Northern Wales | Chasing Castles & Small Towns

Ok, time for a little confession… when I was a child I was a compulsive liar. Now in my defence my lies weren’t told to hurt anyone or to get out of trouble, instead I was motivated to see how well I could perform as I was a budding actress and simply relished in playing jokes on people. As I read over what I just wrote, admittedly my excuses really don’t improve my case…

One of the lies I used to propagate in school was that I was born in Wales. I am going to justify my bad behaviour by stating that for me it truly stemmed from a longing to be in touch with my Welsh roots. However, in retrospect it was partly a defence mechanism. You see I don’t look like your typical Australian girl with sun kissed skin and long blonde hair. As your typical red head with freckles and pale skin I always felt out of place and my welsh name ‘Meaghan,’ which teachers and students could never pronounce was a cause of daily bullying resulting in a desperate child wanting to be called a new name each week. I was fond of Charlene for a long time. By lying to people and embellishing my Welsh connection was a way to explain my Celtic looks and Gaelic name in an effort to justify my differences. This curiosity with the land of my ancestors has clearly been apparent from a young age and sparked my love for travel, culture, linguistics and history. So parents if your child is a compulsive liar don’t lose hope you just have a little dreamer on your hands.

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Having spent some time in Wales this past year quenched my initial thirst somewhat but its tranquil beauty left me wanting more each time. I always intended to drive around Wales myself upon expiration of my Irish visa but unfortunately this coincided with the expiration of my Australian driving license which serves me right for being cheap and only paying for a year of registration instead of 3-5 years. Therefore, I was relegated to the scenic north where the train line operates between Holyhead and London. Given that the majority of sites I wanted to see were in this part of the country I was content with how my timetable worked out despite the circumstances. Wales was everything I dreamt of and more and though I outgrew my need to lie compulsively I am glad I never outgrew my love for Wales.

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The Quick 5

How did you get there?

Depending on which way you are travelling, northern Wales is accessible by train with either Virgin or Arriva and I assure you for those who have never seen the Welsh countryside you too will be mesmerised by its charm as the route is incredibly scenic. Particularly as you pass through Anglesey you will see farm animals grazing on the side of the tracks upon green fields as far as the eye can see. For those coming from Ireland daily ferries depart from Dublin Port with Stena or Irish Ferries with a crossing time roughly 2.5 – 3 hours depending on weather.

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Make sure you arrive at the port with plenty of time to spare as check in closes well before departure time as listed on your ticket. If you do miss your departure please note tickets are not refundable but you might be lucky enough to be able to purchase another ticket for a crossing later in the day. Particularly if you are travelling with large suitcases if you arrive late you will not be able to check these in and will be relegated to carrying them on your person, which is just uncomfortable, for the entire journey. Upon disembarking at Holyhead, buses will be waiting to collect foot passengers to take you to the arrivals hall and for those that were organised this is where your luggage will be waiting for collection and your passports will be inspected. From here Holyhead station is only meters away and you will be London, Anglesey or Snowdonia bound in no time. Keep in mind trains also depart Holyhead for Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester Airport and the Welsh capital, Cardiff.

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Should you decide to travel direct through Wales from or to London the most cost effective ticket will be the sail/rail pass which will roughly set you back around 50 euro. Tickets are cheaper when booked in advance and if you intend to use this option than your ferry and train travel must occur on the same day… believe me they check. For people wanting to spend some time in Wales, you will have to buy separate tickets for the ferry and a separate ticket for the train when you arrive in Holyhead. However, ensure you organise your timetable well in advance as I made the mistake to book my train ticket from north Wales to London the day before departure setting me back 90 pounds (in addition to the cost of ferry ticket.) With that said train travel throughout the United Kingdom is known to be expensive so be prepared for your wallet to take a beating either way.

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For my fellow Londonites, travelling north will take roughly four hours and will sometimes involve changing at Chester or Conwy resulting in a slightly longer journey. I cannot stress enough the importance of not only booking a ticket but reserving a seat on this route. For those coming from Holyhead, a reservation is not overly necessary as I have always managed to get a seat, primarily because I make the crossing very early. If you are travelling later in the day and on the weekends it might be best to plan ahead. Unfortunately for those leaving from London’s Euston station will need to prepare themselves for crowds and a long journey standing if you have not made arrangements for seating. I learnt this the hard way.

How did you cope without driving?

I am not exactly the world’s most confident driver so in a sense relying on public transport was probably best for the safety of the Welsh people. If you intend on visiting Anglesey, Snowdonia and the small towns of north Wales it is possible to get around via public transport which I found surprisingly efficient. In my experience, the university town of Bangor is the most central place to be located because not only is it served by a myriad of bus connections to neighbouring towns but also sits directly on the train line for those crossing from Holyhead to London or for those wanting to catch the train to the coastal town of Conwy.

