Thursday, 29 May 2014

BARMOUTH



The stretch of coast running south from Shell Island to Barmouth is dominated by a sandy beach which is a cool seven miles long, backed by plenty of dunes for those who want to unleash their inner Lawrence of Arabia.  Towards the Barmouth end is the village of Llanaber, where the damage caused by the disastrous storms of the last winter caused the railway line from Barmouth to Harlech to be closed for several months, a closure that was rather less widely reported than that of the Dawlish line in Devon, but no less disruptive.  Thankfully, the line was recently reopened following 10 million pounds' worth of repairs.    

The resort of Barmouth, which originally grew up around shipbuilding, is beautifully located on the Mawddach estuary, which explains the town's Welsh name Abermaw.  The long sandy beach and picturesque harbour offer wonderful views of the coast, estuary and mountains.  One of the most prominent landmarks is the Barmouth Bridge, a railway bridge across the estuary which was opened in 1867, and which can also be crossed by walkers and cyclists, forming part of the Wales Coast Path.  Walkers can also take the Panorama Walk, which leads one and a half miles out of town to a spectacular viewpoint with estuary and mountain views.  Another viewpoint can be reached via a walk from the town to Dinas Oleu (Fort of Light), occupying the very first piece of land to be owned by the National Trust.  Near the fort is a spot known as 'the Frenchman's grave', the last resting place of Auguste Guyard, who fled from France during the Franco-Prussian War.

Back in the town itself, there is plenty for visitors to do.  As well as traditional family entertainments such as donkey rides and a funfair, there is the oldest building in Barmouth known as Ty Gwyn (the White House), which includes a small shipwreck museum dedicated to the wreck of the Bronze Bell.  The Round House (Ty Crwn) was used as a jail in the 19th century and gives a glimpse of life as a prisoner in those days.  The Dragon Theatre in a converted Victorian chapel offers a variety of cultural events.  Or just take a walk around the steep stepped streets and alleys of Old Barmouth, known as The Rock.  The Barmouth Heritage Trail guides visitors around the historic points of interest in the town.

Webcam views of Barmouth.

Map of the area.

File:Barmouth Harbour - geograph.org.uk - 1363561.jpg
Photo by Trevor Rickard, via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 26 May 2014

SHELL ISLAND AND LLANBEDR



One of the many pleasures to be had on the British seaside is to walk along the beach looking for interesting shells, and there can be few better places for doing this than the appropriately named Shell Island - or Mochras to the Welsh - just off the coast to the south of Harlech.  The island, which was formed when a local landowner diverted the River Artro, is actually more of a peninsula, accessible via a causeway.  Care should be taken because it is a tidal causeway which is subject to flooding at high tide.  There are over 200 kinds of shells to be found here, including oyster, scallop, razor cockle, cowrie and many others.  The shells are brought onto the island by offshore currents and by winter storms.  There is a campsite at Shell Island with the same name which is one of the largest in Europe, and if you want to find out more about the shells found here there is a display on them in the snack bar.  Just inland the village of Llanbedr has an interesting 16th century church with a stone which was found in the hills nearby showing a spiral pattern thought to date from the Bronze Age. The church also has examples of the so-called Brute Angels, stone memorials created by a family of stonemasons called Brute decorated with angels.

Map of the area.

File:Northern Tip of Shell Island - geograph.org.uk - 1425708.jpg
Photo by Nigel Mykura, via Wikimedia Commons


Wednesday, 21 May 2014

HARLECH



Judging by its elevated position, affording a commanding view of the narrow coastal plain below, of the surrounding mountains and across the open sea to the Llyn Peninsula, Harlech Castle, built by Edward I in the late 13th century as part of his 'iron ring', should have done a pretty good job of defending the surrounding area and keeping the Welsh at bay.  However, it did not stop Owain Glyndwr from taking the castle in 1404.  The lengthy siege which ensued during the Wars of the Roses was the inspiration for the song 'Men of Harlech' ("Men of Harlech, march to glory//Victory is hov'ring o'er ye" is how the stirring, belligerent lyrics begin).  The seaward side of the castle is mounted on a steep cliff which, in Harlech's heyday as a stronghold, would have had the sea much closer to hand than now, since the waters of Tremadog Bay have receded in the intervening centuries. 

The small town adjoining the castle, rather than cowering under it as with many such towns, is similarly high up and includes a pleasant mix of shops, cafes and pubs set among its steep, winding streets.  The town provided inspiration for the poet Robert Graves, who was a frequent visitor.  Harlech also featured in the Welsh medieval work of literature Mabinogion, which tells the mythological story of Branwen, daughter of Llyr.  The cultural hub is the Theatr Harlech, which lays on a range of concerts, plays, films etc. Golfers can visit the Royal St David's course with the ever-present castle watching over it.

Map of the area. 

