To visit Wales from England is like discovering a different country. And to the Welsh it is a different country, though unlike the querulous Scots there doesn’t seem to be a widespread desire to leave the British political system.
The long backbone of the Cambrian Mountains which run from Dyfed in the south to Clwyd in the north, form a natural barrier which made invasion difficult for waves of would-be conquerors – Roman, Norman and Plantagenet. Thus did Celtic ways survive cultural colonisation.
Probably the most obvious manifestation of this difference is the Welsh language which you will see the moment you cross the border.
It’s a bit of a jaw-breaker at times and the pronunciation can be a bit obscure (see side-bar) but there’s no doubt it adds a whole new flavour to your explorations.
Click on the map for a larger version.
Then there’s the terrain. In the peaks of Snowdonia are the highest mountains south of the Scottish border. It was among these rugged peaks that Ed Hillary and his team, the first men to climb Mt Everest, did their basic training.
These two touring routes will take you to the most dramatic areas in Wales . . . the northern coast with its great castles, and the 800 sq miles of Snowdonia National Park rich in forests, waterfalls and pretty villages, towered above by 3560ft high Mt Snowdon and its attendants the Glyders, mountains hewn from the primordial rock, deep cut by rollicking rills and rivers.
Between Chester and Caernarfon the interest is mainly historical – the “Iron Ring”, a line of castles built by Edward I. Magnificent buildings that capture all the magic of those mediaeval days when one can all but see knights and damsels, magicians and jesters, kings and queens.
Their purpose, however, was much darker. They were strictly royal business, protecting the kingdom from rabble-rousing revolutionaries.
On the run from Caernarfon to Stratford, however, the mood lightens. You will pass through some of the most beautiful, the most dramatic scenery in all of Britain.
Then as you cross back into England the mood changes yet again. You’ll catch echoes of the first days of the Industrial Revolution, perhaps explore some great English fortifications before ending your journey in Stratford-upon-Avon, home of England’s greatest playwright, William Shakespeare whose plays, 500 years later, still fill houses and thrill audiences around the world.
Things to do and attractions along the way
Chester to Caernarfon
Routes 1 and 1A on the map . . .
The 13th century English king, Edward i, had faced a couple of uprisings led by Llywelyn ap Gruffydd so he decided to give the locals something to think about in terms of who was boss around here. He built what has become known as the Iron Ring of castles – four fortresses in North Wales. Beaumaris, Harlech, Conwy and Caenarfon. They were designed to cower the querulous Welsh into submission.
Conwy Castle Conwy Castle is a gritty, dark stoned fortress which has the rare ability to evoke an authentic medieval atmosphere. The first time that visitors catch sight of the castle, commanding a rock above the Conwy Estuary and demanding as much attention as the dramatic Snowdonia skyline behind it, they know they are in the presence of a historic site which still casts a powerful spell.
Conwy, constructed between 1283 and 1289 as one of the key fortresses in his ‘iron ring’ of castles to contain the Welsh, was built to prompt such a humbling reaction. A distinguished historian wrote of Conwy, ‘Taken as a whole, Conwy’s incomparably the most magnificent of Edward I’s Welsh fortresses’. In comparison to other great Edwardian castles, it is also relatively straightforward in design, a reflection of the inherent strength of its robust site.
The views from the battlements are breathtaking looking out across mountains and sea and down to the roofless shell of the castles 125ft Great Hall. It is from these battlements that visitors can best appreciate Conwy’s other great glory, its ring of town walls. Conwy is the classic walled town. Its circuit of walls is over three-quarters of a mile long and guarded by no less than 22 towers.
Caernarfon Castle is a brute of a fortress. Its pumped-up appearance is unashamedly muscle-bound and intimidating. Picking a fight with this massive structure would have been a daunting prospect. By throwing his weight around in stone, King Edward I created what is surely one of the most impressive of Wales’s castles.
The message from its creator to the locals was stark: “Don’t mess with me, boyo. I will crush you.”
Most castles are happy with round towers, not Caernarfon! Polygonal towers were the order of the day, with the Eagle Tower being the most impressive of these. You will also note the colour-coded stones carefully arranged in bands.
The first Prince of Wales, son of Edward I, was born here in 1284. In 1969 the investiture of the present Prince of Wales, Charles, took place here.
Cwm Idwal National Nature Reserve Walk takes you into a normally inaccessible upland environment, and through beautiful ice-sculpted Cwm Idwal – a bowl-shaped hollow filled with the crystal clear waters of Llyn Idwal. The site is world famous for its rock formations and its rare and fragile plant life.
