Posted 4th Feb 2016
Soaring mountains, historic mines, a proud Welsh heritage and dramatic coast and countryside all lay in wait in Snowdonia, the adventure capital of Wales
On the west coast of Britain a place peppered with diverse landscapes of spectacular coastline and dramatic countryside awaits discovery, beckoning those with a thirst for adventure and thrills. With nine mountain ranges hugged by steep river gorges, waterfalls and lush green valleys, the Snowdonia National Park is a playground for adventure, punctuated by the park’s highest peak, Snowdon, and stretching some 823 square miles, with a clutch of World Heritage Sites just a stone’s throw from its borders.
The largest and oldest national park in Wales, Eryri, as it’s known in Welsh, is the country’s undisputed activity capital yet is internationally renowned for its geology, its rich history illustrated through Stone Age burial chambers, Celtic shrines, medieval fortresses and slate quarries hidden amongst the countryside, and a proud Welsh culture with over 50 per cent of its inhabitants speaking in the native Welsh tongue.
Though easily accessible by road, the best way to travel to North Wales is by train, for no other reason than it’s simply the most beautiful route, with direct trains out of London taking a little over three hours. Heading to Bangor by train, take in the stunning scenery from the moment you cross the Welsh border, enjoying spectacular seascapes and an up close encounter with the historic Conwy Castle, later arriving in the university city of Bangor. Before delving into the National Park itself, head further along the coastline to Oriel Plas Glyn-y-Weddw in Gwynedd on the southern coast of the Llyn Peninsula, where you’ll discover a unique art gallery housed in an ornate Gothic mansion. The oldest art gallery in Wales, the Grade II listed dower house complete with vaulted hammer-beam roof and Jacobean staircase was built around 1856 for Lady Elizabeth Love Jones-Parry of the Madryn Estate, and is a prime example of a Victorian Gothic mansion. Purpose built to hold the widow’s own art collection, Plas Glyn-y-Weddw has a long association with art, today housing 10 airy gallery spaces where a programme of exhibitions are staged along with workshops throughout the year. The free to enter gallery also boasts its own delightful tearoom, craft shop and amphitheatre outside, where lectures and concerts are regularly held against the backdrop of the Winllan Woodland criss-crossed with a network of paths, from circular walks including part of the Wales Coastal Path to walkways leading down to a nearby beach.
Sticking to the coast for now, no visit to North Wales is complete without a stop at the stunning Italianate village of Portmeirion, a hidden paradise also found in Gwynedd. A work of art in itself, the dream-like village is situated on its own private peninsula overlooking the Traeth Bach tidal estuary, and is surrounded by 70 acres of sub-tropical forest. Acquired by eccentric architect Clough Williams-Ellis in 1925, it was once a ‘neglected wilderness’ that Clough envisioned turning into a romantic coastal resort, which he went on to achieve. Today the village is a magical environment of lakes, lush lawns, sparkling fountains, temples and pastel-coloured buildings intertwined with acres of woodland gardens and sandy beaches. Once the setting for the cult Sixties television show, The Prisoner, the village is now open for all to explore for a small entry fee that includes a buggy ride, forest train and fascinating guided tour, whilst holidaymakers can opt to stay in one of its many cottages or in its grand Gwesty Portmeirion Hotel.
As you wander into the village along the tree lined drive, stepping to the tune of a tinkling mandolin playing softly in the distance, pass through the gate house where you’ll notice an impressive pink façade as you go through, but turn back and you’ll notice the other side is a different colour and style completely – one of the many illusions Clough created throughout the whimsical village. Carrying on through a second archway spare a thought for its creator who wanted visitors to enter the village in this enclosed manner, so that when they finally emerged in Battery Square, the sense of space and colour would seem all the more intense. And it does. Tropical gardens, impressive statues and a blaze of colour will greet you amongst the winding streets lined with pottery and craft shops, quaint retailers, a divine gelato parlour and a myriad of cafés and restaurants, culminating at the grand hotel on the seafront at the very bottom of the village. With glittering pools, swaying palm trees and breathtaking beach views, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve been immersed in the Mediterranean as Portmeirion transports its visitors to another place you won’t be in a hurry to leave. Be sure to take the forest train through the enchanting woodland while you visit, where a gazebo offering the best views of Portmeirion, perfect for a picture, awaits, as well as one of the most beautiful scenes in the whole village, a Chinese bridge and pagoda set over a large lake surrounded by Japanese Acers perfectly reflected in the water.
The Town Hall, also known as Hercules Hall, is also well worth visiting to learn a little more about Clough – notice the crown on top of the building is made from an upturned cauldron, done so as Clough hated anything to go to waste. The Arts and Crafts-style hall was designed to house a Jacobean ceiling, panelling and mullioned windows salvaged from Emral in Flintshire before it was demolished, one of the many ways Clough liked to recycle. There is plenty more to discover in this village of curiosities, so be sure to allow a whole day to fully enjoy it, making time to grab a delicious ice cream before walking along the seafront to the old ferryman’s cottage where exotic monkey puzzles, pines, cherry laurels and rhododendrons line the pathway along the sandy escarpment.
