WALES: Wandering North WalesA weekend wandering the moorland's of Snowdonia, the backstreets in Anglesey, and the churches and castles of North Wales where the Kings of England tried to impose their authority. Finally I landed in Portmeirion - a one-off architecturally inspired wonder that blends an Italianate village with some Welsh whimsical flavour.
AUTHOR & PHOTOGRAPHER: ©Shane Boocock 2010
On a day of blustery onshore winds that raised whitecaps across the Menai Strait, I arrived in Beaumaris, a town in Anglesey commanding spectacular views of Snowdonia in the distance. It was first settled when Edward I, better known as ‘Longshanks,’ began construction on his majestic castle here in 1295 in response to a Welsh uprising. It stands imposingly at the end of the town’s main street, adjacent to the once ancient ferry crossing from the mainland to Anglesey.
Like many early castles, Beaumaris proved an extremely difficult impediment for raiders to conquer, because it was then a state-of-the-art instrument of warfare with concentric fortifications and moat that made it virtually impregnable to attacking forces – yet 30 years after it was started it still wasn’t complete. Thankfully today much of it is left standing, and it’s now a World Heritage site.
“A tavern chair is the throne of human felicity,” so said Dr. Samuel Johnson, (1709-84) the famous English diarist and lexicographer who once stayed overnight in Beaumaris, during his travels in Wales, at the low-ceilinged Ye Olde Bulls Head Inn, a 500 year old coaching stop and my home for the first night of my travels. This was also a selective haunt of Charles Dickens who mentioned the inn in one of his short stories “The Uncommercial Traveller.” The wooden-beamed bar probably hasn’t changed much since those days, when stagecoaches stopped here daily. Today the hotel provides award-winning food in one of two stylish restaurants.
The historic town is a big drawcard for tourists, not just because of its famous castle and waterfront location but because it oozes Welsh charm with narrow, character-worn streets, quaint shops and some traditional great old-style pubs that haven’t been modernised, left as they were originally built hundreds of years ago; ducking to get through doorways is definitely recommended.
Also worth visiting in town is St Mary & St. Nicholas Church that was built mostly in the early 14th century. Inside the church is an Alabaster Tomb dating from 1490 of William Bulkeley and his wife Elin: he was deputy constable of Beaumaris Castle. But the real interesting find here is a royal tomb located in the south porch and older than the church itself. This stone sarcophagus has the effigy of Princess Joan, natural daughter of King John of England, who was married to Llywelyn ap Lorwerth, Prince of North Wales. She died in 1237 and her remains placed in the coffin. Alas the friary looking after the remains come to a close and the coffin became for many years a horse watering trough before finally being rescued from such an indignity.
There is much of interest in the history-laden Beaumaris and Anglesey region. Penmon Priory, a site of great antiquity, is close by along with the tongue-twisting Llanfairpwllgwyngyll (my shortened version). The hotel is also a great location for touring this spectacular part of North Wales, especially as it is just a short drive over the Menai Bridge, to Snowdonia National Park.
The next day I choose a lovely drive from Caernarfon into Snowdonia National Park via the A4085 to the small village of Rhyd-Ddu where I found a sunny spot outside the Cwellyn Arms. Snowdonia, which has the evocative Welsh name of 'Eryri' meaning ' the place of the eagles', is famous for its ring of castles built by Edward I, including Beaumaris, Canernarfon, Conway and Harlech. It covers a vast 840 square miles of outstanding natural beauty, one of the world’s most hauntingly picturesque regions.
Off in the distance was the highest mountain in England or Wales – Mount Snowden, soaring to 3,560 feet (1,085m). Shrouded in legend, much like the peak itself is shrouded in cloud, Snowden is reputed to be the burial place of the giant ogre Rhita, vanquished by the famous King Arthur. This region is a hikers’ dream location as it affords a myriad assortment of hiking and walking trails and of course the chance to summit the mighty mountain itself. If hiking isn’t your thing you can always jump on Snowdonia’s narrow gauge train. Built in 1896, it is the only public rack and pinion railway in Britain which will transport you effortlessly to the summit’s new visitors’ centre.
