Shift your attention to the other country within the nation. Beginning with Offa’s Dyke and touring a ring of castles—including the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Conwy Castle and Harlech—this tour of North Wales is an ideal introduction to the Welsh landscape, history, and heritage.
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The Longest Word in the Welsh Language
The most famous Welsh word is the name of a railway station, 58 letters long, which has become a minor tourist attraction in its own right. The name takes up the whole front of the station building. It’s usually abbreviated to “Llanfair PG,” and it means: “St. Mary’s Church in the Hollow of the White Hazel near the rapid whirlpool and the parish church of St. Tysilio with a red cave.”
Wales itself, whatever your language, is a lovely place to visit: hospitable, charming, scenic, and full of places that vividly bring to mind its turbulent earlier history.
The Welsh Castles of King Edward I
Ruling two centuries after the Norman Conquest, King Edward I of England was a handsome, swaggering bully who loved to fight. He decided to conquer Wales in 1277, after years of conflict between Welsh princes and the English barons. The fiercest resistance to Edward’s army came from Welsh chieftains in the mountains of the northwest. Edward responded by building a ring of castles around the mountains to ensure his own command of the lowlands and the sea-ports. Four of these castles have been designated as UNESCO World-Heritage sites: Conwy, Caernarfon, Beaumaris, and Harlech. Today, we’ll stop at each of these castles—and visit many other sites along the way.
The Town of Conwy
As you drive into North Wales from England, you’ll come first to the walled town of Conwy, which stands on the north coast, fronting the Irish Sea. Conwy was built between 1283 and 1289, in the form of a triangle. The castle forms one of the triangle’s corners. An almost continuous set of high city walls, very well preserved and partly on dramatic sloping ground, make up its sides.
From the east wall of the castle, look out over the River Conwy, which is crossed here by three bridges. The middle one was built by Thomas Telford—a great road, bridge, and canal builder. His Conwy Suspension Bridge is among the earliest suspension bridges in Britain.
When the railway arrived at Conwy in 1848, another great engineer, Robert Stephenson, also took the hint. The body of his bridge, just to the right of Telford’s when seen from the castle, is an enclosed iron-girder structure. Stephenson was working right on the edge of the mainland, and at one point his route had to pierce the old city walls, leaving a graceful crenellated arch.
The oldest dwelling in the town of Conwy is Aberconwy House. Occupied over the centuries by merchants, officers, sea captains, and a temperance hotel, it’s been imaginatively restored by the National Trust and is open to visitors. Each of the different rooms is furnished from a different era of its history, but the ancient timber beams are on display throughout, and floors are delightfully uneven.
The Beach Resort Town of Llandudno
About four miles from Conwy is the beach resort town of Llandudno. The most interesting part of Llandudno is a huge headland called the Great Orme, which is protected from urbanization. A tram climbs the hill using the same system as the San Francisco cable cars. Don’t challenge yourself to walk up this hill unless you’re in good shape—it’s one of the steepest roadways in Britain.
Two-thirds of the way up, you come to a marvel: Great Orme’s Bronze-Age copper mine. Only in 1987, when the area was about to be paved over for a parking lot, did archaeologists discover that there was a labyrinth of tunnels, at nine different depths, bearing witness to large-scale ancient mining at the site. Radiocarbon dating established that the mines had been active about 1500 B.C.
Snowdon—The Highest Mountain in Wales
From Llandudno, drive about 20 miles inland to Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales. It is just over 3,500 feet high, and can be climbed in three or four hours. According to legend, the pile of rocks on its summit is the burial place of a fearsome giant named Rhitta, who tried to kill King Arthur, failed, and paid the ultimate price.
The good thing about the Snowdon Mountain Railway is that it’s wonderful, like all steam trains. It gives people who would never otherwise get to the summit a chance to do so, where they can admire the superb views. Hikers and climbers sometimes grumble about it, even today, but it’s now a venerable part of Welsh tradition. Besides, there are plenty of areas on Snowdon where ordinary visitors never stray, such as the strenuous rock climbs on which Edmund Hillary practiced before his first ascent of Mt. Everest in 1953.
North Wales is honeycombed with narrow-gauge railways. Most began life as commercial railways, linking stone quarries with the main lines or with ports from which stone could be shipped abroad. Two superb examples of quarry lines are the Talyllyn Railway and the Ffestiniog, which have long since converted from carrying rocks to carrying visitors.
The Ffestiniog Railway recently charged up my spiritual battery. Starting in Porthmadog amid the distinctive smell of burning coal, our train rolled across “the Cob,” a harbor-front wall, then chugged up into the mountains of Snowdonia National Park. The train’s destination, Blaenau Ffestiniog, is a grim, no-nonsense slate-quarry town surrounded by mountains and spoil tips, but the proud maroon engine cheered it upon arrival.
I encourage you to visit the National Slate Museum in the town of Llanberis. It stands on a flat patch at the bottom of a steep mountain slope, and you can see that in its years as a working quarry, its quarrymen were steadily dismantling the mountain itself. Slate from this quarry, Dinorwic, was eventually exported all over the continent. Three thousand men labored at the quarry in 1900.
At the museum, you’ll see the workshops and blacksmith’s forges where all the quarry equipment was maintained and repaired.
The Island of Anglesey and Beyond
From Llanberis, go a few miles west, to the coast. A narrow passage of water, the Menai Strait, separates the mainland from the island of Anglesey. Here stand two more of the famous castles I mentioned earlier.
On the mainland side is Caernarfon Castle. It’s spectacular, even bigger than Conwy, and in better repair because of almost continuous habitation. By tradition, it is the site of the investiture of the Prince of Wales, the male heir to the British throne.
On the Anglesey side of the Menai Strait, a little further northwest, stands Beaumaris Castle. Beaumaris means “the beautiful marsh” in Norman French. Its walls are so thick that there’s a warren of staircases and passages inside them, which are fun to explore.
The first bridge across the Menai Strait was also the world’s first full-size suspension bridge. I mentioned Telford’s little masterpiece at Conwy. Here is his big masterpiece. He designed and built it between 1819 and 1826 and it’s still in use today, carrying a heavy load of traffic in both directions on a busy road.
Across Anglesey Island from Beaumaris is Holyhead, the most northwesterly town in Wales, and the ferry port for Ireland. Just beyond the town, the land rises into high moorland that breaks off in dramatic sea cliffs. The area is honeycombed with the remains of ancient habitations.
South Stack Lighthouse stands on an island just offshore. It’s a lighthouse worthy of the best adventure stories, because to get to it you have to climb down 410 steep steps, zig-zagging down the cliffside, then cross a girder bridge that spans a high chasm where ocean waves crash against the rocks.
Honoring David Lloyd George
Heading south from Anglesey Island, drive across to the home of David Lloyd George, the only British prime-minister to come from Wales. The house where Lloyd George grew up is a modest little place, but is open to visitors.
During World War I, Lloyd George was Minister of Munitions, charged with increasing production. He showed his superiority to his boss, Asquith, by brilliant improvisation to achieve it. An intra-party coup in 1916 ousted the easy-going Asquith, leaving Lloyd George as prime minister.
Visiting Harlech Castle
Heading south from Llanystumdwy, you come upon Harlech Castle. It was built on a great rock outcrop beside the sea, but now stands nearly a mile inland because the coast has been building up in this part of Britain. It, too, was built in the 1280s and was fought over during Edward I’s wars in the 1290s. It was also the very last place in Britain to be held by royalists against the forces of Parliament during the Civil Wars of the 1640s. Restored and stabilized in the 20th century, it now welcomes visitors.