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TWO AT LARGE IN NORTH WALES

To Caernarfon

As we headed westwards, the coast road we were following along the northern edge of Wales actually didn't really enable us to see much sea — there was an occasional flash of grey-blue Irish Sea, a seagull or two, clusters of grey, pebble-dashed bungalows, gloomy caravan parks. In the end, having driven though Conwy, where at least a few girls are wearing short skirts and plump couples steered pushchairs towards the fish and chip shops, we turned inland and aimed for Caernarfon.

Caernarfon CastleWe came here for lunch and the castle. With the sun now cheerfully beating down, we and a few bench-fulls of office workers ate our sandwiches sitting at the foot of the castle walls, looking across what was once the town's slate quay and is now, rather tawdily, a car park (in the high summer the castle is surrounded by a sea of vehicles). Caernarfon was, in the sun, a pleasant-feeling place, though newspaper headlines screamed about threats to the town's trade (in what?). Nearby a Welsh Highland Railway engine tooted. The WHR station is on the other side of a wasteland, for beyond the car park crouch a couple of terraces of characterful old buildings, just the architecture you'd expect beside an ancient harbour, decaying miserably in a wire mesh cage. A simple matter surely to turn them into a colourful, higgledy-piggeldy tourist attraction, but although there appear to be no plans at the moment, they are under threat, and I am pessimistic that they will be obliterated for yet more hideous car parking spaces. A WHR train drew in while we were there, disgorging a load of pensioners and, incongruously, just a single young couple, who clung together in the midst of all the barging oldies.

There was once a set of sidings on the Slate Quay and from the castle I could make out some track buried in the tarmac of the car park. I'm not sure that it matches the early C19th map though, as there appear to be more rails (including at least one point, while the map shows only turntables) than the map shows. They also seem to be standard guage. Hmmm, a puzzle.

Carnarfon Castle

We wandered the town centre, which was full of handsome young women with babies, bought licorice, then made our way to the castle. Caernarfon Castle is well worth its £4.90 entry fee, if only for its maze of narrow corridors burrowing through its hugely-thick walls. Through arrow slits you catch glimpses of the town at the foot of the castle walls, or of the interior, now patrolled only by overweight tourists. It's disappointing only for its lack of interpretation. You have to memorise everything in the many-panelled display that you come across after you've wandered around aimlessly for a bit. Lots and lots of uneven spiral stairs take you up and down, and you regularly meet terrified visitors cowering in apertures as you pass. From the top, great views over town and Menai Strait. Pigeons and seagulls everywhere.

Caernarfon CastleIt's a real castle! It was rather sad that over the last 100 years or so the exterior of the castle has been "tidied up". Clusters of cottages and other buildings that had attached themselves to the walls over the centuries were demolished. If they'd have been left, the castle would have had a much more Continental and interesting appearance. There was, after all, a continuity of use since it was built, which visitors probably don't realise today. Now it is, in the words of the town regeneration scheme, the castle stands in the centre of a huge roundabout, as the walls rise from busy roads.

Squashed incongruously up against the castle, so that its classical architecture can never be seen except from the side, is the Court House (1864). On top sits a figure of Blind Justice, with a seagull sitting comfortably on top of her head. She's holding a sword in one hand, and a twist of copper wire between the fingers of the other...

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To Llanberis

We drove southwards out of Caernarfon and immediately met a traffic jam. So we turned off the main road and L navigated a route that twisted and turned along lanes hardly wider than the Yaris, that buck across the hills and wriggle their way through little towns, until we rejoined the A road just before Porthmadoc. Here we strolled around the harbour, look at the empty Festiniog Railway station, before continuing inland towards Beddgelert, dodging various cars driving too fast in the opposite direction. We paused at a mirror-smooth Llyn Dinas, then drove on to our destination, Llanberis youth hostel.

That evening we relaxed looking out over the valley towards the slate workings on the opposite side ogff the valley. Like almost all youth hostels, Llanberis is at the top of a steep hill, but we still had enough energy to head down into the town for a pint. But only one...

Up amongst the slate

Next morning we parked the car in Padarn Country Park. The fireman was polishing Eledir, his Llanberis Lake Railway locomotive, in the morning light. We headed straight up a footpath that climbs the hillside towards the Dinorwig quarries, looking back down on Dolbadarn Castle. Soon we were amongst the slate waste heaps, inclines, and there were rails and cables rusting in the dew. As an industrial archaeologist, for me this was heaven. Because it is such a vast site, apart from a few footpaths, a fence or two preventing the foolhardy from plunging into various chasms and warning notices proclaiming rather obviously that this was a disused quarry, it is pretty unspoiled, if you can so describe an expanse of spoil heaps! I could have spent many hours exploring, but that would have bored the pants off L, so I oohed and aahed a lot and took photographs of rusty rails and tumbled walls.

Llanberis slateWe climbed up one of the A inclines, probably the most visited I guess, pausing at a drum house, carried on upwards. Having reached a T-junction, we first walked eastwards until the path began to descend. In one of the deep pits, a bird called in a duet with its own echo. Not wanting to go downhill towards the main road, we then retraced our steps and followed the path westwards until it became the quarry entrance road and finally brought us to the lane heading towards Dinorwig. A short distance along this and we turned left onto a footpath descending the valley side, first passing a chapel before entering the bluebell-carpeted woods of Padarn Country Park. Here I managed to get a photo of just the backside of an annoyed feral goat as it went off into the trees, grumbling to itself.

