Richard Zahra Freelance Writer

Snowdonia: land of myths and mountains

by Richard Zahra


            Our visit to Snowdonia was a short excursion off the main route of a longer holiday. My wife and I wanted to tour the Lakes and Scotland . We toyed with the idea of a short excursion to North Wales as our flight was due to take us to nearby Manchester. After some pondering, we decided to spend the first three days of our journey in Snowdonia.

We sent am e-mail to the Welsh Tourist Board, explaining that we were interested in culture, history and nature walks. A few days later, our letter box was brimming with colourful, eye-catching brochures.

            Snowdonia is  the north-western portion of Wales . It consists of a mountain range and  a stretch of coast. We decided to base ourselves at Betws-y-Coed, pronounced betoossycoyid or something similar! The Welsh language includes w and y amongst its vowels, making pronunciation quite a hard task for a foreigner!

Betws, as we affectionately called it, was a  quaint village cradled by dense woodland and awe-inspiring mountain country. Due to its strategic position, the village was a ‘gateway to Snowdonia.’ It was set right in the middle of a multitude of historic sites, not to mention areas of  breathtaking natural beauty.

            We searched for lodging via the British Tourist website and found Cwmanog Isaf Farm Guesthouse, a small working farm, run by Mr and Mrs Hughes. We contacted them via e-mail and booked three nights, bed-and-breakfast.

It was a wise choice. The place was impeccably clean, with en-suite facilities, and a stupendous view of wooded mountains could be enjoyed from each of the three bedrooms available.

As a bonus, we found out that we were within a few minutes’ walk of a place called ‘Fairy Glen.’ The place certainly lived up to its name. It was not difficult to imagine fairies leaping from tree to tree and jumping into the limpid waters of the river that ran along the glen. Did I say fairies or monkeys?

            Our hostess, Mrs Hughes was a hardy but gentle woman, who took care of the farm animals and the guests with equal meticulousness. For three consecutive mornings she provided us with a Welsh breakfast fit for kings and queens, that was worth the value of a meal in money, and the value of three healthy meals in calories! But who cares for calories when on holiday? The milk was choice, being freshly provided by the farm cows, with whom we were on very good terms. They were very aptly named after flowers like, Primrose, Daisy and Lilly, to suit the wonderful surroundings where they grazed.

The author holding Primrose, with Daisy and Mrs Hughes observing

            Snowdon Mountain was a lure that we could not resist. At one thousand and eighty five metres, it is the highest peak in England and Wales . Perhaps, compared to the giant mountain ranges of the world, it does not seem so daunting, but what it lacks in altitude, it makes up for in wild, unspoilt beauty.

The rugged Snowdon peaks

We drove from Betws to Llanberris, a former slate-mining community, now a base camp for those seeking to climb Snowdon . The green-clad giant, Yr Widdfa, Welsh for Snowdon ,  looked at us benevolently from his towering height. He was the ruler amongst the other peaks of Snowdonia. No wonder Snowdon had fired the imagination of Welsh people, giving rise to many legends and myths.

We longed to climb up its ragged paths, but we were not prepared for the task, so reluctantly, we had to abandon the idea and appease ourselves with a short walk by its side. During that walk, I recalled a medieval pioneer in travel writing: Gerald of Wales.

Gerald was a monk who lived in the eleventh century. He travelled through Wales and wrote a travelogue named ‘The Journey through Wales .’ After visiting the Snowdon peaks, he wrote: “they seemed to rear their lofty summits right up to the clouds.” According to Gerald, the Snowdon mountains were called Eyri by the Welsh, that means, the haunt of eagles – a very fitting name indeed!

            Having a fetish for history, we could not fail to visit some of the great castles of North Wales . Our first venue was Caernarfon castle, the strongest castle built by Edward the first of England . This warrior king built a chain of strong castles in North Wales to secure the conquest of this turbulent country. Caernarfon was built to mirror the walls of Constantinople , the city, that the King had visited while undertaking a Crusade in the thirteenth century. The great castle became a symbol of his conquest and power in Wales . English labourers had to be press-ganged into service during its building as no one was foolhardy enough to volunteer to work in wild Wales . This was the place where the first Prince of Wales, Edward I’s son, was invested with that title.

Caernarfon Castle - the bailey

            Conwy castle, was another Edwardian site that we visited. Although it covered a smaller area than Caernarfon, it was more menacing. Its thick walls were tailored to fit a rock site that guarded the entrance to the river Conwy. Its massive towers were a terrifying symbol of strength, domination and permanence of the English rule in Wales . No wonder the Welsh hated these castles.

