North Wales, Snowdonia, Castles and Coast

North Wales, Snowdonia, Castles and Coast

Wales, an inspiring country of myth and mystery, legends and folklore, historic castles sitting majestically on the coast, high snow capped mountains, lakes and waterfalls, pretty little villages and bustling seaside towns.

Heading northwards from London to Wales take the M6 up to Junction 20 for the M56 signposted North Wales and follow this to Junction 15 to take the M53 southwards into Chester, although firmly in England it is a worthy stop on your way west, it even has a Welsh variant of its name, Caer, meaning fort, just as Chester means fort in Anglo-Saxon. And this was an extremely important walled city in Roman times. It was once the fortress of the 20th Legion and was known as Deva Victrix. Lots of Roman ruins here, including an amphitheatre built around 70AD that held up to 8,000 people. It can be viewed along with a walk around the city walls.

If you park at the Little Roodee car park right next to the River Dee you can start your walk around the walls there. In fact this car park is right next to the only short section of the line of the walls that no longer exists but its easy to get yourself on to the rest of the walls. Its just over two miles to circumnavigate the city, and apart from the amphitheatre there is the Eastgate Clock of 1897, Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee year, and said to be the most photographed clock in England after Big Ben.

Inside the town there are unique galleried shopping streets known as the Rows. Some are 17th century and some Victorian. A great place to stock up on snacks and necessities before heading over to Wales. Chester was an important port and shipbuilding town since Roman times but it has all ended now. Nevertheless when a new bridge was built over the Dee it needed to be high enough to allow ships to sail under it. The Grosvenor Bridge was designed by Thomas Hamilton and was opened in 1832 by Princess Victoria (the future Queen Victoria's mother), its single span arch at 200ft (61 m) was the largest in the world at the time. You can see the bridge from the Little Roodee car park, you can even cross it, but a nicer way is to leave Chester as others have done since 1387 by taking the Old Dee Bridge which opened way back then!!

You will eventually head out of Chester on the A485 and join the A55 North Wales Expressway by heading right. As soon as you touch the A55 you'll see your first Welsh signs, a proud "Croeso I Gymru" - Welcome to Wales.

As you travel along the A55 it curves westwards further into Wales. You can see to your right the Dee Estuary and, if it is clear, the city of Liverpool in the distance. Road signs are now in Welsh as well as English.

Welsh is a Brythonic Celtic language and about 20% of the population know the language fluently. The word for this country in its native language is Cymru which means the compatriots or the fellow countrymen. The population of Wales is just over three million and its size is just over 8,000 miles square (or just over 20,000 km square).

To get off the main route and see some of the beautiful countryside exit the A55 for the A525 signed St Asaph. Cross the River Elwy, or Avon Elwy in Welsh, simply meaning the flowing river. This takes you into the second smallest city in the country. St Asaph has a 13th century cathedral and a few tourist shops but it is better to turn left on the B5381 Glascoed Road and get deeper into the countryside. You'll now pass through little Welsh villages like Betws-Yn-Rhos with its one shop, garage and little chapel. By the way, Betws or Bettws means prayer house. Continue along this winding road with views to your left over Moelfre Uchaf, the 1,300ft (400m) landmark hill in the south and Liverpool Bay to your right and north. Just after you cross the River Dulas (Afon Dulas) you will enter the village of Dolwen  where you turn right on the B5383 towards the coast.

Drive down to Colwyn Bay, under the A55 Expressway and onto the promenade. Turn left and follow the coast road. The fine beaches here are a tourist magnet for holidaymakers from all over Britain. There is a whole host of caravan parks and holiday centres all around here. Sadly the 1900 built pier was in such a bad state of repair it was pulled down a few years ago with the hope that it can be slowly rebuilt. Follow the West Promenade onto Marine Drive through Rhos-on-Sea and Penrhyn Bay, eventually joining the B5115 into Llandudno. You will first pass the Little Orme and join the coast road sweeping around the bay to the Great Orme. The Little Orme stands at 463ft (141m) and the Great Orme at 679ft (207m). The classic Victorian resort of Llandudno (meaning the Church of St Tudno) lies in between.

