Driving north through the heart of Wales afforded no shortage of breathtaking views and picturesque villages. As the rain started to fall in a thin curtain of mist, we stopped in the village of Beddgelert, named for the legendary faithful hound, Gelert. Nestled in a valley carved by two rivers, Glaslyn and Colwyn, Beddgelert’s charm is in its dark stone buildings and double-arched bridge that crosses the River Colwyn. With the mountains of Snowdonia looming in the distance and the Prince Llewelyn Hotel (and the adjoining pub) featuring prominently by the riverside, the view is unmistakably Welsh. If you must stop for a half somewhere to wait out the rain, there are worse places to do so.
The ancient village of Llanrwst, in northeast Wales, lies along the River Conwy and holds a notable place in medieval Welsh history, having once been seized by Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, a Welsh prince and hero in national lore. Now it remains popular among hikers and walkers, and its pretty little 16th century bridge, Pont Fawr, and the tearoom it leads to, Tu Hwnt I’r Bont, are beloved by photographers. The interior of Tu Hwnt I’r Bont is as delightful as its exterior, decorated with farm implements from a bygone era and warmed by a crackling fire.
Betws-Y-Coed is a haven for outdoorsmen. This becomes apparent if you stroll along Holyhead Road, the village’s main street, which leads you past outfitters and and inns teeming with tourists who look set for a day (or two) in the woods. As this was only a half day’s stop for us on our roadtrip, we didn’t have time to explore much of Snowdonia National Park, but it is easy to see why the town functions as a gateway to the park for many visitors. Like the previously mentioned villages, Betws-Y-Coed is split by a river running through it, crisscrossed by traditional stone bridges, with gorgeous waterfalls that seem to glow in sunlight.
Okay, Llangollen can hardly be called a village, as it’s rather more like a sizable town. In the shadow of the Berwyn Mountains, Llangollen traces its roots back to the 6th century, when the monk Saint Collen established a church along the River Dee. It is a picturesque place, with a lovely riverside walk into town, where you can board an old-fashioned steam train at the Llangollen Railway. (I immediately added this to my North Wales bucket list for next time.)
Nearby, the UNESCO World Heritage Site Pontcysyllte Aqueduct broaches a deep gorge, a impressive feat of engineering for the early 19th century. It was intended to be part of a wider project linking the River Severn to the Port of Liverpool but, as with so many other ambitious building projects, funds ran dry before it could be completed. You can walk across the aqueduct, which takes a little under an hour. Alternatively, as a special experience, you can book in with one of the companies operating boats that ferry people along Britain’s oldest and longest navigable aqueduct. I imagine the panorama view you get must be something very special.
Ruthin is unlikely to be on the casual tourist’s itinerary, as it is a small market village in northeast Wales. Nonetheless, it is worth a stop for those who happen to be passing through. Its half-timbered buildings are incredibly well-preserved; among them are the Old Court House (built in 1401) and the Nantclwyd y Dre (built in 1435), a merchant’s house now restored and open to the public. Even their Wetherspoon’s is historic.
Ruthin Castle, built by Llewelyn ap Gryffudd’s brother Dafydd, is now a luxury hotel and restaurant where guests can partake in a recreated medieval feast, observing customs of the day and dining on the same foods their 13th century counterparts would have enjoyed. (Since I discovered this opportunity, this has shot to the top of my North Wales bucket list.)
North Wales warrants a look by anyone who counts history or outdoor activities among their interests. Remote, wild, and proud of its Welsh roots, the region offers a multitude of discoveries for the adventurous traveller. Every time I go to Wales I feel like I shortchange the north, so it was wonderful to finally give it the love it deserves.