Starting mileage: 18555 km
Day started: 10:00
Day ended: 22:00
It’s not easy to see the summit of Snowdon – like Mount Fuji, it is almost always hidden behind the clouds. But the clouds over Snowdon are a show of their own, especially at dawn or sunset; a rising reflection of the mountain one moment, a baroque conglomerate of three-dimensional shadows the other, and for a brief moment when the sun paints them bright pink, a great bowl of candyfloss.
It is at the foot of the mountain, at the head of the glen that forms lake Padarn, that a town of Llanberis was built; first as one of the chief outposts of the kingdom of Gwynedd, underneath an imposing castle of Llywellyn the Great, guarding the pass into the heart of Snowdonia, and itself guarded by the nigh impassable mountains. Centuries later it became the capital of another kingdom – of slate quarries.
The Welsh are proud of their slate – an ancient metamorphic rock, used in a variety of industries, famously easy to split one way, but then extremely resistant against weathering – and rightly so; they quarried it in millions of tonnes and exported all over the world. “The Welsh slate roofed the world,” the saying went; in 19th century it became the principal industry of Wales, employing thousands of people in dozens of quarries.
The legacy is still strong in North Wales, and everywhere you go there will be something slate-related – remains of a quarry, a railway track built to transfer slate, a slate harbour, a slate gallery; most souvenir shops hold slate plaques and coasters, just like those of the South Wales sell sculptures made of coal. And in Llanberis part of one of the largest quarries was turned into a slate museum.
But neither of these was what had brought us to Llanberis in the first place; our main target was to ride the choo-choo train. There are several heritage railways in North Wales, most of them built over the narrow-gauge slate lines, and the Llanberis Lake Railway is the best compromise if you’re short on time and budget: an hour-long return trip along the shores of lake Padarn, for a mere £7.50 pp, behind a small steam engine once used to carry slate wagons from the quarries above the lake to the larger harbour on the coast.
The museum itself is quite extensive (and free), and does a good job of showing the life in the industrial-sized quarry, which had to be self-sustainable in most aspects of life: with its own foundry, smithy, wood mill, it was expected to produce everything needed for the labour in situ, apart from the food. The foundries alone are factory-sized, and hold at least eight furnaces.
Everything in Llanberis is also very, very grey. Slate-coloured, would be the good description.
From Llanberis we climbed the passes out back towards the coast, heading east to Conwy along the North Wales Expressway. We halted at Penmaenmawr, where I had read we could find a large sized stone circle, Circle of Druids (as if we hadn’t had enough old rocks yet) but after a while of driving around very narrow and steep streets of the town, and consulting the map, we discovered it required a long walk uphill into the fields to see, and decided we actually did have enough of the old rocks, for now.
We did not have enough castles, though – at least not the Edwardian ones. There was one last left on the UNESCO list in Conwy, and that was our final destination for the day. First we stopped by the Conwy RSPB reserve, but only briefly; this is a typical entry-level reserve, oriented at families (family ticket costs £6.50) and activities rather than actual bird spotting. A few little egrets, lapwings, knots and a family of oystercatchers was enough to not make the stop a complete waste of time, but with the castle tantalizingly rising right across the river from the car park, we skipped the remaining hides and headed back to the town gates.
Conwy mighty town walls, black as night, look almost unreal, so perfectly they surround the centre, climbing the hills and descending into the river harbour just as they had on medieval drawings or old engravings. A walk along their top took us from the car park to the castle gate; the original gate and drawbridge did not survive – and there doesn’t seem to be any plan to replace it, which is a bit of a shame – and so the visitors enter through the side door in the ruined gatehouse before emerging onto the wide open courtyard.
The remarkable thing about Edward’s castles is that, despite all being designed by the same architect, James of St George, each of them is completely different. Harlech is compact and tight, like a clenched fist striking against the Welsh; Caernarfon is sprawling, angular, palatial; Beaumaris is squat and labyrinthian. Conwy (£7.00 pp and usual discount if you are member of EH) is perhaps the most “castle-like” of all – it looks just like a “medieval castle” should look like. It’s got many well proportioned towers, thick walls, open courtyard filled with remains of grand halls, including a chapel and the royal chambers, kitchens, stables and granaries; it is an archetypal epic castle.
There are several bridges linking the castle grounds with the land below, and, built in 19th century, they are remarkable buildings in their own rights, especially the railway suspension bridge cutting right through the castle mount. One of the roads leading out of the town also drives underneath the castle ramparts – and that was the road we took to leave Conwy and head further north.
We weren’t sure if we could find a nice, quiet campsite in this part of Wales, between the crowded tourist traps of Conwy and Llandudno; but our efforts were rewarded when we reached Tan y Bryn. The campsite – not to be confused with a nearby caravan park of the same name – stands on top of a tall hill, looking down towards a very industrialized part of the Irish Sea: our view comprised of several oil platforms, tankers and a wind farm – which we didn’t mind at all.
The facilities are basic and few (one of each for gents and ladies) but there is a fridge and freezer, and the owners are very accommodating with pitches, allowing us to stay where we wanted as long as our hook-up cable allowed. The place is also not at all as hard to get to as some of the web reviews would claim.