Llandudno was developed as a resort from 1848 when the railways came and the marshland was drained. Financed by the local estate owner Lord Mostyn, by 1877 it had become a fully functioning and popular tourist resort. The pier opened the following year in 1878 and by 1902 the Grand Hotel had been completed. Also in 1902 the cable drawn tramway to the summit of the Great Orme was completed and is still in use today. In addition, a chair lift cable car route was also opened up on the Great Orme in 1969. The side of the hill has a former quarry turned into Happy Valley Park complete with a dry toboggan run. Look out for the Kashmir goats that roam the hillside, the originals were gifts from Queen Victoria. You can drive right up to the summit of the Great Orme yourself in the camper van if you do not wish to use the other modes of transport we mentioned.

Parking here isn't a problem, the large Victoria Centre car park is big enough with some easy on street parking on the Promenade or amongst the Victorian shops of Mostyn Street. Another handy spot is over on the West Parade by the White Rabbit statue (the real Alice in Wonderland, Alice Liddell used to holiday here). Although you have a longer walk back in to the town your exit is much easier. You are parked on the A546 so its a straight shot to head out to Conwy Castle. Just take a first left over the railway line (ignore the A55) and join A547 Conwy Road over the causeway and towards the castle. There are great views as you approach the town and fortress. The bridge that you cross to take you over the River Conwy was built in 1955 but look to your left and see the original 1826 suspension bridge built by Thomas Telford and the 1848 tubular railway bridge by Robert Stephenson. Just past the castle turn left down under the railway line on to the Llanrwst Road to access the Morfa Bach car park. Here you can walk around the old town walls and visit the castle, one of several in Wales ordered by Edward I of England to stamp his authority over his newly conquered people. Most of these castles were designed and built by Master James of St George in the 1290s. You can walk around the town walls here, they are almost complete, it takes no more than half an hour. Then you can continue to the quayside and visit the smallest house in Britain, measuring 10ft by 5.9ft and a source of local souvenirs and gifts.

From here you can continue on the Llanrwst Road towards Llanrwst itself. You are now on the B5106 following the Conwy Valley through gentle rolling hills and pastureland with the ever present mountains of Snowdonia forming a backdrop in the distance. Just before you get to Llanrwst branch off right, still on the B5106 but now following signs for Bettws-y-Coed. You have now entered the Snowdonia National Park created in 1951 and named after its highest peak, Snowdon, which stands at 3560ft (1085m), the highest mountain in the UK outside of Scotland. Its name in Welsh, Yr Wyddfa, possibly means Eagle Peak. The National Park itself is 823 square miles (2,130 square metres).

Drive to the end of the B5106 then turn left on the A5. Arriving in Bettws-y-Coed (Bettws is Welsh for prayer house, Coed meaning a woodland clearing) you will find it a bustling place full of tourists. It's a pleasant town worth a stop and the nearby photogenic and impressive Swallow Falls and river are must see locations. As you will be taking the A5 road back the way you came in you can continue along it to the parking area at Swallow Falls. Continue from here on the A5 to Capel Curig then left on the A4086 and left again on the A498. You will feel you are on the roof of Wales at this point. Stunning mountain scenery, wide vistas and gorgeous views. One essential stopping point is on the A498, it is known as the Snowdon View Point and it'll be on your right above the lake known as Llyn Gwynant and the village of Nant Gwynant. Breathtaking views can be had here before you drop down to Llyn Dinas and into the delightful village of Beddgelert.

Nestling in a meeting of two valleys Beddgelert takes its name from the grave of Gelert, possibly a 6th century Welsh Saint although the legend says it was the dog of Prince Llewelyn who mistakenly killed his faithful hound one evening when his child was attacked by a wolf. Killing the wrong animal a heartbroken Llewelyn buried the dog in a field by the village. Gelert's grave is a short walk from the village with a statue of the dog in a stone walled enclosure and the tragic legend written on a slate tablet at the graveside ringed by the path. Beddgelert is a pleasant village to wander around, parking is available just past the tourist information centre. The surrounding area doubled up for China in the 1958 film "Inn Of The Sixth Happiness" with Ingrid Bergman.

Head along the Aberglaslyn Pass on the A498 south of the village, sharing the valley with the River Glaslyn (Afon Glaslyn) and the narrow gauge Welsh Highland Railway on a spectacular scenic route down to Tremadog. Here turn left onto the A487 Porthmadog by-pass (you will visit here later), continue to Minffordd and turn right up the High Street, part way up turn left following signs for Portmeirion.

