below and across to the mountains above is incredible!
When taking some photos, I saw that there was a gate in the wall of the lay-by leading into the fields beyond, and with luck it was open, so made a perfect spot to stop and have lunch.
A bit further on is the Snowdon Viewpoint which is a small carpark, and as the name suggests, has amazing views of Snowdon and the other mountains (here I am pointing out Snowdon in the distance)
Llanberis is the destination I’m heading to, and turning onto the A4086 and taking the Pen-y-Pass I go past the car park which is the starting point for 5 of the main walking routes up Snowdon, and head back down out of the hills to the town which is the starting point of the railway which is the route I’m taking today! On another day and with the right group of friends I would tackle the 6-hour walk up and down the mountain, but today it’s the lazy route of taking the 2-hour train journey instead!
Due to limited capacity and social distancing, the train is only running ¾ of the way up the mountain this season to Clogwyn Station, at 2,556 ft (779m) high. The ticket was £31, which is well worth it for the incredible views it affords even if not quite at the summit!
I get very lucky with the weather too… with 5pm being the only time with availability (again, advice is to not book last minute!), the hazy sun is just starting to go down in the sky behind the wispy clouds making for dramatic views.
We get dropped off at the hilltop station and have 30-minutes to roam around, before the return journey back down to Llanberis.
The view is clear enough to see Anglesey in the distance, but on completely clear days (when does that ever happen in the UK?!) the Isle of Man and even the Scottish Highlands are apparently visible from up here!
Once back down the journey back to the hotel offers the same amazing views as the way up, only this time with dusk descending they seem even more incredible!
Day 3 started with a visit to the tourist village of Portmeirion. This was one of the main reasons why I thought of coming to Wales for a road trip in the first place, but at the time I wasn’t aware that it was a purpose-built ticketed village… I thought it was just a normal town! It costs £13 which seemed quite expensive, but it does go to the charitable trust for the upkeep and maintenance of the village at least.
It was designed by Sir Clough William-Ellis in the style of an Italian village over the space of 50 years from 1925 to 1975, and to be honest it makes for quite a surreal experience! I’m not sure what it would be like on a cold and rainy Welsh morning, but in the glorious sunshine it did feel like I was walking around in mid-20th century Italy!
During the 3 days I passed through plenty of other towns and villages which are worth a mention… some purposely with a planned stop on a journey, and some just stumbling across while driving through.
In-between Conwy and Caernarfon, just over the Britannia Bridge on Anglesey, is the village of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (yes, I did copy and paste that!). Famous for it’s 58 letter and 19 syllable name, it’s the longest place name in Europe and the second longest in the world (new blog idea of visiting the longest in New Zealand!)
The train station in the centre of the village makes for a great photo opportunity, if your camera has a lens wide enough!
Lying in the middle of Snowdonia is Beddgelert, a village I passed through a few times on my journeys. It’s a small and pretty village built in local dark stone, with a bridge crossing the 2 rivers which converge in the village centre.
I also realised on my second stop there that I’d actually been in the village before, on the hiking trip I mentioned earlier. On that visit we climbed Moel Hebog, the mountain which dominates the view West from the village.
A larger and more well-known village on the north eastern edge of Snowdonia is Betws-y-Coed. It’s a popular tourist destination with lots of cafes, shops and restaurants, and has the Pont-y-Pair Bridge crossing the River Llugwy and the rapids it creates.
Further south is the town of Dolgellau, which although small, is home to over 200 listed buildings, making it a lovely place to walk around and sit and have a coffee to relax.
And so there we are… a whistle stop tour of North Wales and Snowdonia. It’s an amazing place, with historic castles, rugged cliffs, beautiful beaches, and stunning mountains, all within an hours’ drive of each other. I’m not sure why I haven’t been since I was a little kid, but I certainly won’t be leaving it as long again to return.
1. Snowdonia… just look at the stunning scenery! Amazing roads to drive, amazing trails to hike, and you can even get the train up to the summit of Snowdon if you want to conquer the 2nd biggest mountain in the UK without the effort!
2. Portmeirion… where else in the UK can you wander around and feel like you’re soaking up the sun on the Italian Riviera! A slightly strange but unique place you should definitely visit.
3. Conwy Castle… I love castles so it had to be one of them, and Conwy just pips it over Caernarfon for me, although you won’t be disappointed with either!
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