North Wales

I spent last Saturday in North Wales. I took a train along the coast and stopped at several small towns in the area. Though the weather was quite pleasant, early March is definitely not the tourist season for North Wales. So what will you see in Wales in the off-season?

#1: The Countryside

North Wales has lots of open country – coastline with rocky beaches, miles and miles of sheep farms on rolling hills, marshy lakes, and low mountains. Inland, the hills are broken up into neat little pastures lined with ancient-looking stone walls, hedgerows, and rocky streams crossed with quaint wooden footbridges. It’s very beautiful, really. However, the whole place smelled like sheep manure.

I saw many towers in the distance, and assumed they were castles. But my map of historical sites only registered about half of them. Perhaps they are so common they don’t even count as castles?

#2: Strange and Unpronounceable Names

Welsh is a complicated language. It has Celtic roots, and does not mold itself well to our current alphabet.

It’s filled with strange double letters, most of which don’t sound anything like you’d think. The one below was my first stop, and it’s actually quite manageable. “Ff” actually makes an F-sound. Unlike “Ll”, which makes more of a hacking “lwhcthkwhl” sound, apparently.

#3: Very Small, Very Quiet Towns

This is the rail station in Blaenau Ffestiniog. In peak season, you can catch heritage steam trains from here and take some of the most lovely and fascinating rail trips in the UK. In the off-season, you can try to walk around town in the 20 minutes between when your train arrives and then leaves again, so that you don’t get stuck in town for 4 hours until the next train back to the mainline.

In Victorian times, Blaenau Ffestiniog was the heart of the slate mining area. Below its hills lie old slate mines, and the hills are absolutely covered with cast-off shards and chunks of slate. If there were no weight limits on airline baggage, and I was very strong, I could have picked up the makings of a lovely slate patio for free.

Everything in town is made of slate.

All slate, all the time.

#4: Faded Seaside Resorts

My guidebooks call these places “Faded Resort Towns”. I suppose “faded” could be the polite tour-booklet way of saying “abandoned and run-down”, but since it was very off-season, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say it means “past their glory days but still perfectly lovely”. This is Llandudno – a very Victorian resort town by the sea.

Jutting out beside the beach is the Great Orme – a huge limestone formation that is geologically significant. It holds parkland and wildlife areas, and is home to many seabirds and other flora and fauna. When Chris and I were in Argentina in 2010, we went to a little tiny town in Argentina on the Puerto Madryn peninsula that – oddly – was filled with Welsh tea houses. The geography of that area looked almost exactly like this, so I guess maybe some Welsh immigrants found that place and it reminded them so much of home they decided to settle there.

The key feature of Llandudno is the long pier, lined with boardwalk amusements in the style of Brighton Beach or Coney Island.

A short walk on a long pier:

The pavilions of the arcades and shops. No skeeball, sadly.

Looking back at the beach from the end of the pier.

I stopped for tea and ordered scones, but accidentally ended up with a whole cake.

The UK version of the classic small-town “Western Chinese” restaurant.

#5: Castles

In addition to the previously mentioned non-castle-castles, you can also see loads of very nice castles. In Conwy, the city walls still circle much of the town, and the railway station goes right through a huge gate in the old city walls. Conwy is an interesting place. According to a big sign beside the (closed) tourist office, it was built by Edward I between 1283 and 1292, for a cost of 15,000 pounds.

The main fortress of the castle is right in the middle of town. A couple of major roads go right past the base.

#6: Boats and Fishing Equipment

All along the coast are boats of various size, shape and repair – from little skiffs that shouldn’t still be able to float to large sailing ships.

In the right season, Conwy would be a great place to get fresh seafood, especially mussels. In the off-season, you can see all sorts of interesting fishing equipment stacked up on the dock.

#7: Rainbows

The weather was highly changeable, moving from bright sunny skies to quite strong showers in a matter of moments. Overall it was pleasant, but the constant rain did explain why the train windows had been so muddy. The upside was an abundance of incredible rainbows.

A double rainbow with a castle? What does it mean?

#8: Closed Tourist Attractions

Where does everyone in North Wales go in the off-season? What do they do? Well, they don’t hang around to keep bizarre little tourist attractions open for straggler sight-seers. Everything is shut up tight for several winter months. But that’s OK: while wandering the deserted streets, looking for an open place to rest your feet and get out of a sudden shower, that’s half the fun.



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March 2012
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