Sunday, August 26, 2007
Space to wonder: the glory of North Wales
Griff Rhys Jones' BBC1 series Mountain concludes tonight with a programme about one of the most beautiful mountainous areas in the world: Snowdonia. Here's my piece on the beauty of Snowdonia, the charming seaside resort of Llandudno (above) and some other delights of North Wales, from the Sunday Express. If you've never visited the area, you're in for a wonderful surprise. And if you're a reader of this blog and live in North Wales, I'm very envious!
The film The Bluebird came to mind when my wife and I recently visited North Wales.
In the movie, Shirley Temple plays a spoilt little girl who is sent by a fairy on a journey to find “the bird that means happiness”. After a long trek, she finally discovers it – in her back yard.
Many travel to far-flung corners of the globe in search of spectacular scenery, yet right on our doorsteps is one of the most beautiful areas in the world: North Wales. We based ourselves in the splendidly preserved Victorian resort of Llandudno. With its long, spacious promenade, its 1,200ft Grade II listed pier and its idyllic setting on a shallow moon-shaped bay between two headlands, it is easy to understand why Llandudno is known as “the Queen of the Welsh Resorts”.
Llandudno is old-fashioned, but in the nicest possible way. Professor Codman’s Punch and Judy Show (established in 1860) still entertains and donkey rides are available on both beaches, as they have been for 125 years.
With its wrought iron and glass veranda elegance, Mostyn Street remains one of Europe’s most attractive shopping streets.
Count Bismarck, Napoleon III and the exiled Queen Elizabeth of Romania were all patrons of Mostyn Street’s speciality shops in the late 19th century.
But Llandudno’s crowning glory is its very own “mountain”, the 680ft Great Orme, which towers majestically above the pier.
You can get to the top by road or cable car but the most romantic option is the wonderfully quaint San Francisco-style tram, in operation since 1902.
There is something for everyone on the Orme, whose summit affords a view on a sunny day of the vast, shimmering sea with the outlines of Anglesey and the Isle of Man in the distance.
Walkers can explore the miles of footpaths, nature lovers can search for the species of flora and fauna unique to the area, and children will love watching the comical wild goats (descended from a pair of Kashmir goats given as a gift to Queen Victoria by the Shah of Persia).
There is also a disused Bronze Age copper mine, where you can explore the 3,500-year-old passages leading to a ghostly cavern.
Away from Llandudno, the fairy-land beauty of Snowdonia beckons. There is the wonderfully situated village of Betws-y-Coed, with its beautiful cast iron bridge and waterfalls, and the equally picturesque village of Beddgelert, home of Alfred Bestall, who wrote and illustrated the popular Rupert Bear cartoon for more than 30 years.
Much of the landscape in his stories was inspired by Snowdonia, and Sir Paul McCartney is among the many Rupert fans who have made pilgrimages to the area.
We also visited the historic town of Porthmadog, once the busiest slate port in Wales. The narrow gauge Ffestiniog Railway, which opened in 1836, used to carry hundreds of thousands of tons of slate from the mines. Settle back in your seats as the deceptively powerful little red steam engine hauls the carriages up through spectacular mountain scenery on its way to Blaenau Ffestiniog.
On our final day we visited the magnificent Penrhyn Castle, a 19th-century neo-Norman fantasy just outside Bangor. Penryhn has more than 300 rooms and the most striking is the Great Hall, with its beautiful stained glass windows and fabulous Dining Room, where the table is laid out exactly as it was for the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1894.
Allow at least three hours to do justice to the interior but, whatever you do, don’t miss the stunningly landscaped gardens and, in particular, the enchanting Victorian walled garden.
“Collected into a small space, more that is graceful, beautiful and romantic may be found in North Wales than in any other spot in Europe,” wrote Louisea Costello in 1839. She was not exaggerating.