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North Wales: Harlech, Snowdonia, Conwy

North Wales: Harlech, Snowdonia, Conwy

11.07.2014 – 14.07.2014

My North Wales jaunt started off in England, in Shrewsbury, where I dropped Kate off for a train. She had a wedding to go to before coming back – so I had a week on my own to knock the north off!

Having such a short time limit it was a shame to spend my first night in a camp site – but camp site it must be due to the whole overflowing toilet situation. So I headed back in to Montgomery and what turned out to be an enormous static caravan park. The chap put me in this lovely spot next to the river – but I spent the whole time tapping away on the laptop anyway, and I was miles from the miniscule toilet block. The place was packed, but completely empty. Every pitch was a season pitch, and since it was a week day there was not a soul around – really rather creepy!

My ghost town right on the river.
In the morning I headed east and up a winding valley to the Pistyll Rhaedr waterfall. It was such a dead-end, isolated area I was surprised to see so many cars out there – turns out there was a wedding going on. So I climbed to the top of the waterfall, a 240 foot drop it is the highest in Wales. Up there, health and safety be damned – no fences. You (and countless others) can just wander to the edge of the cliff. Once I clambered back down the wedding party had wrapped up the ceremony and were rocking out the folk music in the tearooms.  

From the top of Pistyll Rhaedr
The falls

Harlech Castle on the east coast sounded interesting, so I took the more interesting mountain passes to get there eventually. Passing through Llangynog was a treat, as the hills of these isles gradually grew into something resembling mountains and I travelled up a mountain valley. You don’t know how much you miss mountains until you see them again, and marvel!

The lovely roads of Wales

I arrived in the charming town of Y Bala, in the Snowdonia National Park. I drove around the Llyn Tegid (a lake) and then went to visit the visitor centre.

Llyn Tegid

Arriving at the visitor centre, I found a very flash modern building, all circular and slopes and that – completely overgrown. It was like a modern derelict, really rather fascinating! I did some Googling and BBC news told me the locals were well-pissed that so much money had been pissed in to something that closed five years after opening. I thought it’d be  fun and novel spot to park for the night, so I did.

Heading out in the morning, the laybys by the nearby lake Llyn Celyn were just stunning. The lake was as glass. A derelict visitor centre carpark didn’t hold a candle – oh well, can’t win all the spots!

Llyn Celyn

I took the most windy, valley-like A roads I could find, which saw me past Llan Ffestiniog and more wonderful mountain passes to the charming seaside village of Harlech. Harlech Castle was the draw – it had seen a lot of action with three sieges over 350 years. Fascinating place. It was originally surrounded on three sides by the sea, but in the last 700 years the sea has withdrawn and the defending seafront walkway (which kept the castle fed through the lengthy sieges) now awkwardly leads down to a bunch of caravan parks and sports fields. Never-the-less you can walk the 40ft castle walls all the way around, and the view from one of the main towers is spectacular.

Harlech Castle
The view – that was all sea when the castle was built
The keep
I’d done some weather homework and decided to tackle Mt Snowdon on the Sunday, since the weather was a bit balls on Saturday. So with some time to spare I jumped north up the A4085 to Caernarfon to pick up some food and that.
Heading up this neat windy road, I had my first scrape with a rock wall when I came across a tour bus and a roadworks sign all at once. The bus wasn’t going to go back, and my mirror wasn’t close to scraping the wall – so I inched by and then heard the squeal as the bumper and bits of the right of Dorothy scraped along the wall. I was not that happy about it, but it was bound to happen eventually and only cosmetic damage done.


I also had another fun driving incident on this trip, with an old woman in a new Golf. I had just driven maybe 300 metres down a single-lane, no passing places bit – and then she came around a corner. I could kindof see there was heaps of room just behind her, but she refused to back. So I started backing and eventually made it to a tiny passing place, way too small for both me and the opposing Golf. Then a guy came up behind me, and we both did a backward shuffle for a while before I decided this was just bonkers. There was no-where behind us where both me and the dude behind could get out of the way of this lady. So I edged forward, and the old woman was forced to attempt backing.

All she had to do was go directly backward. First thing she did was turn her wheel sharp and nose in to the bank, then the other bank, and slowly but surely she dodgemed back to this ridiculous spot. Glaring, I passed her by, just to see the biggest bloody passing place in the world right behind her! Gosh the locals must find it a right pain in the ass.
After stocking up on food I headed up to Penrhyn Castle. Build by Lord Penrhyn and his successors, Victorian magnates of the sugar and slate industries, the place is obscenely grandiose. Grotesquely decadent I have jotted in my notebook! 300 rooms, it’s just ridiculous. In the former stables they had a wee train museum which was cool also.

