Britain’s Got Talent is back on our screens. Travel editor Neil Sowerby meets a past BGT hero while on a crusade to enjoy himself in the wonderful walled town of Conwy...
CHOPPING wood, chopping wood, chopping, chopping wood. Who could forget that iconic Britain’s Got Talent moment that poleaxed even Simon Cowell? Shaun Sheehan – one small talent, one large chopper, oh what a knight!
Encountering the grey-bearded sixtysomething BGT semi-finalist in his full chain mail outfit, in the shadow of Conwy Castle didn’t seem quite so odd on a weekend when Wales’s striking World Heritage Site was awash with medieval wannabes.
Cue archery contests, lute strumming, mead-swigging and many a hey nonny nonny no in the taverns. More Blackadder than Black Prince but, if that’s not your bag, shield your eyes now
The town’s annual food showcase, Gwledd Conwy Feast was in full swing, the £5 ticket for which allowed free access to the Castle. Hence the ramparts were rammed with revellers. Shaun, an automotive engineering lecturer turned Sean Connery impersonator had conquered judges Cowell, Holden and Morgan with his multi-tasking talents combining singing with kindling (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R-alkwiGYy8).
Whether he had ventured across from his native Anglesey as a booked celebrity I had no idea. But I wouldn’t have bet against him storming the dominating dark stone fortress – built by Edward I in the 13th century as part of his “iron ring” to contain the Welsh.
It really does dominate the yacht-strewn estuary with the mountains of Snowdonia forming its inland backdrop. Quite a perfect introduction to medieval English oppression, educative yet fun, while the rest of the town is an understated delight with individual shops (Edwards butchers on the High street a particular treat) and pubs. Even jollier during food festival weekend.
After mounting the castle’s eight towers and hulking curtain wall, it’s best to do the circuit of the town walls – three quarters of a mile long with 22 towers – before descending to the quayside.
Here, in stark contrast to the castle, you’ll find the SMALLEST HOUSE IN GREAT BRITAIN. Despite the rain, a lady in Welsh costume, pointy hat and all, stood guard outside the very tiny, very red property. The Quay House is 10ft high by 6ft wide and was a residence from the 16th century until 1900 when council evicted the very tall fisherman who lived there. His descendants still run it as a tourist attraction. I visited as a very small child and was suitably underwhelmed.
One Conwy institution I had missed in the past was the Castle Hotel. For our visit to the Feast this hugely comfortable High Street coaching inn was our base. Yet another man in chain mail was checking in ahead of us (“One knight, only, with breakfast, please”) but we were suitably medievalised by now.
The Castle has its own history. On the site of a Cistercian abbey, it was formed by the merger of two famous hostelries, The Castle and the 15th Century King's Head. A Victorian facelift of local granite and Ruabon brick gives it its distinctive appearance. Inside it’s rambling and creaky in a nice way as it must have been when visited by luminaries such as Thomas Telford, George Stephenson, William Wordsworth... and the Queen of Romania, who lunched in the restaurant while visiting nearby Llandudno.
We had dinner in the hotel’s Good Food Guide acclaimed but laid-back Dawsons restaurant. The Conwy mussel dishes are exceptional. You can order all the same food, masterminded by Graham Tinsley, manager of the Welsh culinary team, in the merry bar, which champions local microbreweries.
The Castle Hotel reputedly has a resident ghost – of a chambermaid – but for an altogether more chilling agenda walk up the High Street to Plas Mawr. This surviving Elizabethan merchant’s house regularly features in lists of Britain’s spookiest buildings.
Architecturally, it is a Grade 1-listed gem with its tall lime-rendered walls and an altogether more ornate interior with authentic plasterwork and furnishings. But it is the spirits reputed to haunt it that have led to popular Thursday night ghost tours in high season.
The watchtower is the spooky epicentre. Here Lady Dorothy Wynn would wait to glimpse her rich merchant husband Robert returning home from his latest voyage.
But on one stormy night in 1598, pregnant and carrying a young child in her arms, she stumbled down the ladders and was mortally injured. A doctor was sent for. Inexperienced, he tried to flee but was locked in by the maid. The returning Robert Wyatt found mother and child dead but the doctor had disappeared from the locked room. It is believed he had climbed up the chimney. His body was never found.
To this day, it is claimed the ghost of Robert Wynn still rages around the mansion, seeking revenge on the doctor. One of several spectres in Plas Mawr.
The estuary Robert Wynn sailed into is boat-lover’s heaven. A bargain way to savour it today is to take a boat taxi across to Deganwy. A welcoming destination there is the Quay Hotel and Spa, with its modern waterfront facilities and stupendous views across to the Edward !’s fortress.
Only open since 2007, it has overtaken The Castle Hotel (and the Queen of Romania) as a celebrity bolthole. The Spa, best in these parts, is a major draw. My companion loved her hot stones massage – a more thorough experience than some and terrific value at £65.
Full day and half day spa packages, including a light lunch and use of Espa products, are just £149 and the hotel also offers residential spa packages. A welcome antidote to the excesses of Conwy at Feast time.
The most dramatic way to arrive in Conwy is by train on the Crewe to Holyhead line. You cross via a terrific bridge into the heart of the walled town. We drove via the more mundane A55, which has been bedeviled by bridge works near Rhyl for months Castle.
The Castle Hotel, High Street Conwy LL32 8DB (01492 582800 www.castlewales.co.uk). Club rooms start at £170, premium at £185, including breakfast, but out of season the hotel runs a series of special offers which bring prices down considerably.
The Quay Hotel and Spa, Deganwy Quay, Deganwy, Conway, North Wales, LL31 9DJ (01492 564 100; www.quayhotel.com). Courtyard twin rooms start at £175, rising to £285 for penthouse suites overlooking the Conwy Estuary and Castle. For prices of spa packages visit www.quayhotel.co.uk/quay-spa/non-resident-spa-packages/
Gwledd Conwy Feast 2011 will be held on October 22 and 23, 10m-5pm. To get a flavour of what to expect, visit www.gwleddconwyfeast.co.uk. This year it cost only a fiver for a day ticket – amazing value for a true showcase of local produce, everything within walking distance.
Conwy Castle. Adults £4.60, Reduced rate £4.10. Family Ticket £13.30 – admits 2 adults and up to 3 children under 16. For opening hours ring 01492 592358.
Plas Mawr. Adults £4.95. Reduced rate £4.60. Family Ticket £14.50 – admits 2 adults and up to 3 children under 16. For opening hours ring 01492 580167.
For full tourism information on North Wales, visit www.nwt.co.uk.
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