After a day exploring Portmeirion why not make dinner extra special and dine at the estate’s Castell Deudraeth just a short walk uphill from the village? Starting life as an 18th-century cottage, later enlarged to the impressive castellated mansion we see today, Castell Deudraeth offers an elegant brasserie set in its orangery flooded by candlelight each evening. Enjoy a tipple next to the warmth of the huge stone fireplace in the hallway as you arrive, before taking a seat to enjoy views of a spectacular sunset over the village as you tuck into the likes of peppered mackerel mousse with horseradish and cucumber, a trio of local fish with leeks and a shellfish broth, or Môn Las cheese, pickled apple and walnut with a herb dressing to start, followed by hearty mains of braised Welsh lamb, local Welsh rib-eye of beef, wild mushroom and celeriac pithiver, or Welsh mussels in a white wine cream sauce with toasted sourdough. You’ll want to save room for pudding too, with scrumptious dishes of praline tiramisu, vanilla rice pudding with spiced plums, or passion fruit torte with a mango curd and coconut ice cream to tickle your taste buds.
Less than three miles away the smoke plumes of a steam train can be seen at the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways in Porthmadog where our first encounter with the Snowdonia National Park awaits. Running two railway lines stretching for 40 miles through the heart of Snowdonia, the Welsh Highland Railway runs from the historic Royal borough of Caernarfon, coast to coast across the foothills of Snowdon and on to the harbour town of Porthmadog, whilst the 150-year-old Ffestiniog Railway, once used for slate trains hauled by horses, runs deeper into the National Park from Porthmadog to the historic mining town of Blaenau Ffestiniog, where we head next. Stepping back in time aboard a Ffestiniog Railway steam train in first or third class, get ready to embark on a journey inland crossing the stunning Cob causeway before climbing over 700 feet up into the mountains as the magnificent panorama of Snowdonia unfurls, with Snowdon, Cnicht and Moelwyn Bach just some of the sights against the skyline. Snowdon is the park’s namesake peak standing at an impressive 3,560 feet and is the highest point in Wales and England. Designated a National Nature Reserve for its rare flora and fauna, the summit of Snowdon can be reached by a number of paths or via the Snowdon Mountain Railway, though the Llanberis Path is thought to be one of the best ways to reach the top as it offers fantastic views over the Menai Strait towards Anglesey and is the easiest to walk in mild weather, ideal for leisurely ramblers.
As you steam through the Vale of Ffestiniog aboard the locomotive, passing ancient woodland, streams and waterfalls all lit up by a blanket of bluebells at this time of year, you will soon reach Tan y Bwlch station at the halfway point. Disembark here and head a pleasant mile and a half walk down to Plas Tan y Bwlch, the Snowdonia National Park Centre, passing the beautiful water of Llyn Mair as you go. Arriving at the striking Plas Tan y Bwlch set on the northern slope of the Maentwrog Valley, head first for the Dwyryd Tea Room to catch your breath over a cup of tea and a scrumptious homemade cake. Overlooking the spectacular gardens and valley nestled in dramatic mountain scenery, be sure to grab a map for a self-guided tour of the grounds and Victorian garden once you’ve finished. Covering 13 acres, the garden hosts a magnificent collection of rhododendrons – some thought to be close to 200 years old – and azaleas not to be missed in spring, whilst wildlife including herons and even ospreys can be spotted. Much of the garden as it stands today was laid out for owner William Edward Oakeley by head gardener John Roberts in the 1880s, and features a number of fascinating plants from around the world, including a pocket-handkerchief tree which come spring is dripping with creamy white paper-thin bracts and is well worth finding for a picture. Sadly battered by a succession of storms in 2013 and 2014, the gardens are currently undergoing a fascinating restoration project to repair and build upon the extensive damaged caused, so be sure to pop back on your next visit to see what’s changed. Standing above the lush gardens is a dramatic Victorian Gothic mansion once home to wealthy slate quarry owner’s, the Oakeley family. Built at the beginning of the 17th Century, Plas Tan y Bwlch was substantially enlarged by the Oakeley family in the 19th Century and today houses the Snowdonia National Park Authority Centre, where a range of residential and day courses covering everything from environment and countryside to craft and history are on offer. On certain days rooms on the ground floor may be open for exploration whilst the centre also offers extensive accommodation for those taking part in a course or simply looking for a place to rest their head as they explore the area.
Read the rest of this feature on p.114 of the March/April 2016 issue...
Images courtesy of Paul Kay and Snowdon Mountain Railway