Exploring castles, cuisine and coastal secrets on a slow road trip in North Wales

Conwy Castle (Shutterstock)

Conwy Castle (Shutterstock)

A slow drive along the North Wales Way, from the English border to Anglesey, reveals not only a land of incredible local food and castles, but a region that is slowly reimagining itself

Words David Atkinson

Angharad encouraged me to stick my nose deep into the barrel.

“Go on,” she smiled, “give it a good sniff. The Madeira wine one is my favourite.” Somewhat fazed, I obliged and inhaled deeply while she talked the rest of the group through the process of using old bourbon and sherry casks to mature post-fermentation whisky.

“I was always a brandy girl, but I’ve come to appreciate the complexity of whisky,” she told me as we headed to the tasting room for the end of our visit.

I had joined the distillery tour at Penderyn in Llandudno just days after Welsh whisky was awarded Protected Geographical Indication (UK GI) status – a recognition of its all-Welsh operation. It came as a revelation to me. After all, I’d visited North Wales many times before, first as a child and then later with my own children; in all that time, I’d enjoyed its castles, coastal walks and seaside breaks, but never its single malts before.

The all-female distillery team at Penderyn in Llandudno, along with the company’s sister sites in Brecon and Swansea, will soon be producing up to 2.5m bottles of whisky each year, having recently beaten the Scottish and Irish to the plaudits at the Spirits Business World Whisky Awards. By the time I’d extracted my nose from the cask, I was already starting to see North Wales in a new light. But, then again, that was the idea all along.

My visit to the distillery was part of a road trip along the North Wales Way, one of three new national routes devised by Visit Wales to look afresh at regions most people think they already know. Visitors often travel from the North Wales border, outside Chester, to the tip of Anglesey in a day, either bombing down the A55 or trundling the train line that chugs alongside it, but they miss out on all the fun by doing so. I have certainly been guilty in the past of being too preoccupied with the destination to realise that the journey, spanning 120km of seascapes and mountains, reveals epic tales of Welsh heritage, folklore and adventure, among other delights. It was time to look afresh at North Wales.

Item 1 of 3

Visitors sample the whiskies of Penderyn Distillery, which is well known for its single malts (Visit Wales)

Visitors sample the whiskies of Penderyn Distillery, which is well known for its single malts (Visit Wales)

Welsh whisky was given a well-overdue Protected Geographical Indication status recently, a recognition long since granted to its Irish and Scottish cousins (Visit Wales)

Welsh whisky was given a well-overdue Protected Geographical Indication status recently, a recognition long since granted to its Irish and Scottish cousins (Visit Wales)

One of many sculptures now found dotted around Caernarfon Castle (Tony Trasmundi)

One of many sculptures now found dotted around Caernarfon Castle (Tony Trasmundi)

Rewriting history

I had started my North Wales odyssey a few days earlier by revisiting a couple of the region’s big attractions, beginning at Caernarfon Castle. Its impressive fortifications form part of the ‘iron ring’ of castles constructed under King Edward I to crush the 13th-century rebellion of the Princes of Gwynedd. Along with the castles at Conwy, Harlech and Beaumaris, it has attracted UNESCO World Heritage status, but its story is now also getting a bit of a twist. A recently unveiled £5 million pine-and-glass upgrade to the King’s Tower gatehouse is recasting the imperial history of Edward’s bastide (fortress town).

Caernarfon Castle is the most impressive of Edward I’s so-called ‘Ring of Iron’ fortifications, a chain of castles the English king had built to subdue locals in the 13th century (Alamy)

Caernarfon Castle is the most impressive of Edward I’s so-called ‘Ring of Iron’ fortifications, a chain of castles the English king had built to subdue locals in the 13th century (Alamy)

The idea behind the project, according to lead custodian Hannah Litherland, was to shift the story from Edward to the hands of the people who built the castle, including local stonemasons and female embroiderers. As such, 12 new sculptures were commissioned to symbolise the skills of these medieval craftspeople. A new viewing platform, meanwhile, looks out over the city walls – which were, ironically, built to keep the Welsh out – and gazes over to the mountain passes where the local resistance once gathered.

