WALES: THE GREAT OUT­DOORS

North Wales has emerged as an ad­ven­ture play­ground

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - Jeremy Seal

On Conwy’s es­tu­ary quay­side, vis­i­tors are shoe­horn­ing them­selves through the door of a tiny red-painted oneup one-down where a lo­cal fish­er­man, said to have mea­sured 1.95m, some­how made his home. I ini­tially take the Small­est House in Great Bri­tain — as the sign, also in Welsh, de­clares — for lit­tle more than a tourist trap, but af­ter a few days here I’ve got it. There could not be a more apt in­tro­duc­tion to a coun­try barely a quar­ter of the size of Tas­ma­nia; Wales may be teeny, but an aw­ful lot has been squeezed into it, es­pe­cially in the dra­matic and beau­ti­ful north.

This com­pact re­gion is as di­verse as it is dis­tinct, with sand beaches, fa­bled moun­tains such as Snow­don and Cader Idris, a rich in­dus­trial her­itage (its in­fra­struc­ture now imag­i­na­tively re­pur­posed for out­door ad­ven­tur­ing or leisurely trips on re­stored steam trains), and an es­pe­cially strong suit in his­toric ar­chi­tec­ture, start­ing with cas­tles. It’s said Wales has a greater den­sity of cas­tles than any­where else, and there’s none more beau­ti­fully sited than the 13th-cen­tury, UNESCO-listed ex­am­ple at Conwy, a grand war­ren of ram­parts, por­tals and tow­ers stand­ing in plain sight of our fish­er­man’s house.

A greater sur­prise is Conwy’s easy-to-ac­cess me­dieval walls, among the most com­plete in Europe, where the 20minute walk along the top pro­vides priv­i­leged views over the town’s slate roofs to the es­tu­ary. I also note, as the stroll has clearly piqued my ap­petite, that Conwy’s an­cient lanes are home to a newly flour­ish­ing foodie scene. Re­cent open­ings here in­clude Parisella’s, an award-win­ning ice cream par­lour, and Bar­avelli’s ar­ti­san choco­late shop. Mark Bar­avelli, whose fa­ther left Italy to work in the Bri­tish food in­dus­try, has been mak­ing quite a splash with his bean-to-bar choco­late and has just launched a be­spoke Easter egg col­lec­tion, with designs by mu­ral­ist of the mo­ment, Camille Walala, for Lon­don’s fa­bled Har­rods de­part­ment store.

The town is also famed for its es­tu­ary mus­sels, which lo­cals col­lect from quay­side Conwy Mus­sels, leav­ing pay­ment in the hon­esty box. Th­ese are har­vested by tra­di­tional rake to de­liver size, flavour and, in my case, even pearls. A pair, small but per­fectly formed, turn up in the ex­cel­lent bowl of mus­sels I lunch on at the town’s Cas­tle Ho­tel, the his­toric hostelry where Char­lotte Bronte spent her hon­ey­moon and where the likes of Sa­muel John­son and Wil­liam Wordsworth also stayed.

But at Plas Mawr, Bri­tain’s finest sur­viv­ing El­iz­a­bethan-era town­house, I dis­cover the English were not al­ways so wel­come in Conwy. His­tory buffs will drool over re­mark­able pe­riod-piece in­te­ri­ors re­plete with orig­i­nal 16th-cen­tury fur­nish­ings and fea­tures, not least the painted plas­ter­work, even if English vis­i­tors might quake at their coun­try­man’s sev­ered head, among the most­eye-catch­ing of the plas­ter mo­tifs.

The old en­mi­ties have soft­ened, of course, into a fer­vent pa­tri­o­tism, with de­vo­lu­tion help­ing to fos­ter the Welsh lan­guage and a proper pride in the em­blem­atic red dragon which, pop­u­lar leg­end has it, saw off the white English one. The Welsh tourism au­thor­i­ties have even com­mis­sioned a pro­gram of in­stal­la­tions of 4m red dragons, com­plete with flash­ing eyes and smok­ing nos­trils, which vis­i­tors could well en­counter at cas­tles and other ma­jor her­itage spots.

I leave Conwy for the short drive south to Blae­nau Ffes­tin­iog, fa­mously the Town that Roofed the World, where the aus­tere up­land heights are lit­tered with vast heaps of slate spoil. For sober­ing in­sights into the re­gion’s sig­na­ture in­dus­try, I visit Llech­wedd Slate Cav­erns, where slate is still ex­tracted for all man­ner of uses, in­clud­ing kitchen work sur­faces, house signs, head­stones, floors, bot­tle racks and plates. “Oh, it’s won­der­ful stuff,” says the cheery lady at Llech­wedd’s cafe, “and as good with high oven tem­per­a­tures as it is in the dish­washer.” De­spite cheap com­pe­ti­tion, the mine still sells roof slates, es­pe­cially for sig­nif­i­cant struc­tures; it has even re­ceived large or­ders from Aus­tralia for reroof­ing his­toric build­ings af­ter vi­o­lent hail­storms.