Spanning the river just below the castle, we could also admire the Telford suspension bridge, a one-lane passage through which all traffic to North Wales had to pass in order to cross the river. Nowadays, the increase in volume of traffic has spurred the building of a wider bridge sending Telford bridge into honourable retirement.

We toured Conwy Castle under the guidance of a nimble, elderly Welsh tourist guide, who carried a walking stick but used it more as a stage prop than as a support. The man had a theatrical talent and entertained us with vivid performances of tales from the middle ages. When we told him we were Maltese, he announced merrily that he visited Malta regularly and that he had a great liking for the Maltese. From then on, we were the subject of many an envious glance from the other tourists!

At one instance, our friendly guide asked if someone knew why the spiral staircases were built to go up in an anti-clockwise manner. Seeing that no one had a clue, I promptly said: “It is common knowledge to all Maltese, that the purpose is to expose the attackers’ unshielded side!” My answer was applauded heartily. No one suspected that it was one of the few facts that still lingered in my memory from secondary school History lessons. From then on, the other tourists in the group began treating me like some history guru!

Close to Conwy castle, we visited Bodnant Garden , an oasis of landscaped beauty and stunning flora. We could not help but wonder at the creative genius of the mind that designed the layout of the garden. Walking along the paths amid blooming flowers and an immense variety of trees, we almost got the feeling that this was Nature’s work, rather than a place contrived by Man.

            Gardens may truly be spectacular, but untamed nature puts them into shadow. One of the books we had received from the Welsh Tourist Board was entitled, Your Guide to Walking in Snowdonia. During our short stay, we could not possibly cover all the walks, but we decided to embark on a ramble entitled, Around the Lakes from Trefriw.

We drove to the little village of Trefriw early in the morning, and parked near the old woollen mill. The mill had been producing traditional goods for over a hundred and fifty years, using environmentally friendly hydroelectric power, generated by water from nearby lakes.

We climbed an ascending path, winding through fields stifled by bracken ferns. On the way we passed by the gutted, eerie remains of the old Klondike lead mine. We felt completely isolated in the wilderness, where the only sounds we could hear were those of the gurgling water, rustling leaves and, occasionally, hissing noises from within the vegetation.

According to the guidebook we were heading for a lake called Llyn Crafnant. We walked for hours without meeting a soul, and soon we could not make head or tail of where we were going. Then, the clouds parted to reveal a radiant sun that quickly reassured our spirits.. We had brought food in our rucksacks, and that made us feel bold.

When we started feeling the first signs of fatigue, we contemplated a rest. Some time later, we reached the summit of a hill and were faced with a most exquisite painted canvas. A large lake, surrounded by hills covered with pine trees, greeted us with its shimmering waters.

Standing guard over the lake, was a tall pillar crowned with a cross. It was a monument to the famous sixth century Welsh bard, Taliesin. It made us realise that the lake we were now facing was not Llyn Crafnant but Llyn Geirionydd. We had gone off course but we were still delighted.

We paid our respects to the famous bard and sat by his monument to have a snack and rest our weary legs. We felt deeply refreshed by the peace of the beautiful surroundings. Heaven, I thought, would surely be a place like this!

A lone rambler passed us by. He greeted us and asked us if we were lost. We told him that we had been lost but now were found! I asked him if the hissing sounds were produced by snakes. He replied that no one he knew had ever been bitten. Not a very reassuring answer!

The man was soon on his way, and reluctantly, we had to journey on as we wanted to complete our walk in daylight. We managed to reach Llyn Crafnant, which was less deserted than Llyn Gweirionydd. There were anglers and also people doing water sports.

We met an old couple, who were walking with their son. They told us they were from Shrewsbury , which we had visited on our way from Manchester . When they left, I was surprised by the fast, steady pace with which they marched. I was sure that if we were to walk together, we would have been hard pressed to keep up with them.

We still had to walk for another couple of hours to make it back to our car in Trefriw and we made it just as the sun was setting. We had seen the wilder aspect of Wales in its full glory.

The three days spent in Snowdonia went by in a heartbeat. We drove towards bordering Cheshire with a feeling that we had only gazed at the superficial image of modern Wales . The Celtic character of Wales , with its legends, heroes and declining language, seemed to hide warily amongst the rugged peaks of Snowdonia. I recalled the myth of Arthws (the legendary Arthur) who is supposed to be ‘sleeping’ but who, according to legend, will return in times of need. Perhaps, the Celtic character of Wales was the embodiment of this myth, waiting to emerge from centuries of suppression to flourish once more. 

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