The statement sculpture, located atop the new gatehouse (which has an accessible lift), depicts Edward’s legacy in pieces, the accompanying verse from the 16th-century Anglesey poet Dafydd Trefor cheekily highlighting how a Welsh flag now flies over a castle built by an English king to subjugate the Welsh. It reads: “Where is Edward… He himself is silent, away in his grave.”

The sculptures of Caernarfon Castle help retell the story of the building from a local standpoint (Alamy)

The sculptures of Caernarfon Castle help retell the story of the building from a local standpoint (Alamy)

After a quick lesson in reframing Welsh history, I headed onwards, crossing the Britannia Bridge to the island of Anglesey in order to find the Norman settlement of Beaumaris. This is now the visitor hub of the island, busy with day trippers. The attractive high street of gift shops, galleries and cafés was doing a brisk trade, while the perennial queues outside the Red Boat ice-cream parlour were snaking back towards the old harbour. Charles Dickens stayed at Ye Old Bull’s Head Inn in Beaumaris when he visited Anglesey as a journalist in 1859 to report on a maritime disaster off the island’s coast; he was a bit sniffy about the cuisine, but now it’s all comforting pub food and local produce.

Nearby lies Plas Newydd, the stately former pile of the Marquess of Anglesey, which was gifted to him after he served as second in command to Wellington at the 1815 Battle of Waterloo. The war-hero first marquess, whose effigy looms over southern Anglesey from a giant Doric column, lost his leg at Waterloo. His replacement limb – one of the world’s first moveable prosthetics – is now on display in the house’s Waterloo room.

The curators here are also working to reframe the story of the local landowning family. A new series of art installations, ‘All That Was Left’, tells the lesser-known tale of the black-sheep fifth marquess, Henry Cyril Paget. Known as the ‘Dancing Marquess’, he was a flamboyant character who died in 1905 having squandered his annual allowance and run up debts of £40 million (in today’s money) in the pursuit of the arts and high living.

Beaumaris is one of the world’s great unfinished castles (Alamy)

Beaumaris is one of the world’s great unfinished castles (Alamy)

A contemporary of Oscar Wilde, the scandalous insolvency of the marquess led to the Great Anglesey Sales of 1904, when 18,000-odd lots of his personal possessions, ranging from clothes to furniture, were sold off to the local community to clear his debts. The auctioneers even sold his housekeeper’s parrot, which reputedly swore in three different languages. The Welsh artist Alison Neighbour has recreated the assorted lots with ghost-white installations that run throughout the property’s labyrinthine rooms to tell a story that has been swept under the heavy, dusty carpets for years.

“The fifth marquess was a man before his time. I’ve come to feel he was looking for something with his extravagance that he never quite found,” said Taya Drake, project curator for the exhibition. “It’s a tragic story but, through research for this project, we’ve come to better understand a forgotten member of the family.”

The Anglesey town of Beaumaris is a muddle of medieval, Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian architecture (Alamy)

The Anglesey town of Beaumaris is a muddle of medieval, Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian architecture (Alamy)


Rural detour

The next day, I cruised into Llanberis on a detour from the main route, following the switchback roads of Eryri National Park (Snowdonia), overlooked by its brooding, mist-shrouded peaks and rugged, sheep-grazing mountain passes. It’s easy to dismiss North Wales as kiss-me-quick territory, brassy as a B&B landlady in a smeared pinnie, but hidden between the Wales Coast Path and the mountains of the Eryri (Snowdonia) range are an array of lost-in-time villages and ancient sites. These are typically found within a 30-minute drive of the North Wales Expressway that most people hurtle down, oblivious to the area’s treasures.

Arriving mid-morning into Llanberis, I made my way to the Snowdon Mountain Railway, a Victorian-era rack-and-pinion service scaling the highest mountain (1,085m) in England and Wales. There was already a Gore-Tex-clad crowd gathering there, but I had other plans; I knew that, just 200m away, towards Padarn Country Park, an ancient structure slumbered undisturbed. I parked nearby and followed a short but steep woodland trail, crossing a gurgling stream to emerge through the trees at Dolbadarn Castle, the domain of Llywelyn the Great, which was still maintaining its lonely vigil over the mountains.