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If you’re venturing to Anglesey in the warmer months, hiring a bicycle for a couple of days would be ideal for cardio enthusiasts. There are many routes on offer and given both how small and quiet Anglesey is you are bound to cover a lot of ground in a safe environment. However, if your visit is during the winter months, unless you are a professional or a local familiar with the ground, I would not consider this option as you will be in a race against diminishing light and fighting never ending dampness.

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Where did you stay?

Situated next to Bangor’s railway station is the Garden Hotel, which was where we elected to stay. As I had several pieces of luggage with me, having left Ireland permanently earlier that day, it was easier for my partner and I to be based in Bangor instead of moving from town to town throughout our stay. The Garden Inn is a family run site that is warm, clean and cosy. As I write this I truly miss my time spent there and would undoubtedly elect to stay there again if I was to return to Wales. The Garden Inn has a cantonese restaurant on site which is reflective of how culturally diverse the university town is and close to the high street where buses to Beaumaris (53, 56, 57, 58) and Caernarfon (5C) depart. For travellers with heavy luggage keep in mind this is an old building not fitted with elevators, so don’t bring anything that you cannot carry yourself.

Tips, tricks and advice?

A trip to northern Wales is not complete without climbing the medieval walls of Caernarfon castle. My brother and sister in law had the opportunity to live in Caernarfon many years ago when I was 15 and from the moment I heard their stories and saw their pictures I was enraptured and made it my mission to visit one day. When I stumbled across this historic gem which literally is based in the town square I was overcome with emotion to finally be standing before this intimidating fortress where many a Welsh prince has been crowned. With adult admission only 8 pounds, a family ticket 22 pounds and free admission for children under 5, Caernarfon Castle is brilliant for kids of all ages and those still young at heart. There are many exhibitions within the castle walls so you will want to devote a solid few hours to exploration.

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Most towns mentioned in this article are small enough to explore in one day, some even half a day, but should you wish to cruise the Menai Straits or venture to Puffin Island in order to appreciate the marine wildlife which inhabits Anglesey then give yourself enough time in Beaumaris when visiting from April through to October. There are several tour operators ( Starida, Seacoast Safaris and Anglesey Boat Tours) offering tourists a chance to partake in this aquatic adventure with similar packages at incredible prices. It is easy to underestimate how stunning the coast of Wales is because it is in the company of some tough European competition, but it is truly stunning and this is an activity I truly regret not being able to participate in.

What were your favourite eateries?

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I have been fortunate to gorge myself on cakes from all over the world. Finding and dining at little cafes is by far one of my favourite pastimes and a delectable way to familiarise yourself with a new town. The Pen-Y-Bryn Tea Rooms in Conwy has to be one of my favourite cafes in the world and their bara brith one of the tastiest baked treats I’ve had the pleasure of sampling.

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Yes, my Welsh blood is cause for bias but it is simply just a charming venue that serves delicious traditional food. The staff are incredibly courteous and with the venue established in the 16th century just makes dining at Pen-Y-Bryn Tea Rooms that more special. In addition, similar to most of northern Wales prices are inexpensive and thus caters to every travellers budget.

For those visiting the small town of Beaumaris, be sure to visit The Little Chilli Shop, a pastel pink fiery heaven hidden just off the main street. For those looking for culinary gifts or looking to indulge their senses be sure to visit this small store where the staff’s passion for chilli and warm hospitality will leave even those with a palette for everything sweet crossing to the spicy side. To put it simply, these men know their chilli! There are a range of spreads to select from, chilli based lollies which are strangely addictive and my personal favourite chocolate infused with a hint of chilli. It really is a place that offers something for everyone.

During your time in Beaumaris, the Ye Old Bulls Head Inn is a cosy place to grab a drink and a hearty Welsh meal. One of life’s greatest pleasures is relaxing at a quality pub and indulging in a refreshing cider by the warm fire with my partner at the Ye Old Bulls Head Inn is and will always be one of my happiest memories. The venue is quaint, filled with friendly locals and tourists alike and is just one of those inviting places that makes you want to pack up and move to the countryside. Voted the ‘Best Restaurant in Wales’ when you sample the delectable cuisine you too will understand why the establishment has been awarded with several honours.

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In conclusion, Wales is incredibly underrated. I understand that when most people visit the United Kingdom they base themselves in London and only have a limited time in this part of the world. However, the United Kingdom is incredibly diverse and its splendour also lies in its scenery. When I think of Wales I think of a land untouched, a natural landscape that can only be described as ethereal. They say that Tolkien when writing the Lord of the Rings was inspired by the Welsh language to create Sindarin one of the elvish languages. Elves are serene and mysterious beings and combined with the fact that Welsh is over 4000 years old I can fully appreciate why Tolkien’s Middle Earth drew upon Welsh influence and the correlation he was attempting to make.

Include Wales in your exploration of the United Kingdom and allow yourself to be enchanted.

Cymru am byth!

Happy travels
Xo

*Note: Thank you to Yasir Badani for his assistance with the images of myself featured and for being my patient model. Follow his adventures around the globe @yasirbad*

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