Wind, Rain, Castles and a missing suitcase
Comfortably seated on the train having successfully negotiated something akin to the running of the bulls, I was feeling victorious. Now heading north, leaving the crowded and noisy city behind, I was dreaming of castles, mountains and the lovely coastline of North Wales. This was my Easter long weekend.
Minutes earlier I had been rushing to catch a train from Euston, I was caught up in a stampede of hundreds of Easter Bank Holiday makers jostling to get a seat for the journey north. I was headed to Crewe to pick up a car and drive across to Snowdonia for my first time in Wales. I’ve caught this train plenty of times so I knew the drill, everyone stands waiting, watching the main display board, poised like coiled springs with bags in hand, waiting for the platform number to appear.
There are no reserved seats on this train so to ensure you don’t end up standing for the whole trip you can’t look away for a second and this presents a dilemma. You can stand at the back of the crowd in the main hall of Euston Station and easily see the whole board but you’ll be giving everyone else a head start to the platform. Alternatively you can stand at the front closer to the platforms, where you have to look almost vertically upwards, like the front row of an Imax theatre. This can bring on dizzy spells and double vision so when the platform number does finally appear you’re left stumbling towards the platform like you’ve been bitten by a poisonous snake.
The value of a seat on this trip simply cannot be quantified and it brings out something primal in normally mild mannered people, so the stakes are high and you have to time it right.
The drive across was predictably bleak and slow due to the bank holiday traffic but I was soon crossing the border into Wales and my list of countries that I’ve visited had grown by one. The border was a non-event, I always like it when countries make a big deal about crossing over a border, so I was a little disappointed when the Sat-Nav showed that I was in Wales but I had no idea I’d crossed over.
Pushing on, I’d planned to stop in Conwy, where my first proper castle awaited. Wales has some of the UK’s and possibly the world’s best castles to visit and has been recognised as a world heritage site. To my dismay I was five minutes too late to get into the castle, so I walked up onto the outer walls and enjoyed the view.
Wandering down to the banks of the river Conwy I was confronted with a rather unexpected scene. A crowd had gathered to watch the rescue of a young boy who had become stuck in the mud left exposed by the outgoing tide. Standing 20 feet from the pier, knee deep in the glue-like mud, the more he struggled to climb out, the deeper he sank, and the louder the laughs became from the people watching on. Eventually he was rescued and I’m sure he had some explaining to do when he got home. Unfortunately I didn’t get a photo of this comical scene so you’ll have to use your imagination.
At this point I was distracted by another crowd taking selfies in front of a small red building that turned out to be the smallest house in the UK. I took an obligatory photo and moved on to explore a little more before leaving for my next destination, Llanberis.
A night in Llanberis
Moving away from the coast and into Snowdonia National Park I arrived at Llanberis with surprising ease. I was expecting hairpin roads the width of a London cycle path but these were wonderfully sweeping and comfortably wide. Llanberis sits close to Mt Snowdon and although I never got to see the highest peak in Wales, I knew it was up there somewhere. When the Weather is good you can catch a train all the way to the top of Snowdon to enjoy the views, but this day was pouring rain and mist covered even the lower peaks, so the summit of Snowdon would remain unconquered for now.
Llanberis was full of climbers and walkers who had enjoyed the fine weather and were now sitting in the pub looking smug in their RAB bodywarmers and North Face base layers. I felt a little out of place.
The weather was expected to be somewhere between terrible and should’ve stayed at home for the next few days, so I was a little jealous of them. The wind had really picked up and was making whirring and buzzing sounds outside my room that helped me drift off to sleep. I stayed at Idan house, a nice little B&B in the main street, with a modest price and a lovely view of the lake.
I don’t think Llanberis is the type of place I could stay for more than one or two nights unless I was using it as a base for climbing and walking but I was glad I’d seen it.
This would be the last taste of the mountains until I returned on Sunday to drive the Llanberis Pass, I’d read that it is one of the best driving roads in the UK, and I couldn’t wait.