“The auctioneers sold off a parrot that reputedly swore in three different languages“

Built in around 1220 AD, the castle survived the demise of the Princes of Gwynedd under Edward I and was later captured in watercolours by JMW Turner, who eulogised its ‘darkness, solitude and silence’. Almost alone, lost in the landscape and my own thoughts, this felt like the defining moment of my journey – what the Welsh would call hiraeth, a longing for an ancient homeland.

In Beddgelert, later that day, I encountered an equally moving glimpse of local heritage. While the day trippers were hustling for a scoop of wild cherry at the Glaslyn ice-cream parlour in the village, I followed the path along the river in search of an ancient Welsh legend

Gelert’s Grave is said to be where Prince Llywelyn buried his faithful dog, who he killed after mistakenly believing it had savaged his child (Alamy)

Gelert’s Grave is said to be where Prince Llywelyn buried his faithful dog, who he killed after mistakenly believing it had savaged his child (Alamy)

According to the story, Prince Llywelyn left Gelert, his faithful dog, in charge of his infant son while he went hunting. He returned to find the dog covered in blood, so he took his sword to him, only to then discover the infant asleep beside a dead wolf, slain by Gelert to save the child. The dog’s grave, said to have been built by the remorseful prince, is marked with a stone and a plaque explaining how he never smiled again. It’s probably just a folk tale but, on a busy summer’s day in Eryri, it offered a peaceful meander through the mists of Welsh folklore.

Item 1 of 3

A woman in traditional dress stands by the smallest house in Great Britain, nestled in the corner of Conwy’s quayside – it’s barely 2m wide and not much more than 3m high (Alamy)

A woman in traditional dress stands by the smallest house in Great Britain, nestled in the corner of Conwy’s quayside – it’s barely 2m wide and not much more than 3m high (Alamy)

Hikers make their way along the Llanberis Pass trail, which is one of the longest routes up Yr Wyddfa (Mount Snowdon) but arguably the easiest (Alamy)

Hikers make their way along the Llanberis Pass trail, which is one of the longest routes up Yr Wyddfa (Mount Snowdon) but arguably the easiest (Alamy)

Llandudno’s promenade is over 3km long and is the centrepiece of the Victorian resort town; South Stack Lighthouse lies on the westernmost tip of Anglesey, atop a small rocky island known as Ynys Lawd, and is a guiding light for vessels crossing the Irish Sea (Alamy)

Llandudno’s promenade is over 3km long and is the centrepiece of the Victorian resort town; South Stack Lighthouse lies on the westernmost tip of Anglesey, atop a small rocky island known as Ynys Lawd, and is a guiding light for vessels crossing the Irish Sea (Alamy)

A fresh view

The next day, I was back on the main coastal road, stopping for a stroll along the pebble beach at Llandudno’s quieter West Shore. This is where Victorian author Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) first met a young Alice Liddell, who was taking the sea air with her family. The impression the young girl made on him went on to inspire his novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

I later wandered the cobblestone lanes of Conwy, where the high street is home to independent local producers such as Dylan’s deli, Parisella’s ice-cream and Vinomondo, which sells local microbrewery ales, Welsh spirits, and wines from the nearby Conwy Vineyard. Most intriguing of all was a small, white-fronted shop just within the medieval town walls, where Mark and Emma Baravelli run an artisan chocolaterie, creating bespoke creations for clients that include the London store Liberty and Regent Seven Seas Cruises. Their home-grown business took off after a starring role in the Channel 4 TV series Extreme Chocolate Makers in 2019, and recent commissions include a Fabergé-style egg with a powder-blue motif, plus a flock of tiny birds with delicate, chocolate-carved wings. Each hand-painted project can take up to a week to craft.