From the impressive backdrop of Snowdonia it is then just a short drive south to Portmeirion – a one-off architecturally inspired wonder that blends an Italianate village with some Welsh whimsical flavour. This is what I would describe as a pastel lime-washed fantasy village, created and built by the architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis. Portmeirion stands on the edge of 70 acres of sub-tropical gardens, lakes and forest woodlands with a stunning view from the promontory of estuarial sands and sea and far off heather-laden hillsides.
It could be said that visiting here isn’t for everybody, yet 250,000 day visitors descend on this tucked-away spot every year to explore the odd, strange, mysterious, wild, wonderful and historical attributes the village offers. Work first started and continued from 1926 until 1939 in what was then described as “a neglected wilderness,” when most of the village’s distinctive buildings were completed. Stage two from 1954 until 1976 was more a case of filling in the gaps.
Tucked away in a maze of streets, lanes and alleyways are over 50 buildings of various styles and character with the likes of gate houses, a bell tower, an array of houses and cottages, gazebos, an arts and craft style town hall, a lighthouse, the Pantheon, a Gothic Pavilion to a piazza and the famous Bristol Colonnade c. 1760.
The village’s big claim to fame is the setting for the cult TV classic, The Prisoner, which starred Patrick McGoohan back in 1966. Other notable figures that also stayed at Portmeirion included Noel Coward who in 1940, having been bombed out of London wrote his comedic play Blithe Spirit here. Even Frank Lloyd Wright, the venerated architect dropped in to see what was then considered a flight of fantasy in the well-defined world of architectural designers.
Portmeirion offers a range of accommodation from beguiling suites based on many different themes such as the Mirror Room with gilt-framed mirrors throughout to peculiarly styled cottages that provided admirable self-catering options. I stayed overnight in the Salutaion Suite, once part of the original lodge and stable block c. 1858. However in 1966-67, Williams-Ellis adapted the right-hand gable in a style similar to a Dutch gable. The upstairs room was suitably decorated with comfy leather furniture, artefacts and antiques and a very contemporary en-suite bathroom.
On the waterfront you’ll find the original mansion of Aber Lâ, now called Y Gwesty – The Hotel. It was built around c. 1850 as a summer residence. When Williams-Ellis found the place in 1925 it was derelict and neglected and an overgrown wasteland. After renovations and within a year the original house opened as an unlicensed hotel. By 1930 he had added a new tower-like wing and a new curvilinear dining room. Today it houses a contemporary restaurant, beautiful antiques and modern guest bedrooms.
As more people escape to the countryside for short breaks and long weekends in the UK, this part of North Wales is worthy of consideration. Not only does it offer stunning scenery, coastal retreats and listed heritage buildings and castles, it is a region worth exploring further, with the added bonus of some magical Welsh charm and smiling hospitality.
Remember to buy the Great British Heritage Pass before you leave home as it is available through www.visitbritainshop.com/newzealand. With the Great British Heritage Pass you can visit them all – just buy an affordable one-off pass for either, 4, 7, 15 or 30 days and you will be granted entry to over 580 UK heritage properties. This is the turn-key to unlocking Britain’s best kept secrets.
VAT rises on Jan 1st 2011 from 17.5% to 20% so take this into account on all prices.
Beaumaris Town Council
Ye Olde Bulls Head Inn
Castle Street, Beaumaris
Isle of Anglesey LL58 8AP, Wales
T: +44 (0)124 881 0329
Gwynedd LL48 6ER
T: +44 (0)176 677 0000
Snowdon Mountain Railway
Llanberis, Gwynedd LL55 4TY, Wales
T: +44 (0)844 493 8120
Shane Boocock would like to thank Visit Britain for the ground arrangements, go to: www.visitbritain and Etihad Airways for their wonderful Pearl Business Class flat bed service from Sydney to Manchester via Abu Dhabi. Go to: www.etihadairways.com
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