Caernarfon and a flat tire
Hitting the coast again early Saturday, I stopped at Caernarfon, home to one of the best castles in the UK and Wales’ most famous. This time I would get to see it inside and out. I parked outside the walls and made my way past several nice little shops and pubs that were just setting up for the day. It was pouring rain and the wind had only seemed to increase since last night but I was determined to spend some time in a proper castle, something I’d always wanted to do. I paid the entry fee and made my way in, scrambling across the Bailey to get shelter at the base of one of the eight towers that make up this massive structure. Inside the walls was a maze of passages and stairways occasionally lit up by an arrow loop, a small slit cut into the castle wall, returning some sense of orientation with the outside world.
Because I had arrived early I almost had the place to myself and on more than one occasion I paused to imagine what it must have been like in the 13th century when it was built. It must have been extremely cold and damp during days like the one I visited. Braving the elements I made it to the top of several of the towers but I couldn’t face into the wind as the rain felt like tiny needles on my face, guard duty up here must have been horrible.
Much of the display and museum is devoted to the military history of the castle and became tiresome pretty quickly, but I imagine it would’ve been much more interesting if I was a little warmer. I learned that in 1283 Edward the I’s son was born here and dubbed ‘Prince of Wales’ starting a title that continues today, I love these little facts. Windswept and frozen it was time to exit via the gift shop and walk back to the car.
On return I noticed something that had never happened to me before on a road trip, I had a punctured tyre. Looking for shelter from the torrential rain to change the tyre I found a multi-story Car Park and began to unpack the contents of the rear of the car, digging out the spare tyre which to my dismay turned out to be a space-saver. This wouldn’t get me through the rest of the trip so I had only one option, to get the tyre repaired on the Saturday of the Easter bank holiday. Good luck! Ringing around I hit the jackpot with a tyre shop just 5 mins away that could do the repair but I had to get there straight away because they were shutting for the weekend in 15 minutes. This would be my only hope or the weekend would be ruined and I’d have to limp home.
I put the spare tyre back in the car and drove to the repair shop as fast as I could, making it with just a few minutes to go. They were lovely and repaired the tyre and only charged 20 quid, so feeling quite smug that I had dodged a potential disaster, I was on my way to Barmouth via several other castles along the coast.
Barmouth and something is missing
The weather was simply horrid so I ended up just looking at the castles at Criccieth and Harlech but not going in. Arriving in Barmouth in mid-afternoon, after a pub lunch I checked into the hotel which had a great view of the river mouth and a railway bridge crossing the river. Upon opening the boot of the car something didn’t look right, where was my suitcase? It soon became apparent that it wasn’t anywhere in the car and I must have left it somewhere, but where? Retracing my steps with a shuddering bolt of realisation, I concluded that it was in the car park where I had unloaded the car to get the spare tyre. In a rush to get to the repair shop I had left it behind.
I can’t remember the last time I had that feeling where your stomach sinks at the thought of how careless you’ve been, but regardless I didn’t have any option but to turn around and head back an hour and a half to Caernarfon. Of course it wasn’t there and after sitting in the car park for ten minutes I just had no other choice but to go back to Barmouth. Nothing had been handed into the police so I said goodbye to my GoPro and several other things of personal value and drove off, what an idiot I thought.
Almost half way back to Barmouth to my utter surprise I got word that someone had actually handed it into the police and I could pick it up on Monday, “I love Welsh people” I yelled. Arriving back at the hotel, exhausted after 3 hours of driving and a rollercoaster of emotions I slumped onto the bed and had a nap before dinner.
I had planned to explore more of Barmouth but fate had intervened, so I left the next morning after a quick look at the beach and the town. With no improvements in the weather it didn’t look too appealing to stick around so I moved on towards Harlech for another shot at going inside a medieval castle. I’d like to go back to Barmouth when the weather is better, I think it would be a lovely sleepy town to relax in during warmer months.
