You can’t miss the castles (literally: they’re enormous). Nor should you miss out on the many other cultural and historical highlights of this stretch of coast. Here’s our starter for 10 along The North Wales Way.
The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is a masterpiece of Georgian engineering. Opened in 1805, it carries the Llangollen Canal high over the Dee River valley. You can walk or (better still) hire a canal boat or kayak to cross the world’s highest aqueduct. Llangollen’s other draws include the Llangollen Railway, white-water rafting on the Dee, and the superb annual International Eisteddfod.
Based in Mold, Theatr Clwyd is a highly effective regional arts centre, but where it truly excels is as a fearless producer of original drama. In Llandudno, Venue Cymru is a port-of-call for major touring acts/productions, including Welsh National Opera. Our oldest classical festival, the Gŵyl Gregynog Festival, has premiered works by Gustav Holst and Eric Whitacre.
Visible for miles away as you approach Conwy, this 13th century Conwy Castle is one of several local masterpieces by Edward I’s builder, James of St George. The castle still utterly dominates the town, which has one of the finest sets of town walls in Europe, with 21 towers and three gateways.
Zip World Velocity
The world’s fastest zip wires, and also Europe’s longest, soar for a mile (1.6km) over the Penrhyn Quarry, once the biggest quarry in the world. Zip World runs four parallel wires: lying flat in a harness, riders can easily top 100mph (160kph) as they fly 500ft (150m) above a lake.
The last of Edward I’s chain of fortresses is still the most technically perfect castle in Britain, with an ingenious ‘walls within walls’ layout. Edward never got round to finishing Beaumaris (he was distracted by unruly Scots). Even so, UNESCO ranks Beaumaris Castle as one of ‘the finest examples of military architecture in Europe’, and together with Edward’s other Welsh castles, this is a World Heritage site.
National Slate Museum
Some of our mountains are missing, as if a giant has bitten great chunks from them. That’s a legacy of the Welsh slate industry, which put a roof (literally) over the head of industrial Britain. The vast Dinorwig quarry closed in 1969, and now its Victorian workshops tell the story of how slate changed the North Wales landscape and people. It’s largely staffed by ex-miners, who skilfully bring the story to life. The National Slate Museum lies on the flanks of Snowdon by the shores of Llyn Padarn, at the terminus of the Llanberis Lake Railway.
Plas Newydd House & Gardens
The Plas Newydd House & Gardens on the shores of the Menai Strait is the seat of the Marquesses of Anglesey, and has the largest collection of artist Rex Whistler’s works, a military museum, and a fine spring garden. The 1st Marquess led the cavalry charge at the Battle of Waterloo, losing a leg to cannon fire. His wooden leg is displayed here (to be precise, it’s his ‘walking’ leg; he also had legs for riding and dancing).
Edward I began work on Caernarfon Castle in the 1280s to control North Wales, and it was designed to both to suppress and impress, with huge polygonal towers and colour-coded bands of stone. The conquest didn’t entirely succeed: the Caernarfon area has our highest population of Welsh speakers (nearly 90%). It’s an enjoyable town, too. To experience a bit of proper Cofi (that’s the name for locals, and their dialect) the bar of the Black Boy Inn is a good place to start.
St Dwynwen is our patron saint of lovers, whose day we celebrate on 25 January. She was a fifth century princess who set up a nunnery on the little peninsula of Llanddwyn Beach, which now has two lighthouses, a ruined chapel, several springs and wells, and a couple of pilot’s cottages which become a visitor centre in the summer. The beach is backed by Newborough Warren nature reserve and a forest that’s home to red squirrels and a huge roost of ravens.
South Stack Lighthouse
When the South Stack Lighthouse was built in 1809, visitors had to cross in a basket slung under a rope; today there’s a slender bridge from Holy Island, reached by a 400-step descent down the cliffs. It’s worth the effort: the surrounding South Stack Cliffs Nature Reserve is home to thousands of breeding seabirds including guillemots, razorbills and puffins, while seals, dolphins and porpoises are often spotted offshore.