North Wales

Trip Start Oct 17, 2011
Trip End May 22, 2012

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Flag of United Kingdom  , Wales,
Thursday, February 23, 2012

Castles! And rolling, green countryside, beaches, seafront promenades, sheep, friendly people. Wales is a lovely country. The national flower is the daffodil, and they're now blooming everywhere. Although there are some advantages to visiting in March, it would probably be better in April and early May, when more of the flowers are blooming, the trees are in leaf and the small scenic railways and cliff-climbing funiculars and cable cars have opened for the season. I personally wouldn’t want to come to the seaside towns in summer, when they’re inundated with vacationers. But I do intend to return some year for the National and/or International Eisteddfod, which are in July and August – these are festivals and competitions of choirs and other arts.

Wales is officially bilingual, and Welsh is widely spoken among the populace, though apparently less in South Wales where the big cities are. It is taught in schools, and with all the signage and political administration being bilingual, the future of the Welsh language should be secure. It’s one of the oldest written languages in Europe and is a Celtic language most closely related to Breton (western France).

Welsh place names, at first, seem unintelligible. Things become easier once you learn that "w" is a vowel sounding like “oo” as in “you” and every letter is pronounced. The common “ll” appears to be pronounced “tl” in some regions and “chl” in others – the “ch” always being pronounced like that in the Scottish “loch.” “Dd” is pronounced “th” as in “the.” With a few basics, you can then make sense of names like Cwmystwyth, Betws-y-Coed and even those astonishingly long names Wales is famous for. It’s helpful to know that “aber” means estuary, “llan” means church/parish, “mawr” means great; and it’s only good manners to learn a few phrases like thank you, good morning, etc.

Spoken Welsh sounds like something Tolkien invented for Middle Earth, and I wonder if Welsh names such as Cader Idris and Elidir Fawr inspired those in Lord of the Rings.

Wales could be called the castle capital of the world. About 100 are still standing out of perhaps 400. Edward I of England conquered Wales in 1282, named his son and successor the Prince of Wales, and over the next 20 years built and consolidated an Iron Ring of castles. Some of the greatest are in North Wales: Caernarfon, Conwy, Harlech, Beaumaris and Criccieth.

Feb. 23-Mar. 5, 2012, Llandudno:
I began my Wales experience near Conwy, in Llandudno, which is sandwiched between two bays and two small mountains, the larger being called the Great Orme (“orme” is a Viking word for serpent). The wide promenade with the sea on one side and a curving line of Victorian hotels on the other provides a very pleasant stroll. The long pier, the “queen of Welsh piers,” is fun to walk along and bustles with tourists during the holiday season.
I attended two concerts by male voice choirs, marking Wales's national holiday, St. David's Day. There is something wonderful about seeing a group of men singing together.

I rented a car for touring around Wales and went on several day trips while based in Llandudno: to Conwy to visit its castle and walled town, over the bridge to the Isle of Anglesey and Beaumaris Castle, to Betys-y-Coed and Bodnant Garden, to Colwyn Bay for the St. David’s Day parade of schoolchildren and to Rhuddlan Castle, St. Asaph and Bodelwyddan Castle.

I am not tired of castles yet. I’ve visited seven so far, and they’re all different: in different stages of ruin or restoration, with various designs and in different settings – hilltops, connected to town walls, surrounded by a moat, etc.

Mar. 5-8, Llanberis:
Two of the Walking Women guides I met over Christmas and New Year’s live in the village of Llanberis, beside a lake at the edge of Snowdonia National Park. (Snowdon is the highest mountain in Wales and England, at 3,560 feet.) After a few days here I agreed with my host that she lives in heaven. If you enjoy the outdoors, you would love Snowdonia.

I had a lovely long walk around Pardarn Lake, with many photo ops and a café stop for tea and scone.

Just outside town on a small hill stands a single tower and some stone walls, all that remains of Dolbadarn Castle. Like the llamas at Machu Picchu, sheep keep the grass trimmed.

This is slate country, and although the Welsh industry has dwindled to a single quarry, in its heyday (1850-1910) the Dinorwig quarry near Llanberis was the second largest. When Prince Charles was invested as Prince of Wales in 1969, it was at Caernarfon Castle on a dais of Dinorwig slate. The Queen had a slate throne as well. I found the National Slate Museum in Llanberis very interesting, especially the slate-splitting demonstration.

I toured underground at Dinorwig power station, built in 1974 inside Elidir Mawr, now called Electric Mountain. It operates by dropping water from a high-altitude reservoir lake when power is needed and pumping it back up during the night. It is a fast-response facility, with the amazing capacity to provide power within 16 seconds of start-up, but it can carry on for only six hours before the water runs out. Its power is used for times of immediate need, such as when millions of kettles around the nation are set to boil during TV commercials and at the end of an episode of Coronation Street!

I spent an afternoon in Caernarfon (ka-NAR-von) wandering through its castle and around its town walls. Great views.

Mar. 8-10, Llanbedr:
On the way to Llanbedr I stopped at Portmeirion, an odd but interesting development designed in Italian style by a rich architect, who began work in 1925 and continued for the next 50 years.  It gained fame as the site of the 1960s TV series, The Prisoner. This early in the season, not much was blooming other than azaleas and a few of the rhododendrons, but I enjoyed two loop walks through woodland and along the seafront.

Next was Harlech Castle, up a very steep, narrow, winding road. Cool wind on top.

I did two self-guided walks from a series of excellent walking guidebooks. One, south of Llanbedr, took me across fields, beside sheep and lambs and past two stone burial chambers from the early 3rd and 4th centuries, in the portal dolmen style like those in Ireland (indicating a movement of early man across the Irish Sea). The other walk went from the hilltop town of Harlech, down to sea level, across sand dunes, along the sandy beach, through golf links and back up the steep hill to the castle. The views may have been better had it been sunny, but seeing the castle in the mist, under low cloud, was “atmospheric.”

Mar. 10-11: Dolgellau:
Just an afternoon and overnight in this small town, a maze of narrow streets. I enjoyed some of the rugby match on TV at a pub among the locals. Wales ended up winning over Italy.

Still heading south, now I’m in Aberystwyth. I’ll write later about South and mid-Wales.
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