There’s noth­ing misty-eyed, how­ever, about guide Val who re­veals that most 19th-cen­tury slate work­ers suc­cumbed from sil­i­co­sis be­fore their 40th birth­day. “Even to­day,’” she says, “mine staff re­mem­ber grand­fa­thers whose hands were pocked with the gun­pow­der.” Mov­ingly, she de­scribes the dis­carded slate heaps — barely a tenth of the slate mined was us­able — not as dis­fig­ur­ing the scenery but as a trib­ute to “our men”.

The present gen­er­a­tion at Llech­wedd are lucky, then, that in re­cent years the mine has had less to do with slate and more with the re­gion’s in­dus­try of the mo­ment, which is ac­tiv­ity ad­ven­tur­ing. High-speed zip wires criss­cross the hills here while the vast slate cav­erns, which gen­er­a­tions of min­ers spent 45 years hol­low­ing out, now house climb­ing and ob­sta­cle cour­ses and the world’s first un­der­ground tram­po­line cen­tre, a multi-lay­ered net­work of nets and slides called Bounce Be­low. It’s a re­minder of the suc­cess the wider re­gion has had in re­brand­ing it­self as an ad­ven­ture play­ground, with high oc­tane moun­tain-bike tracks, off-road truck ad­ven­tures, for­est scram­bles, and even an in­land surf cen­tre, known as Surf Snow­do­nia, con­jured out of an old alu­minium fac­tory.

Not that the re­gion is with­out form when it comes to

the great out­doors; af­ter all, New Zealan­der Ed­mund Hil­lary, the first man to sum­mit Ever­est, pre­pared for the his­toric climb on the cliffs and crags of Snow­don, bas­ing him­self at the leg­endary Pen-Y-Gwryd Ho­tel. The ceil­ings are signed by Hil­lary and other alpine lu­mi­nar­ies, brass plaques com­mem­o­rate old climbers’ his­toric re­unions and res­o­nant arte­facts on dis­play in the bar in­clude chunks of the Ever­est sum­mit. The ho­tel, as wel­com­ing to walk­ers as it is to hard-core moun­taineers, is now un­der the man­age­ment of the Pul­ley brothers who grew up here. “When I was a child,” a proud Nick Pul­ley re­calls, “I used to get piggy-back rides from Sherpa Ten­z­ing.”

Not that you need nec­es­sar­ily slog up Snow­don in Hil­lary’s foot­steps; trains have been de­liv­er­ing pas­sen­gers to the 1085m sum­mit in leisurely style since the 19th cen­tury. It’s just one of sev­eral nar­row-gauge steam trains in the re­gion; I opt for the Ffes­tin­iog Rail­way, orig­i­nally built to carry slate, but which now de­liv­ers day pas­sen­gers from Blae­nau to the pic­turesque port of Porth­madog. The 75-minute descent is a scenic joy, not least be­cause my first-class ticket gives me ac­cess to the gleam­ing ob­ser­va­tion Pull­man car­riage, newly built at the rail­way’s own lo­cal works. At jour­ney’s end, I catch sight of Porth­madog’s Bal­last Is­land, where sail ships re­turn­ing with­out car­goes dumped their spoil bal­lasts to make space for the next load of slate; the is­land is said to be rich in ex­otic rocks and plants, a geo-botan­i­cal record, if you will, of the dis­tant ports where Porth­madog’s slate ships once sailed.

Other worlds, equally ex­otic, are evoked around the next corner at the unique ar­chi­tec­tural fan­tasy that is Port­meirion. Bought as a wa­ter­side plot in 1926, this is ar­chi­tect Clough Wil­liams-El­lis’s ec­cen­tric but en­chant­ing homage to Ital­ianate style, no­tably to Lig­uria’s Portofino. It’s a col­lec­tion of about 50 brightly painted cot­tages, gate­houses, tow­ers, halls and vil­las in­cor­po­rat­ing re­claimed porches, fire­places, iron de­tails, Re­gency-era colon­nades and even bits of Ger­man U-boat or a huge plas­ter ceil­ing from a lo­cal man­sion slated for de­mo­li­tion. The set­ting for the cult 1960s TV show Port­meirion re­mains a place apart. An overnight stay in the beau­ti­fully ap­pointed build­ings that fringe the cen­tral pi­azza or in the wa­ter­side ho­tel, feels like a fit­ting way to cel­e­brate an area that’s at once a tri­umph of the imag­i­na­tion as well as a place of re­mark­able nat­u­ral beauty.

And you’ll be much more com­fort­able than that Conwy fish­er­man.

Conwy Cas­tle, above; Parisella’s ice cream par­lour, left; Plas Mawr town­house, right; Easter eggs from Bar­avelli’s ar­ti­san choco­late shop, be­low

From above left, Pen-y-Gwryd Ho­tel in Snow­do­nia; Quay House, Conwy, the small­est house in Bri­tain; arch­way in the vil­lage of Port­meirion

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