The cwm, or basin, forms an amphitheatre behind a glacial lake, Llyn Idwal, and this makes the reserve one of the finest places to see how glaciation and the subsequent retreat of the glaciers affected and shaped this kind of dramatic landscape.
Caernarfon to Stratford
Routes 2 and 3 on the map . . .
Llanberis Pass with Snowdon on your right and Glyder Fawr mountain on your left . . . magnificent, spectacular, awe-inspiring – take your pick of superlatives. Its rocky cliffs are a climber’s paradise.
Snowdon Railway. Take a train to the rooftop of Wales, Mt Snowdon 1085m high – said to be the burial place of the giant ogre Rhita, vanquished by King Arthur. Stunning views over Snowdonia National Park and on a clear day you can see as far as Ireland. It pays to book ahead for the railway trip because it can be very busy, especially on weekends.
National Slate Museum is sited in the Victorian workshops built in the shadow of Elidir mountain, site of the vast Dinorwig quarry. Here you can travel into the past of an industry and a way of life that has chiselled itself into the very being of this country. The workshops and buildings are designed as though quarrymen and engineers have just put down their tools and left the courtyard for home. An array of talks and demonstrations, including slate-splitting, give you a real insight into quarry life.
Electric Mountain. The site of Dinorwig Power Station, but in common parlance “Electric Mountain”.
You’ll never guess what this power station is for: It’s for when you put the kettle on in the ad breaks of a popular tv show. No kidding!. Here’s the problem – at such times there can be a sudden surge in power demand as people all over the country make a cuppa. That can lead to a demand for 2800mwatts of power within the space of six minutes. Traditional power systems were not designed for such instant peaks. Dinorwig’s reversible pump/turbines are capable of reaching maximum generation in less than 16 seconds. Using off-peak electricity the six units are reversed as pumps to transport water from the lower reservoir, back to Marchlyn Mawr.
Water is stored at a high altitude in Marchlyn Mawr reservoir and is discharged into Llyn Peris through the turbines during times of peak electricity demand. It is pumped back from Llyn Peris to Marchlyn Mawr during off-peak times. Although it uses more electricity to pump the water up than it generates on the way down, pumping is generally done at periods of low demand, when the energy is cheaper to consume.
Dinorwig is comprised of 16km of underground tunnels, deep below Elidir mountain. Its construction required 1 million tonnes of concrete, 200,000 tonnes of cement and 4,500 tonnes of steel.
The station’s six powerful generating units stand in Europe’s largest man-made cavern.
Llanberis Lake Railway runs along the northerly shore of Llyn Padarn. The tiny locomotives used on the line have all seen service in Dinorwig Quarries at one time or another where they once hauled slate wagons in the quarry.
Pen-y-Gwwryd Hotel where Ed Hillary (later Sir Edmund Hillary) and the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay trained before their successful assault on Mt Everest, becoming, in 1953, the first men to reach the summit. Their pewter drinking mugs still hang in the bar and their signatures can be seen on the ceiling.
Ty Hyll -The Ugly House. Visit this historical building, learning about its legends and how it was built. The woodland and wildlife garden are open all day every day for you to explore. Cafe on site.
Swallow Falls This waterfall on the Afon Llugwy has become a familiar natural celebrity over the past 100 years and has featured on film, postcard and canvas. You can’t miss them . . . all those dratted buses full of tourists. To go down to the falls costs £1.50 and only takes coins.
Trefriw Woolen Mills manufacture Welsh tapestry bedspreads, tweeds and travelling rugs from the raw wool. See them being woven on a power loom (Monday – Friday, mid-Feb. – mid-Dec. except for Bank Holidays) and view the water-powered turbine which generates electricity to power the mill. Shop on site opens all year.
Go Below Underground Adventures runs guided adventure trips into the spectacular underground world of an abandoned slate mine. Brave a series of challenging activities and abseil, climb and zip line through cavernous chambers and over forgotten blue lakes.
Gwydyr Forest Park. Since Victorian times, generations of visitors have walked the woodland paths and fished the clear waters of the rivers here. Today, waymarked walking trails allow visitors to explore this landscape of lakes, forests and mountains and to learn about its mining history. There is also a mountain bike trail (which is graded red as it is only suitable for proficient riders), a forest garden and a waymarked walk to Swallow Falls.
Fairy Glen and Conway Falls. A circular, half-day riverside walk about 4.4km (roughly 2.7 miles) long and suitable for families with children, but unsuitable for prams/pushchairs, wheelchairs.
