WALES: THE GREAT OUTDOORS
North Wales has emerged as an adventure playground
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