File:Harlech Castle - geograph.org.uk - 676139.jpg
Photo by Peter Humphreys, via Wikimedia Commons



Sunday, 11 May 2014

PORTMEIRION



If I were a British secret agent who had been gassed in my London apartment and transported to a location at the other end of the country, I can think of worse places to wake up than Portmeirion.  This stunning location on the west coast of Wales will forever be associated with a quirky TV series first shown in 1967 called The Prisoner.  The main character, No. 6 (I am not a number, I am a free man), played by Patrick McGoohan, has just resigned from his job as a secret agent and the "prison" he ends up in following the gassing, known simply as The Village, is set in Portmeirion which, with its incongruous but lovely Italianate architecture and features, makes a suitably offbeat location for this rather oddball series which explores issues around identity and control.  

When I visited Portmeirion back in the 1980s it was a beautiful sunny day and I was completely entranced by the village, with its beautiful views of the Dwyryd Estuary and its elegant buildings and gardens.  The village was the creation of an architect called Clough Williams-Ellis, and the inspiration for its appearance arose from a holiday in Portofino taken by the architect in the 1920s.  There is a central piazza with food outlets and shops (including one, inevitably, selling Prisoner merchandise - I think I've still got my "I am not a number" teeshirt somewhere).  Portmeirion is famous for its pottery, which is also on sale. There are lovely walks through the gardens and woods leading to a sandy beach.  Fronting the estuary are a harbour and an upmarket hotel and self-catering cottages.  The grounds of the estate include Castell Deudraeth, a Victorian mansion which offers further accommodation.  A stay at Portmeirion will stretch the bank balace, but would make a wonderful venue for a special occastion such as an anniversary.

Map of the area.

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Photo by Lesbardd, via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 9 May 2014

PORTHMADOG



If you are a fan of heritage railways, Porthmadog makes an excellent base for a break in North Wales.  The town is the terminus of not one, but two heritage railways, both of which run through some of the country's most spectacular mountain scenery.  The Welsh Highland Railway, which we previously met at its other end in Caernarvon, follows a beautiful route past the foot of Mount Snowdon, stopping off at the pretty village of Beddgelert, and scattering nervous sheep and lambs in its wake.  The Ffestiniog Railway heads inland, crossing the Glaslyn Estuary and climbing up through the mountains to the old slate mining town of Blaenau Ffestiniog.  The Porthmadog Harbour railway station has recently undergone an expensive revamp, and there will be an official opening ceremony on 22 May, although the first trains from the two heritage railways have already started running from the station.

Porthmadog gets its name from William Madocks, who built a sea wall in 1811 in order to reclaim land for agricultural use.  The wall, known as The Cob, is the one used by the Ffestiniog Railway to cross the estuary.  The building of the wall led to the formation of a natural harbour, and this became an important port for the export of slate from Ffestiniog, as well as a shipbuilding centre.  The Maritime Museum tells the story of this seafaring past.  The estuary is a haven for wildlife, including migrating birds, and the view inland from The Cob is breathtaking, with the mountains of Snowdonia gracing the horizon.  There is a waterside arts centre called YGanolfan for cultured types.  

Map of the area. 

File:Afon Glaslyn - geograph.org.uk - 221533.jpg
View from The Cob. Photo by R Haworth, via Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, 3 May 2014

CRICCIETH



Criccieth's neat Victorian terraces are dominated by the ruins of its castle, high up on a grassy headland overlooking the bay.  The castle was built by the Welsh prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in the 13th century, but passed to the English when it was captured by Edward I in 1283.  However, the Welsh managed to grab it back in 1404, when it was taken by Owain Glyndwr during his rebellion.  The damage done to the castle during the final siege are still visible today in the form of cracks in the stonework.  The castle is run by Cadw, and has a visitor centre with an exhibition on castles built by the Welsh princes and on the 12th-century churchman Gerald of Wales, aka Giraldus Cambrensis.  The artist JMW Turner was inspired to paint the castle as a dramatic backdrop to a stormy scene with shipwrecked mariners being pulled from the sea.  The painting, titled simply Criccieth Castle, is on display at The British Museum.

To either side of the headland there are sand and pebble beaches, backed by a sea wall which shelters the seafront hotels.  The town, which is a popular family resort, has a pleasant mix of shops selling works by local artists, crafts and jewellery, and there is a terrific ice cream shop just below the castle.  The centrepoint of the town is the former medieval common known as Y Maes, and this is the venue for the annual Fairs held in early summer, one in May and another in June.  The Fairs date from the 13th century, and consist of a market, a funfair and much evening revelry.  A short distance from Criccieth is the village of Llanystumdwy, where former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George grew up.  There is a museum dedicated to him in the village, and he is also buried there.

Map of the area.

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Photo by Lesbardd, via Wikimedia Commons