Plas Newydd From 1791 to 1831 this was the home of the Ladies of Llangollen – now, now, don’t get the wrong idea. They were, in fact, a couple of upper-class Anglo-Irish women who preferred to dress as men. These days that would hardly raise an eyebrow but back then it might have been regarded as just a bit scandalous. In fact it seems they were generally well accepted and entertained many of the rich and famous of the day including William Wordsworth who, after visiting, wrote a sonnet about the experience. The house today is considerably grander than it was in their day, but the garden is much as they designed it.
Llangollen Bridge was built in the 16th century replacing an earlier structure built by the local bishop, John Trevor. It has been widened and lengthened over the years but is now a scheduled ancient monument.
Llangollen Railway a heritage railway located beside the historic Dee Bridge and journeys 10 miles through the picturesque Dee Valley to the town of Corwen. The line follows the River Dee, classed as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), for its entire length.
Castell Dinas Bran A place of myths and legends involving King Arthur, the Holy Grail and even the brother-in-law of Joseph of Arimathea, who supplied the burial chamber after the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s also a great walk – not too hard a climb if you take it easy, with superb views looking up to the Horseshoe Pass and the soaring limestone cliffs of the Eglwyseg Rocks, across to the Berwyn Mountains, and along the Vale of Llangollen, with the town nestling far below this 300-metre standpoint. Get there early in the morning – fewer people and the colours of the countryside have that wonderful morning light effect.
River rafting and tubing. The River Dee provides some excellent white water adventures. See the local Tourist Information Centre for details and bookings.
If whitewater isn’t your style (or even if it is) then take a more leisurely cruise on a horse-drawn canal boat that starts from Llangolen Wharf. You can even take one of their aqueduct trips across the Pontcycylite Aqueduct (see next entry).
Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, the largest in Britain, was built by Thomas Telford between 1795 and 1805. There are 18 pillars made of local stone, the central ones over the River Dee being 126ft high up to the ironwork.
Chirk Castle is a 700-year-old marcher fortress, which commands fine views over the surrounding countryside. It was built in the late 13th century by Roger Mortimer, Justice of North Wales for Edward 1. The castle was sold for £5,000 to Sir Thomas Myddelton in 1595 and his descendants continue to live in part of the castle today.
British Ironwork Centre and Forge Falconry. Bit of an odd mix of attractions, but it seems to work. The ironworks is a family business spanning generations that manufactures and sells all manner of metalwork. Plus they have created a collection of animal sculptures, like the silver backed gorilla (pictured).
The falconry centre gives you a chance to get up close and personal with these magnificent, and deadly, creatures.
A hill town of black and white timbered buildings. The Severn River, England’s longest, wends its way around three sides and the Normans built a castle to protect the fourth side.
Take a walk around the town, wandering through the narrow passages, called shuts, that run off the main streets. In other towns they’re called snickets, ginnels, chares, alleyways, entries, wynds, weinds, wiends, catcreeps, twitchells, opes, and twittens. Their names here often reflect what was once sold there – Grope Lane being a good example. (Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Men of the world would know what I mean!). Today they’re filled with independent shops, restaurants and bars,
Shrewsbury’s most famous son, Charles Darwin, would still recognise his hometown, renowned to be one of England’s most splendid heritage towns with over 600 listed buildings.
The Quarry a 29-acre parkland that has won a swag of major international garden awards. At its centre lies The Dingle, a formal floral masterpiece created by world-renowned gardener Percy Thrower during his 28 years here as the city’s Parks Superintendent. It’s a beautiful sunken garden landscaped with alpine borders, colourful bedding plants, shrubbery and water features.
Shrewsbury Castle. The oldest parts of the castle were built between 1067 and 1074, during the reign of William the Conqueror and, gradually rebuilt in stone, it became a major border fortress in the Middle Ages. After the conquest of Wales by 1300, the Castle fell into disrepair but in the late 16th century it was revived to become a domestic residence. Today it houses collections of the Shropshire Regimental Museum Trust including pictures, uniforms, medals, weapons and other equipment from the 18th Century to the present day.
Hawkestone Park Follies is a historic woodland fantasy with cliffs, crags, caves, deep woods and a series of extraordinary monuments built over 200 years ago, after years of neglect the magical landscape was restored and reopened in 1993.