Penrhyn Castle

This cabinet would be cool in the pewl room.
Some of the extreme craftpersonship in the grand staircase.
For the evening I headed to a layby on the shores of lake something, south of Llanberis. The lake is part of the Dinorwig powerstation, and I noticed the lake was significantly lower when I woke in the morning! The power station pumps water out of the lake in the evening when there’s little power demand and stores it in a huge reservoir in the mountain. Then when the early-evening demand for electricity comes on, they release all the water through massive turbines and back in to the lake to meet the power demand. Cool! Kate and I had played with a wee hands-on demo of this exact idea in the Centre for Alternative Technology so it was cool to see it in motion.
In the morning I headed up Mt Snowdon. The low cloud was supposed to clear by midday, and I figured it’d be OK by 11ish, and the track would be more pleasant earlier rather than later! It took two hours climbing the well-trodden path to the Summit, stopping to watch the rack and pillon railway drag its way up beside me. A few runners powered passed, and there was litter everywhere – a litter disappointing. By the time I got to the top the 100 other people and I were windblown and drenched, with no view whatsoever. But! Snowdon! I did it! A quick photo on the summit and a power-walk down the hill saw my knees in a state but very much appreciative of the hot soup, change of clothes and cup of tea in Dorothy.

The start of the Llanberis path, Mt Snowdon. + Welsh sheep. 
The Snowdon mountain railway pootling up.
It turned from a pleasure to something to endure, but I’ve done it now!
After I had refreshed a little, I headed to the nearby Dolbadarn Castle. Just a tower between the lakes, it was a 12th century fort to defend the mountain pass. Though there is little to see the scenery is quite something, a romantic spot!

Dolbadarn Castle tower
Just around the corner was the National Slate Museum. Even the name bored me so I wasn’t going to go, but I overheard someone saying it was great. I was glad I did go in the end! Built in the old Penhryn Quarry workshops, the place still runs the enormous waterwheel which powered all the belt-driven machinery that maintained all the tools and infrastructure of the Victorian quarry. This was the slate quarry that Lord Penrhyn got loaded from which allowed him to build the obscene castle mentioned earlier in this post!
Top bits of the slate museum were the working 80ft waterwheel and all the old machine tools, wooden foundry templates and the belts and connections all leading back to that one mighty axle on the waterwheel. The human side was great too – a fantastic photo and story gallery which explained some of the friction between workers and owners, and a retired slate shaper chap who came in to do a slate shaping demonstration. Part of our viewing group were some young Welsh teenagers, and he gave them heaps in Welsh, with them replying in turn. It was nice to see the language being used and I could see where the cheeky Welsh get it from!

Old blacksmithing tools
Slate shaping demo
My knees were not enthusiastic but I dragged them from the museum into the neighbouring quarry hills – part of the Padarn Country Park. You are able to explore up there, and there’s a zig-zag path that leads up to the old Anglesea barracks, 1860 or so. So I went up there, seeing amazing views and lots of old Victorian quarry sheds and infrastructure – and then found the barracks. It was very isolated, wild and just super bloody cool. The views of the valley were stunning from up there too.

Views from the zig-zag quarry path
The relics of the Anglesea barracks, above the quarry in the Padarn Country Park. So cool!

On my way out of Snowdonia National Park I stopped for some gorgeous views of the now-clear mountains – it was a special moment!

The sweet mountain pass roads out of Snowdonia.

On my way out I had a look at the Swallow falls. These were pretty shit really, and I had to pay £1.50 for the privilege so I wasn’t that impressed. What was fun was the family ahead of me. Inserting £1.50 into the turnstile, the dad and teenage son crammed in together and penquin-stepped their way through the stile – only to have the elderly kiosk attendant lay into them about being caught on CCTV. Turns out that family had seen me climbing down Snowdon as they’d been climbing up the previous day – EXCITING TIMES.
Swallow Falls – meh.
Heading to the mighty dual carriageway of the A55 ‘North Wales Expressway’, I popped in to Bodnant Gardens. These are touted as some of the finest in the land – and they were okay, sure, but my knees were screaming and I just wasn’t in the zone for lovely gardens. The coach loads of crones arriving every minute also made me feel like quite the old fart!
Bodnant Gardens
The Rough Guide had suggested the only good place to visit in North Wales is Conwy, with the rest of the coast just being miles and miles of caravan parks interspersed with gaudy rides and carnival shit.  I visited Conwy Castle and found it surprisingly intact, donned with six towers and additional higher towers on four of those. Really interesting to prowl around.

The castle-themed 1820’s suspension bridge and slightly later rail bridge – ‘castle themed’ so as to not spoil the castle view at Conwy!
A panorama from one of Conwy Castle’s many towers
I snapped a pic of the ‘smallest house in Britain’ and had a look-in – not much smaller than the inside of the van, I wasn’t horrified at all! Nearby was Aberconwy house, a 12 century house on Conwy’s main street. I enjoyed the angles and creaks in the floor, the woodwork of craftsmen long-gone and the tales of its various uses throughout the centuries.

The smallest house – pretty pokey.
Aberconwy House and the main street looking up to the castle – Conwy.

I then got on the slower coastal route out of Wales and saw the kilometres of caravan and theme parks for myself – all flashing light arcades and that. Not my cup of tea these days! So it was with a bit of a stinker final glimpse of Wales that I departed back to England (without even noticing the boundary) and picked Kate up for our continuing journey north.

Thoroughly enjoyed Wales! So much to see and do, and such different regional feelings within such a small space. Felt a bit like home with the open space, the sheep and the varied and empty landscapes. Top stuff!

Larry's a 30-something chap interested in travel, being a dork and changing the world via less boring training.

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