Harlech and the Llanberis Pass
After negotiating the steep and narrow road up to the town of Harlech I spent an hour or so checking out the castle. This was a different style of building to Caernarfon, smaller and square, if you asked a child to draw a castle it would probably look something like Harlech. With towers on each corner, perched high up looking over the coastline, it is a beautiful sight and satisfied something in me that now I’d seen the real thing. Later I learned that this was the site for the longest siege in British history, seven years! How on earth they did that I’ll never know.
With a slight break in the weather, next up was the Llanberis pass, a stretch of mountainous road that runs through the northern part of the Snowdonia National Park. There are plenty of videos on YouTube of sports cars driving this great piece of road and I was excited to do the same. Unfortunately it was hailing heavily when I made it, after a beautiful drive past Beddgelert, and the road was full of ice so my experience of the pass was somewhat different to the videos I had seen but it was still breathtaking. I’m definitely coming back to drive this on a clear day.
Beaumaris and South Stack
The weather cleared up again just after returning down to sea level and I crossed the Menai Bridge onto Anglesey. I wanted to visit Beaumaris and check out another castle, this time with a moat. Driving along next to the Menai Strait to Beaumaris It took a while for me to notice that on my right was a simply stunning view of Snowdonia. The snow-capped peaks were just poking into the clouds in a scene that looked more like the European Alps, with a lovely stretch of water in between. I can’t believe I’ve never seen photos of this before as it’s every bit as impressive as anything from the Lake District. Sometimes I think that Britain doesn’t know what it has.
Beaumaris was a lovely little town, popular with tourists and the castle was the main attraction. I was less impressed with this one, it almost seemed like a theme park that had been built 20 years ago. On the side that most people approach from there is a Playground, putting green and lawn bowls area, right next to a castle! The building itself isn’t as impressive as the others although the moat makes it prettier, it’s just not in the same class for me.
Underwhelmed I decided to drive across Anglesey to South Stack, a lighthouse on a small island that looked amazing in the photos I had seen. The landscape gradually became more rugged and the coastline impressive as I neared the far end of the island near Holyhead. The car began to be buffeted from the wind and this part of Wales felt wilder than where I had just been. Reaching the closest car park I got out of the car and was hit in the face by the strongest wind I’ve ever experienced, people walked about looking like when you see a reporter covering a hurricane and they have to lean forward into the wind to walk and shield their face, it was amazing.
I was too late to go across to the lighthouse but the thought of the walking bridge in this wind terrified me anyway so I wasn’t too worried. I walked down the steps as far as I could and enjoyed the sun going down behind the lighthouse while sheltering beside some rocks. I walked back up to the top and followed a path up to the highest point for a great view, there was also a little hut that provided some shelter from the raging wind. The seas were pounding the small island and huge waves would crash against the rocks with plumes of spray rushing upwards after the impact.
After nearly being blown off into the sea (quite literally) I scrambled back down to the car, leaning at a 45 degree angle to counter the wind and admired the view one last time before leaving. I’m definitely coming back to drive this on a clear day.
My new favourite place in the UK
I spent the night in Caernarfon and the next morning before heading home again to London collected my suitcase from the local police station, a little red faced. Although this trip was spoiled by the weather I loved North Wales and I imagine it’s not the first Welsh holiday to run into bad weather but this was a particularly bad storm. It was the first time I had heard the Welsh language and it sounds incredibly difficult to learn and very old, it’s said to be one of the oldest in Europe.
The people I had met were cheerful, generous and extremely honest as shown by the return of my suitcase and I can’t wait to go back when there is a chance of better weather. The beaches looked like they could be glorious on a nice day and the mountains offer some adventure and are every bit as awe inspiring as the Lake District.
There are also plenty of attractions that I didn’t get a chance to see on this trip, particularly the world’s only inland surfing lake, Surf Snowdonia (I’m definitely heading there soon) as well as the many other lovely little towns that make up this area.
I’ve had my fill of castles for a while but there are still plenty more that I’d like to see whenever it is that I return, hopefully it’s sooner rather than later.
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