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Snowdonia – Slate Central And So Much More

Malcolm Handley rekindles his love affair with the North West corner of Wales

Written by . Published on October 16th 2012.

Snowdonia – Slate Central And So Much More

THERE is something exhilarating and warming about returning to somewhere you once called home, even if it was only for a few years and around 30 years ago. It is akin to visiting an old friend, one you had an near-intimate and revealing relationship with, one that still invokes memories at the very mention.

So, after leaving Snowdonia and Meirionnydd many years ago with a library of fond memories and having had just one brief – and warm, welcoming visit since – I journeyed back to North Wales with my bag brim full of memories and the urge to embrace an old friend

I tried to reconnect with an ancient, lyrical language, which once was a difficult friend and now alas is a stranger, and the surprising discovery that once again memory is a very poor road map. Why are places never exactly where I left them?

Black Boy 2Black Boy – characterful lodging

Some places are etched so deeply in the memory they will never fade – Caernarfon and Harlech’s superb castles, Snowdon’s towering peak, the deep, dark slate mines, ever-changing countryside and, of course, that welcome.

Attractions of Snowdonia has wide selection of everything entertaining, interesting and worth seeing, from Cadwalader’s Ice Cream to Llechwedd’s Slate Caverns and most things in between.

Our first port of call was Gwynedd Museum, Bangor. Here you can set out the history of the region and place it in its context. Here you find out why “Welsh Not” was far more cruel than a children’s playground game and where you can put people, places and events into an entertaining time line.

It is a small museum but packed with much social history, you need to allow yourself more time than you might expect. You will also need time to find the place. It is close to the cathedral and quite convenient but it seems, from our experience, that many Bangor residents are not aware of this gem on their doorstep.

Penryhn Castle InteriorPenryhn Castle's imposing interior; below right, its fantasy towers

Penrhyn Castle ExteriorNext it was a short drive to Penrhyn Castle and Gardens where The National Trust’s painstaking research and superb restoration is making it a must see day out. Penrhyn is a magnificent fantasy castle with beautiful rooms, a history built on the wealth of contrasting Jamaican plantations and Welsh slate mines plus a welcoming team of guides and staff who make you feel special. Do see the slate bed on which Queen Victoria refused to spend the night – it is quite charming – then seek out some fine paintings and make time to visit the gardens, kitchens and café.

After those trips down history, culture and memory lanes it was time to settle down for an evening of good food, wine and a comfortable bed. All were provided at the historic Black Boy Inn within the walled city of Caernarfon. Excellent food from local ingredients out of which chef Marius has created an extensive menu. I recommend Menai Strait mussels, red mullet fillets and Welsh lamb. Then check out the wide-ranging wine list. I sampled a bottle of Anglesey Wine. No, not grapes from the slopes of Ynys Mon but an Australian vineyard of the same name.

Afterwards it was a stroll along the waterfront and a chance to admire the towering Caernarfon Castle, one of Edward’s ring of fortresses designed to subdue the “rebellious” Welsh and where Wales now subdues its more welcome invaders – tourists.  A brute of a fortress,  one of the most impressive of Welsh castles, worthy of its World Heritage status.

Then back to the Black Boy’s excellent bar and an alfresco wine to round off the evening. It is not just the food and drink which makes this such a great place to stay, although that is enough. It is an excellent base from which to explore.

Slate At The MuseumSlate in abundance at the National Museum

Next day it was off to Llanberis to the National Slate Museum, where slate’s importance to the social history and landscape of  Snowdonia is explored in a authentic setting. You can learn all about slate, enjoy watching slate splitting and, if you’re quick enough, you may be able to have a go yourself.

We followed this with the Inigo Jones Slate Works. Not a mine but a workshop where you can buy finely crafted pieces for garden and home and learn a great deal about the history, techniques and uses of various slates, through an excellent audio self-guided tour. If this doesn’t catch your imagination and rouse your interest in the material which gave Snowdonia its place in Welsh industrial history, I suspect nothing can. The tour ends with an opportunity for a hands-on attempt at carving in slate. You will probably be rubbish, but it is great fun.

Conwy CastleConwy Castle is an imposing presence on the North Welsh coast

After another enjoyable evening trawling through the Black Boy’s menu and wine list, we set off for Conwy Castle and Bodnant Gardens. Two very different sites, but both in their own way make compelling viewing. Conwy is another of Edward’s castles with its own fascinating history of sieges, betrayals and battles. Now, of course, its most frequent marauders are tourists who come to soak up its history and atmosphere and take a walk around the walls to see more of this small but fascinating city.

Bodnant GardensBodnant Gardens – simply magnificent

Bodnant Gardens are simply magnificent – an all-season, year-round attraction with a never ending diary of eye-catching displays from laburnum arches, fiery colours, subtle flowering shades, sweeping lawns, towering trees and picturesque lakes. It draws you close to nature, yet illustrates what thoughtful, horticultural intervention can create. Bodnant’s gardens are remarkable.

Snowdonia has a wealth of attractions around most corners and it is just a few hours’ drive away from Manchester and Liverpool. I wondered why I had not returned more often.

It is an area packed with history, heritage, atmosphere, excellent food, good ales and a warm welcome. What is there not to like about that for a weekend?

Fact file

Black Boy Four Poster BedBlack Boy – a four poster bedBlack Boy Inn Double room with breakfast from £85. Tel: 01286 673604 www.black-boy-inn.com
Penrhyn Castle www.nationaltrust.org.uk/penrhyn-castle/
Bodnant www.bodnantgarden.co.uk
Conwy and Caernarfon Castles www.cadw.wales.gov.uk
Gwynedd Museum, Bangor www.gwynedd.gov.uk
National Slate Museum, Llanberis www.museumwales.ac.uk/en/slate
Inigo Jones Slateworks www.inigojones.co.uk

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