*The writer was a guest of the Welsh Tourism Board however all views expressed are my own.
Few visitors to the UK go to ‘just Wales’ and so when I arrived at London Heathrow (LHR) and filled out on my customs form that I was going to Wales, I immediately drew suspicion.
The border patrol officer asked, “what do you mean you’re going to just Wales? Where else are you going?”
I said, “that’s it, I’m catching a train straight to Hereford, then staying in Hay-On-Wye. Then I’ll train up the coast before flying out of Manchester.” It wasn’t until I showed her my itinerary that she raised her eyebrows and stamped my passport. “Okay then, have fun.” she commented in a sarcastic tone.
You might know Wales as a little country famous for castles, but there’s so much more and it’s worth a visit all on it’s own.
England may have multiple accents but it’s easy to forget that Welsh is a unique Celtic language. The further from the English border you travel, the more widely it’s spoken. All signs are in English and Welsh and whatever language is on top, that’s the dominant one spoken in that region. It’s not imperative to know Welsh but like anywhere, it’s always appreciated and helps you to understand the culture. If you need a Welsh translation app, Speak and Translate does a good job.
Books wonderful books, in every genre and title
I flew from Delhi (DEL) to London (LHR) then caught a train to Hay-On-Wye and you couldn’t pick two places, more diverse. Delhi; a bustling hot metropolis of 25 million people compared to Hay-On-Wye; a quiet, cobblestone hill-side village with a population of 1500. However it’s the books that Hay-On-Wye is famous for.
An entire town with only secondhand bookshops. There’s a bookshop filled with Shakespeare, another sells only murder mysteries and there’s a cosy one that sells only children’s books. There’s an outdoor honesty bookshop in the grounds of the castle and many others. They’re also cheap. I was backpacking so had no intention of buying books, but when they’re 50p – £2 it’s hard to resist. I ended up with about a dozen, stuffing my day-pack with as many that would fit trying to keep my luggage underweight. I travelled on a Britrail Pass and the closest train station is Hereford. There’s a small local bus that will take you to Hay-On-Wye.
Is everything you were told not to do as a kid. ‘Don’t jump off the rocks, don’t climb up the wet rocks, don’t swim near the crashing waves’. It sounds extreme but your participation is based on your strength and ability. If you want to climb up to the top of a rock tower and jump off, feel free to do so. If you want to scale a slippery barnacle encrusted sheer rock-face, whilst hanging above icy Atlantic Ocean waves, the option is there for you. However if you prefer to just bob along in the waves, then that’s okay too. They kit you out in a wetsuit, life jacket and helmet. You bring your own sneakers and shorts to wear over the wetsuit (to protect the wetsuit not you). It’s loads of fun, it’s exhilarating, it gives you a whole other perspective of the ocean and I’m surprised it’s not more popular the world over.
Is more or less a big hill, but to say “I climbed the highest mountain in Wales” is still a feat that sounds impressive. It’s an easy uphill walk through paddocks or you can take a little railway. There’s a cafe at the top, it’s cold but offers wonderful 360 degree views over the surrounding countryside. I feel like I recently told my story about climbing Mt Snowdon on a podcast episode but I can’t recall which episode it relates to, so if I haven’t, I will. Stay tuned. Snowdonia National Park, Brecon Beacons and the coastline are all spectacular scenery, quiet without too many tourists, mostly locals. A nice escape from city life.
Trains, Trams and Canal Boats
Wales has multiple narrow-gauge railways which run both electric and steam making a journey by rail, unique. There’s even a town that still has a tram running down the Main Street. It has easy rail connections with England including Birmingham in the North and Hereford in the South and there’s direct trains from London to Cardiff. Whilst the train lines don’t flow the entire length of the country, it is possible to travel by rail, in conjunction with the occasional bus.
Llangollen (pronounced Klan-Gok-lan) is a picturesque postcard perfect town in North Wales where you can experience a short cruise on a canal boat, which crosses the Pontecysyllte Aqueduct; a stone bridge, 38 metres above the valley floor. If that’s not enough, it’s also horse drawn, as the original canal boats were when first constructed. If you’re considering hiring a canal boat, this half-day cruise is a good test run to see if you can handle the pace and close quarters. Tea, scones with clotted cream and blackberry jam make this a delightful way to view the surrounding countryside.
Sleep in a castle
Of course castles must be incorporated into your Wales adventure, but why not live out your ultimate Game of Thrones fantasy and sleep in one! Many have been lovingly restored and unlike other castle destinations, you can stay the night, often quite reasonably. Check out Swn yr Afon in the Brecon Beacons, Portmeirion Village and Castle Deudraeth in Porthmadog. Most accommodation in Wales is based on bed and breakfast and I ended up almost offending the owners when I asked, “please, no more bacon and eggs, just a piece of toast. It’s too much food.”
Caernarfon Castle (not to be confused with Caerphilly Castle) but often pronounced as Caernarvon Castle, just to be confusing is one of the tidiest castles in Wales and is part of the Heritage Pass. It’s spectacularly located on the water (though check the tides because sometimes it’s just mud) and like all castles has a lot of history. Prince Charles was ordained there making this significant. Like churches, It’s easy to glaze over after the fourth or fifth castle, so research ahead of time the ones you’re really interested in and stick to those. If you’re visiting more than two castles it makes sense to buy the Heritage Pass.
With flights to Europe cheaper than ever, put Wales on your next hit list for quiet relaxing scenery, spectacular coastlines, but a little adventure thrown in for excitement.
*NB: I have many glorious photos of Wales, but my external hard drive is currently sleeping, so as soon as I get it back up, I’ll add them in. Apologies.
Suggested Reading (all discounted prices with free global shipping):
Lonely Planet Guidebook: Wales
The book to help you plan, do, see and explore more, away from the tourist crowds, even when there’s no wifi. Since my first trip at 11, I always travel with a lonely planet guidebook.
A.J. McKinnon: The Unlikely Voyage of Jack De Crow
An Australian bloke sets off in a dinghy sailing the waterways of North Wales, ending up in the Black Sea. I was given this for my birthday when I was learning to sail and it was a funny and intriguing read.
Jan Morris: Wales, Epic Views of a Small Country
Jan is a travel writer, originally from Wales and this novel is her homage to the country she loves so much.