North Wales: landscapes, history, beaches and sun.

It rains in Wales.  A lot.

One of the many sacrifices that I made to my round the world adventure was to always walk to work, no matter what the weather.  The vast majority of the time, I turned up dripping from head to toe, holding together the fragments of my wind-shattered umbrella, waiting the whole day for my socks to dry before heading out in the weather again.

But that makes those sunny days in Wales all the more precious.  Catch Wales on a sunny day and it is hands down one of the most beautiful countries you will ever set foot in.  I think the fact that it was a sunny day when I visited Cardiff for a University open day was one of the main reasons that I fell in love with the city and chose to move there.

Wales has a very strong national identity, and most people will identify themselves as being Welsh before British.  As outsiders, it is very easy to lump everyone together as “the Welsh”, but within Wales itself there are also strong regional identities.  The North and the South of Wales are very different, and form the butt of each other’s humour second only to the English.  They can feel like totally separate countries and one real issue in Wales is the fact that from Cardiff, it is easier to get to the south of England than it is to get to the north of Wales.

As I write this, a journey from Cardiff on the South Wales coast to Llandudno on the North Wales coast would not be an easy feat.  By train, this will be almost a 5 hour journey requiring a change at an English station.  By bus, it will be 8.5 hours, again requiring a change in England.  It is not possible by plane.  By car, the journey is 184 miles and will take 4.5 hours .

In 5 years of living in Cardiff with no car or driving licence, it is perhaps not hard to see why I never made it to North Wales until Jim and I set out on our camping tour of the UK.  We were lucky enough to visit North Wales for the first time during a few days of perfect sunny weather, and I just couldn’t get over how absolutely beautiful this part of Wales is.

Out of everywhere we went on our camping tour, I most keenly felt the absence of my camera in North Wales.  We drove west along the coastal road with rolling green land to our right and the azure sea to our left.  We had to keep pulling over to admire the view – that is not something that we had done anywhere else in the UK.  We were headed for Beddgelert in the Snowdonia National Park, and as we ventured further inland,  the stunning coastline was replaced with lush green forests, glass-like lakes, rugged mountain tops and chocolate box villages.

It wouldn’t be right to say that North Wales is untouched by tourism – tourists flock to North Wales in huge numbers in the summer.  It actually pained me to drive through the magical village of Betws-y-coed (pronounced Bet-oos er coy-ed) in the forest without stopping, but there literally was not a parking space to be had in amongst the tour buses and hikers.  But North Wales remains undeveloped.  Even villages that are packed to the rafters with tourists still retain such a traditional village feel – accommodation is in pubs, B&Bs and under canvas.  It has not produced the nameless, faceless, high rise hotel options that mass tourism usually attracts, probably due to the remoteness of the area.

Beddgelert (pronounced Beth-gelert)

We camped in the forest just outside this beautiful village.

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Welsh folklore is alive and well in North Wales, and this village is named for and is the burial place of the faithful hound, Gelert.  The legend goes that Prince Llewelyn went out hunting on one occasion without Gelert.  He returned to be greeted with delight by his dog, who was covered in blood.  He noticed that his infant son’s cot was empty but was also covered with blood.  He believed that his faithful Gelert had killed his child, and so stabbed him with his sword, only to hear the cry of his child.  He searched and found the boy unharmed, next to the body of a giant wolf that Gelert had slain.  Filled with regret, Prince Llewelyn was said never to have smiled again and buried his beloved dog in Beddgelert.

From the village, it is possible to walk to Gelert’s Grave.  This is a really easy, flat walk along the river.  We did this walk in the evening, as the sun was going down behind the mountains casting a golden glow over the fields.

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We pitched at Beddgelert campsite in the forest.  This was one of the more expensive sites that we stayed at, but it was also one of the best in terms of facilities.

Beddgelert is really well situated to reach the attractions of the Snowdonia National Park and is a very beautiful village in its own right – I cannot recommend a stay there highly enough.

Llanberis (for Snowdon)

This is the village at the foot Snowdon, and is the starting point for many journeys to the summit.  It is also the start and end point for the Snowdon Mountain Railway, which carries passengers up almost to the summit of Snowdon, making the mountain accessible to people of all ages and abilities.

We had planned to take the train up and then hike the last park to the summit.  However, because our plans were fluid, we did not know exactly when we would be arriving at Snowdon and so could not pre-book train tickets online.  We arrived first thing in the morning, to find out that the only train we could get tickets for was the second to last service at 4.30pm.  At a cost of £27 each, the train is not cheap, and it takes around 1 hour for the journey to the summit with only a 30 minute stop at the top.  We had planned to take the train up and walk down, but did not want to be walking down the mountain as the evening was starting to fall, so the train was out.

That then left us with a huge dilemma – should we hike up Snowdon?  With some regret, we decided not to.  We knew that the following day we were going to be heading down to South Wales, and that we would not get to see or do anything else in North Wales if we spent the whole day on Snowdon.  We also were not prepared at all for hiking, so it probably would not have been a sensible decision to attempt it.

So we walked away from Snowdon on that occasion, but it was a hard decision to make and I definitely intend to return to conquer the summit in the future.

Caernarvon (pronounced Ky-er-narvon)

After giving up on Snowdon, we headed instead to Caernarvon, which is situated on the Menai Straits at the gateway to Anglesey.

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This is one of the bigger towns in North Wales but it was still packed with beauty and charm, with narrow alleyways, the stunning Menai Straits and an impressive castle dominating the town.

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Carenarvon Castle dates back to the conquest of Wales by Edward I.  It was built by King Edward as a military stronghold, and a royal palace.   To stamp his authority, King Edward I made sure that his son, the first Prince of Wales, was born in the castle.  It is remarkably well preserved and is a UNESCO world heritage site.  It was given prominence on the world stage as the site of the Investure of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales in 1969.

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Even for people with no interest in history or castles, Caernarvon Castle is still well worth a visit.  The views from the towers and turrets are sublime, and definitely worth a hike up the spiral stairs.

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Abersoch

In amongst all of the mountainous landscapes, it is easy to overlook the fact that North Wales has some fantastic beaches.  Having such outstanding weather, we could not resist a trip to the beach to round off our visit to North Wales and set off for Abersoch on the Llyn peninsula.

The beach at Abersoch was not easy to find.  We parked outside of the town, and walked for miles along the road looking for the path that would  lead us to the beach.  As we walked farther away from the town, fewer and fewer people were walking with us, so we knew we must have gone wrong somewhere.  By this point, we were pretty fed up.  We were hot, walking in no shade, and I was in flip flops trampling along a grass verge by a busy road.  We turned back, and eventually did find the path to the beach, almost directly opposite the parked car.

It was all worth it though.  Abersoch has a really clean, wide beach.

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On any sunny day in the UK, we all flock to the coast and so there were a lot of visitors, but the beach was more than big enough to absorb the volume of visitors without feeling at all crowded.    It was the perfect place to relax for a couple of hours and was the icing on the cake of a brilliant few days in North Wales.

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I have no doubt that the weather contributed to my falling in love with North Wales, as it did with my falling in love with Cardiff so many years before.  We were lucky – it is not possible to predict when those sunny days will be, and so I know the risk in returning is that I will hit upon rainy, grey days that will totally change the landscape.  But it is such a lovely area and there is so much to see and so much that we didn’t do, that I can’t imagine not returning there in the future.  Having now visited North Wales, I am pretty sure it will be stunning whatever the weather.

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