South Stack Lighthouse lies on the westernmost tip of Anglesey, atop a small rocky island known as Ynys Lawd, and is a guiding light for vessels crossing the Irish Sea (Alamy)

South Stack Lighthouse lies on the westernmost tip of Anglesey, atop a small rocky island known as Ynys Lawd, and is a guiding light for vessels crossing the Irish Sea (Alamy)

“I love the way we enjoy chocolate with all the senses. For me, every step of the chocolate-making process is an opportunity for creativity,” said Emma, a former textiles designer turned cocoa-butter artist.

I agree, and I couldn’t resist a take-home box of luxury, fresh chocolates, including dipped cherries, raspberry creams and a dark-chocolate ganache flavoured with Penderyn whisky. “I love the violet creams,” smiled Emma. “That’s my go-to desert-island luxury.”

Before heading for home, I made one last stop, and it turned out to offer a truly fresh perspective on North Wales. The faded seaside town of Rhyl is the base for the latest project from Zip World, a company that operates adrenaline sports attractions across Wales. The Skyflyer air balloon, tethered to the ground, flies 20 people at a time some 150m above the Rhyl promenade, offering North Walian views that stretch from Moel Famau in the Clwydians AONB to the heart of the Eryri range.

“Llandudno’s quieter West Shore is where author Lewis Carroll first met a young Alice Liddell“

The company already has several sites in North Wales, ranging from the Velocity zip wire at the former Penrhyn slate quarry to an underground crazy golf course at the erstwhile Llechwedd quarry. However, according to the fast-talking Zip World co-founder Sean Taylor, Skyflyer could kickstart a new golden age for this old resort town.

“Rhyl is a sleeping giant,” he enthused over coffee at the Pavilion Theatre adjoining the Skyflyer base. “It was the bucket-and-spade seaside town of my childhood but could become North Wales’ answer to New Zealand’s South Island.” While soaring above the push-penny arcades, with Liverpool and the Isle of Man on the horizon, I couldn’t help but admire Sean’s enthusiasm for the town’s future.

If Rhyl is still dozing, the larger giant of North Wales has definitely started to stir. It’s a thought that had crossed my mind earlier, at the Penderyn distillery, when I joined tour guide Angharad in the tasting room to sample a snifter of Rhiannon whisky, named after a powerful enchantress who appears in a collection of 11th-century Welsh folk tales known as The Mabinogion. As we savoured the hints of vanilla and caramel, I reflected on how travelling the North Wales Way had shifted my perspective on a place I thought I knew. In reframing its history and celebrating its local food heroes, the area is enjoying a timely renaissance.

“I’m local to the region, and I’ve seen this place evolve fast,” smiled Angharad as I drained my glass. “These days I can walk into my local pub and order a Penderyn old fashioned. Nobody,” she laughed, “even bats an eyelid.”

Five highlights in North Wales

1. Railway travel

Heritage rail enthusiasts will find lots to celebrate in North Wales, with the combined Welsh Highland Railway (from Caernarfon) and the Ffestiniog Railway (Porthmadog–Blaenau Ffestiniog) chugging for 65km through the landscape of Eryri NP (Snowdonia). festrail.co.uk

2. Portmeirion

The Italianate-style village of Portmeirion was the vision of the architect Clough Williams-Ellis. It was founded in 1925 as a ‘home for fallen buildings’ and has been a haven for artists ranging from Noel Coward to The Beatles. portmeirion.wales

3. Bodnant Garden

A historic, Grade I-listed horticultural gem in the Conwy Valley, Bodnant was established in 1874 by the industrialist Henry Pochin. Its most famous display is the Laburnum Arch, a cascade of yellow flowers that bloom in late May. nationaltrust.org.uk

4. Beaumaris Castle

Beaumaris Castle was meant to be the final piece in King Edward I’s ‘Ring of Iron’. Its design consists of concentric rings – a moat, outer ward wall and inner wall. It’s essentially a castle within a castle, but it was never finished because Edward’s attention turned to Scotland. cadw.gov.wales

4. Llanfair PG

This tiny town on Anglesey is famous for having the second-longest place name in the world (with 58 characters), though it is often shortened to just Llanfair PG. The village sign at the train station is a popular selfie stop for visitors.