Apart from its historic association with William Shakespeare – though born there he didn’t actually live there but spent his time in London – the town is worth visiting for two reasons. The Royal Shakespeare Theatre where you can enjoy the bard’s plays performed by this famous theatrical company, and the quaint Tudor buildings such as Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Hall’s Croft (home to William’s daughter), Nash’s House and New Place (the last chapter in his life), Anne Hathaway’s cottage (a romantic setting) and Mary Arden’s Farm (the childhood home of Shakespeare’s mother).
However, it is much more than that, a market town with more than 800 years of history containing not only many buildings that survive today and would have been familiar to Shakespeare but also a thriving community offering a wide variety of leisure and shopping experiences.
Shakespeare’s Birthplace The half-timbered house where William Shakespeare was born in 1564 is Stratford’s most cherished historic place. It is the most frequently visited of all the tourist places. Descendants of the dramatist lived there until the nineteenth century, and it has been a place of pilgrimage for over 250 years. It’s also the place where the bard spent the first five years of married life with Anne Hathaway.
New Place/Nash’s House New Place, Shakespeare’s home from 1597 until his death in 1616, was pulled down in the eighteenth century but its foundations and grounds can be seen, including a beautiful Elizabethan-style Knott garden. The site is approached through Nash’s House adjoining, which contains exceptional furnishings of Shakespeare’s period. The rooms on the lower level include some early seventeenth-century oak furniture. Upstairs, there is an exhibition dealing with the history of Stratford-upon-Avon before and after Shakespeare.
Hall’s Croft A Jacobean doctor’s house where Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna, lived, with its capacious, luxurious rooms and exquisite furnishings all belonging to eminent local physician, Dr John Hall. The couple (married in 1607) lived here in elegant comfort until shortly after Shakespeare’s demise when they moved into New Place. Halls Croft boasts a stunning walled garden replete with roses, herbaceous borders, an age-old mulberry tree and beds of herbs – many of which are mentioned in Dr Hall’s medical notes.
Anne Hathaway’s Cottage Undoubtedly the most romantic of Shakespeare’s Houses. This charming childhood home of Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s future wife, served as the idyllic rendezvous where the world’s greatest dramatist wooed his beloved. Nestling in the quiet village of Shottery about a mile from Stratford-upon-Avon sits Anne Hathaway’s Cottage the epitome of a typically ‘old England’ rural dwelling complete with thatched roof, cottage gardens and farmland
Mary Arden’s House Home of Shakespeare’s grandparents and childhood home of Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden. Be surrounded by the sights, sounds and smells of a Tudor farm. Discover the daily routine of a 16th Century farm as the farmer, maid and labourer bring the farm to life. It is also home to the Shakespeare countryside museum, two historic farms, displays of farm implements, and daily demonstrations by the Heart of England falconry.
The Royal Shakespearean Company You simply can’t come to Stratford-upon-Avon and not go the an RSC performance, even if you aren’t a great theatre-goer. Go on, expand your cultural horizon. You will see the finest actors and directors working on great plays in some of the best theatre spaces in the world. The RSC in Stratford offers three theatres providing an elaborate range of drama, ancient and modern, classic and contemporary.
This is the cradle of the Industrial Revolution that started in Britain in the 18th century. Deposits of coal, iron ore, limestone and fireclay, exposed by the River Severn as it cut through the gorge, were the raw materials close at hand that enabled the development of a huge metal-working industry.
The world’s first iron bridge was erected over the River Severn in 1779. This pioneering single-span cast-iron structure was a turning point in British design and engineering. After it was built, cast iron came to be widely used in bridges, aqueducts and buildings.
Now Britain’s best-known industrial monument, the bridge gave its name to the spectacular wooded gorge that was once an industrial powerhouse and is now a World Heritage Site.
Once described as “the most extraordinary district in the world”, the Ironbridge Gorge is still a remarkable, and beautiful, place to visit today. A huge amount of early industry survives as furnaces, factories, workshops, canals and the settlements of Coalbrookdale, Ironbridge, Jackfield and Coalport.
There are ten award-winning Museums spread along the valley beside the River Severn. See the products that set the industry on its path and the machines that made them. Watch and talk to the Museums’ craftsmen and costumed demonstrators as they work iron, fashion china and glass, and bring alive the people who lived and worked here.
Sutton Park, a 2,400 acre National Nature Reserve, is one of the largest urban parks in Europe and is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. This landscape is a mosaic of open heathland, woodlands, wetlands, marshes and seven lakes each with their own rich variety of plants and wildlife, some rarely seen in the region. It is an important site for wildlife and conservation, containing fine examples of the natural countryside that have survived for hundreds of years. These habitats are part of a working grazed landscape where cattle and wild ponies can be seen grazing during the year.
