Is it any wonder people flock to North Wales in the autumn?
The region’s jewel is Snowdonia National Park, encompassing more than 800 square miles of rugged mountains, dense forests, and expanses of freshwater lakes and rivers.
At its heart, Snowdonia really is all about being outdoors; whether you’re looking for an easy stroll or a challenging climb, there are countless foot trails for every level of experience. Even a drive through Snowdonia affords spectacular views just alongside the road! To really get the most of it, though, consider spending a long weekend in North Wales and basing yourself out of one of Snowdonia’s charming and unmistakably Welsh villages: Beddgelert or Betws-y-Coed.
Beddgelert is known for being the resting place of the faithful hound Gelert, immortalized in folk tales. As the story goes, the 13th century Welsh warrior Llewellyn the Great had left his infant son at home under Gelert’s watch. When he returned, his baby was missing, the crib overturned, and he noticed blood about the dog’s mouth. Suspecting Gelert had killed his son, Llewellyn unsheathed his sword and plunged it into the dog’s heart in a fit of rage. It was only then that he heard his baby crying from beneath the overturned cradle; he slung it away to find his son unharmed and the body of the wolf Gelert had bravely fended off. In much grief, Llewellyn buried the dog and never smiled again. Visitors to Beddgelert (“Grave of Gelert” in Welsh) today can pay homage to the hound at a stone which marks his supposed resting place. It’s less romantic when you learn the stone was placed by an enterprising hotel manager to generate tourism in the 18th century. (Nowadays, it is generally considered that the town’s name actually relates to Kilart or Celert, an early Christian missionary. Beddgelert is thought to have had one of the oldest Christian communities in Wales, with one being established there in the 6th century.)
Sad stories aside, Beddgelert is a charming little village. Overlooked by the peak of Moel Hebog, it sits at the confluence of the rivers Glaslyn and Colwyn and is a popular point of departure for hikers, bikers, and daytrippers. It’s not uncommon, on a sunny day, to see people milling about the centre of town on the bridge Pont Bren. You’ll find many of them fortify themselves before their journey with Welsh rarebit; it’s the definition of comfort food as toasted bread with mustard and ale-spiked melted cheese on top. Find it at Caffi Colwyn, a riverside restaurant and cafe serving simple but well-done dishes. And for a warm beverage, head to the Real Coffee Stop at the Coach House, a tiny coffee shop that also happens to do wonderful home-baked goods. (They sell fast, though, so get there early for a slice of their chocolate walnut cake!)
The village is easily taken in on foot, and on a sunny day it’s no hardship to take a stroll along one of the riverside paths beneath the shade of leafy trees. Alternatively, The Church of St. Mary sits at the site of a 13th century Augustinian priory and is now a grassy open field and the perfect place for a picnic.
Only a few miles from Beddgelert, the Sygun Copper Mine offers an extremely unique experience in Snowdonia National Park. A former Victorian mine, it has been restored and now affords visitors the chance to see the work spaces and hear the stories of the miners who used to labour there.
Entrance is £10 -once you pay, grab the required hard-hat and head to the mine! The tour is entirely self-guided, so you can spend as much or as little time as you like. (Their website suggests 40 minutes.) Visitors follow a roped-off walkway through narrow tunnels and caverns, then climb a steep metal staircase to access higher areas of the mine. Take in stalactite and stalagmite formations, a copper ore seam containing trace precious metals, and structures and items that hint at the region’s industrial heritage.Emerge at the Victoria level, where you are treated to panoramic views of Snowdonia’s mountains. The little museum inside the mine’s visitor centre is also full of rare treasures, showcasing ancient coins and artefacts from antiquity (some found locally, others from more exotic locales) that hearken to the peoples who have lived in North Wales at various points in time.
Betws-Y-Coed is one of Snowdonia’s most popular points of interest. It looks like a village out of a fairytale, its buildings of locally-quarried dark stone surrounded by leaves in glowing hues of gold and rust in the fall.
Rising up along the banks of the confluence of the rivers Conwy, Llugw, and Lledr, the town is picture-perfect and features the highly photogenic Saint Mary’s Church and Pont-y-Pair bridge. (See this list for other historic bridges in and around Betws-y-Coed.) A stroll along one of the town’s main streets, Holyhead Road, offers boutique shopping options and several pubs and restaurants at which to slake your thirst and satiate your hunger. Many of these buildings date from the 19th century, when transportation transformed Betws-y-Coed. The village grew to become a major crossroads (also known as a primary destination in the United Kingdom) for several larger towns in the counties of Caernarfonshire and Denbighshire.
The heritage of the railroad lives on today, as Betws-y-Coed is still a stop on the Conwy Valley Railroad. Originally intended as a means to transit Welsh slate, the line is now a popular draw for tourists seeing North Wales by train. Enthusiasts can visit the Conwy Valley Railway Museum and take an eight-minute ride on their miniature train if they don’t have time for the real thing. Situated on the far side of the village green, the historic Betws-Y-Coed Railroad Station (still in use) also anchors several other retail and dining options; try the Bwyd I Fynd for much-raved-about griddled Welsh cakes.
It’s unsurprising that Betws-y-Coed is a hub for outdoor activities, but you don’t have to venture far from the village to appreciate the scenery that makes Snowdonia so awe-inspiring. Swallow Falls, Rhaeadr Ewynnol in Welsh, runs fresh and clear in a tumbling cascade through the woods, and is accessible a short walk from the A5.This water from the River Llugwy once generated electricity for the village of Betws-y-Coed; visitors paid a fee (today, it’s £2) which helped pay off the debt incurred by construction of electricity generation facilities. Once the debt was cleared, residents of the village enjoyed the lowest electricity rates in Wales until 1974, when the local government underwent restructuring. The falls, however, remain as magnificent as ever.
From Beddgelert to Betws-y-Coed and beyond, Snowdonia National Park showcases all the best of North Wales. These two much-beloved villages, full of history and charm, are the perfect base from which to take in its woods, mountains, and streams in all their autumnal glory.