This exquisite and unique location was the creation of Sir Clough Williams-Ellis between 1925 and 1975. An eclectic mixture of buildings present themselves to the visitor with Italianate being the predominant style. Famous for being The Village in the 1960s TV series "The Prisoner" you will feel miles away from the Wales you have seen with its stone cottages and castles. Here is something exciting and different as you wander around Portmeirion and its unusual houses and shops, then stroll down to the beach. Don't forget the collectable Portmeirion pottery, created by Sir Clough's daughter Susan Williams-Ellis which has been sold here since 1960.

Return to Minffordd High Street and turn left for Porthmadog. Here you will parallel the Ffestiniog Railway as you cross the Cob, a breakwater built in 1811 to control tidal levels in the area. The railway with its narrow gauge steam locomotives now travels across the top of the Cob and you drive below at sea level. The railway opened in 1836 and closed in 1946, the rusting rails, locomotives and carriages were lovingly restored by enthusiasts in the 1950s and the trains began to run again in 1954. Porthmadog's Ffestiniog Railway station is worth a look in, even a journey on the train if you have the time. There is a cafe and a pub serving food at the station as well as a souvenir gift shop. The railway was initially built to carry stone slates from the quarries to the sea and although it no longer serves that particular role the old harbour still exists, mooring boats and yachts in a delightful marina.

Take the A487 north to Caernarfon but a recommended detour is to come off the A487 at Penygroes and turn right on the B4418 signposted Rhyd Ddu. This beautiful drive will take you back into the mountains, returning to the Snowdonia National Park, at Rhyd Ddu turn left and follow the B4085 to Caernarfon via the beautiful lake known as Llyn Cwellyn and the Youth Hostel at Snowdon Ranger where many hardy folk begin their climb up the mountain. Look out for spoil heaps of old disregarded Welsh slate, telling you that this was once an area of industry rather than one of just quiet nature. Eventually the B4085 will bring you into Caernarfon.

Caernarfon boasts another one of Edward I's castles and this one is the most stylish. Designed for defence but also for living it has a multitude of rooms, battlements and towers. In 1911 it was chose as the site for the investiture of the Prince of Wales, later going down in history as the abdicating Edward VIII. Prince Charles has his investiture here in 1969. The castle is well worth visiting. Park below the town square where one will find a statue of David Lloyd-George, former Prime Minister and member of Parliament for Caernarfon. For the best views of the castle you can also park over the river on the west side at Aber Foreshore Road and take the footbridge back in to the town.

Leaving the town behind continue on the A487 to the junction with the A55. This time join this road and journey over Robert Stephenson's Britannia Bridge built in 1850 to take trains from the mainland to the Isle of Anglesey. After a fire in 1970 the bridge was partially rebuilt an a deck for road traffic was added. You are now crossing the Menai Straits, a narrow 14 mile body of water that separates the island from the rest of Wales. Follow the A5 to Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch a village with a made up, over the top, extra long name to attract the tourists in the 19th century. Take a photo by the railway station sign and try and fit in all 58 letters. Visit the busy gift shop, use the toilet facilities, turn around and head back out. Go back the way you came, maybe visiting the Marquis of Anglesey's monument as a quieter alternative, it's the Nelson's Column lookalike you saw when you came in. Henry William Paget fought in the Napoleonic Wars and his monument dates from 1817. Continue past the monument and head onto the A5, avoiding going back on the Britannia Bridge. This time continue to the Menai Bridge. As you drive down there look for the lay-by on your right to park up for the perfect photo opportunity of the Menai Straits, the bridges and the mountains of Snowdonia.

Staying on the island take the A545 Beaumaris Road from the village of Menai Bridge to the impressive Beaumaris Castle, yet another one of the Welsh castles built on the orders of Edward I by Master James of St George. This castle with its concentric walls and huge battlements was never finished. Edward had spent a huge sum of money on these fortifications and was running out of cash!! But even if it is incomplete, Beaumaris, meaning beautiful marsh, stands out as being a remarkable fortress in a beautiful setting.

Head back to Menai Bridge and cross the Thomas Telford designed crossing of 1826, thankfully built to save time and lives from the treacherous and unpredictable straits below. This will take you back to the A55 for a journey back eastwards to Chester and back into England.