Side trips to
Warwick Castle Dating back to 914, Warwick Castle has stood as an impressive mediaeval fortress on the banks of the river Avon for the last 1100 years. Attacked in 1264, besieged in 1642 and damaged by fire in 1871, the castle has survived the changing fortunes of history and remains one of the most well-preserved mediaeval castles in the UK.
Named recently as one of the richest families in British history, the Earl of Warwick had lots of money and knew how to spend it! As wars ceased, the Earl enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, the results of which can be seen in the elegant 17th Century Great Hall and State Rooms, home to the castle’s most prized possessions.
A visit to the castle also takes you through the landscaped Capability Brown gardens, down into the mediaeval vaults and into the private residence of the Earl where you can discover the reality about the lives of the Earl, his family and their servants. For those with stamina, you can even climb to the top of the towers and ramparts – still open to the public after 1100 years and offering broad views of the English countryside.
You can watch a jousting tournament (in summer) or the world’s largest trebuchet launching a fireball.
Kenilworth From medieval fortress to Elizabethan palace, Kenilworth Castle has been at the centre of England’s affairs for much of its 900-year history. Today, you can scale the heights of the tower built to woo Queen Elizabeth I and marvel at the mighty Norman keep. Explore the exhibition in the Gatehouse, and imagine the majesty of the Great Hall playing host to medieval monarchs and early Tudor kings.
Coventry Cathedral has had three cathedrals in the past 1000 years: the 12th-century Priory Church of St Mary, the medieval Parish Church Cathedral of St Michael and the modern Coventry Cathedral, also named for St Michael. Coventry’s fortunes and story are closely associated with the story of its Cathedrals – a story of death and rebirth.
Coventry’s earliest cathedral, dedicated to St Mary, was founded as a Benedictine community by Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and his wife Godiva in 1043. In 1539, with the dissolution of the monasteries by order of King Henry VIII, the cathedral fell into decay. Only in 1918 was the modern diocese of Coventry created in its own right, and the church of St Michael designated as its cathedral.
On the night of 14 November 1940, the city of Coventry was devastated by bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe. The Cathedral burned with the city, having been hit by several incendiary devices.
The decision to rebuild the cathedral was taken the morning after its destruction. The result is the very moving juxtaposition of the cathedral ruins and the new building we see today, each in their own way telling a story of destruction and rebirth.
Shortly after the destruction, the cathedral stonemason, Jock Forbes, noticed that two of the charred medieval roof timbers had fallen in the shape of a cross. He set them up in the ruins where they were later placed on an altar of rubble with the moving words ‘Father Forgive’ inscribed on the Sanctuary wall. Another cross was fashioned from three medieval nails by local priest, the Revd Arthur Wales. The Cross of Nails has become the symbol of Coventry’s ministry of reconciliation.
Discover the roots of rugby football by visiting The Close at Rugby School, before walking to the statue of William Webb Ellis – the perfect backdrop for photographs. Across the road you’ll find the Webb Ellis Rugby Football Museum, which houses unique memorabilia and artefacts tracing the history of the game and its players.
Myth has it that in November 1823 William Webb Ellis while playing football – i.e. soccer – “with fine disregard for the rules” picked up the ball and ran with it. Problem is that running with the ball as a sport had been around for centuries if not millennia.
Just one small problem with that story – at the time there were no rules for either Rugby Union or what is now called Association Football (or just football).
What is certainly true is that the first rules for rugby were laid down in 1845 by a group of boys at Rugby School, the first written rules for any type of football game. Soccer rules weren’t codified until 1873.
No matter, let’s not cavil about it . . . the myth is a lovely one and you can visit Rugby School and see where that historic game was played.
The school is one of England’s oldest and most prestigious public schools and was the setting of Thomas Hughes’s semi-autobiographical masterpiece Tom Brown’s Schooldays. A substantial part of the 2004 dramatisation of the novel, starring Stephen Fry, was filmed on location at Rugby School. ”
But Rugby, in fact, has three huge claims to fame: The game of rugby, the development of the jet engine and the invention of holography.
The town is the birthplace of the jet engine. In April 1937 Frank Whittle built the world’s first prototype jet engine at the British Thomson-Houston works in Rugby, and between 1936-41 based himself at Brownsover Hall on the outskirts, where he designed and developed early prototype engines.
Holography was invented in Rugby by the Hungarian inventor Dennis Gabor in 1947.