At the foot of the hillside we arrived at the entrance of the Vivian quarry, basically a huge hole, with more railways scattered about, a slate wagon hanging from an overhead cableway called a Blondin, a diver emerging from the flooded pit, some foreign tourists looking mystified. The lowest self-acting incline here has been restored, but was not in operation while we were there.

The Welsh Slate Museum is fascinating, full of interest and free! I won't go into detail as reading about other people's visits to museums can be a bit dull, but needless to say I liked the dusty corners bestŠ A demonstration of slate splitting was worth hanging around for. It is all the better for being a museum that speaks to adults, rather than talking to everyone as if they were about seven years old. We had lunch sitting by the lake.

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Llyn Dinas

Lenore at Llyn DinasNext we desperately needed a stroll into the hills, and we chose a circle above Llyn Dinas. We parked beside the A498 at the entrance to Sygun Copper Mine, crossed Afon Glaslyn and then followed a footpath (helpfully labelled "Mountain Walk") that climbs the valley side in a south-westerly direction. Soon we were in a rhododendron forest, which underlined the threat this invasive plant presents to these western areas. It also meant that there were few views backwards, though the grey concrete lake of the copper mine car park rather spoiled the vista anyway. Near the top of the slope the rhododendrons thinned and eventually ceased, and we were back in the rugged country we'd come to experience.

At Bwlch-y-Sygyn we turned north-eastwards, passing a disused mine with a couple of blocked shafts, spoil heaps and some ruined buildings. Then begins a long descent, with great views, down to the foot of the lake, where the water teemed with baby fish. We returned to the car beside the stream.

The next two nights we were spending at Idwal Cottage Youth Hostel, which I hadn't realised was the first ever Youth Hostel. It's a comfortable enough place, though spoiled for me by the constant bang and rattle of doors (everyone in the hostel apart from me seemed to visit the loo three times each night) and an extremely noisy and over-indulged child whose cries of excitement echoed around the "Gathering Room".

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Beaumaris

Saturday threatened and delivered mist and rain in the hills, so we cheated and headed for sea level. We decided to drive to Anglesey, starting with Beaumaris Castle. This is a very different relic from Caernarfon, though both were unfinished and both were never put to their intended use. Situated at sea level, Beaumaris Castle is smaller and neater, with its own harbour and a still mostly-water-filled moat. Well populated by nesting seagulls, it looks out over the Menai Strait and at the mountains to the east, which were covered with low cloud when we were there.

We wandered around the town and along the pier, which still has a short length of baggage railway (1895) rusting in its deck. Although it is an ancient town, I didn't feel I wanted to tarry long there, donıt know why.

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Newborough Forest

We decided to walk on the south western corner of the island, picking an area of forest and dunes. We parked in Newborough and headed off towards the forest. We'd just reached the first trees a mile or so later when I realised that I'd left one of the cameras on the back seat of the car. L was convinced that she'd covered it with a map book, but we decided to retrace our steps anyway, cursing the while. Of course, obeying Sod's Law, the camera was indeed invisible, but anyway, now we could relax.

Penhros beachOnce we were back on track, so to speak, we were able to visit the site of Llys Rhosyr, the unspectacular remains of a C13th royal court discovered beneath a deposit of sand in 1996. What remains is merely the unmortared, untidy stone wall foundations of at kleats three buildings, plus a hearth or two. The field had been called cae llys ("field of the court"), and C18th antiquarians had written of ruined walls near Newborough, so it was hardly a surprise discovery! It is a dramatic demonstration, however, of the inundation of so much of this area by blown sand over the last millennium, and it is fascinating to attempt to imagine what it was like when the palace was short distance from the shore and its sandy beaches.

We walked along empty tracks through the hush of the mostly coniferous forest that covers the humps and bumps of long-stabilised dunes. Here and there the bedrock, presumably once islands, thrusts upwards. Once we reached the shore we arrived at Llandwyn Island, its lumpy pillow lava still projecting from sand. We ate lunch sheltering from a chilly wind on one of the sea pink-covered outcrops. It's a popular spot, and a dozen walkers, some with dogs (despite the notices forbidding dogs between April and October), others with pushchairs, bent into the breeze on the vast beaches.

Llanddwyn Island features a number of buildings, one the ruin of a small church, the rest more recent lighthouses and Coastguard cottages. When we were there the view of the mainland was one of mist and cloud, but in fine weather you can see Snowdonia and much besides. No naturists were present either, probably because of the goose-pimple-producing breeze blowing off the Irish Sea.

We decided to walk onwards northwards along Penrhos beach, which was less populated. It is a fine expanse of smooth, mostly firm sand, fringed with dunes. The sun was out, and the walking was hard work on the sand but great. About two thirds of the way along there's an unidentified wreck of a wooden boat almost buried in the sand. We rounded the curve towards Malltraeth Sands, and then clambered over the dunes towards the edge of the forest, joining the Isle of Anglesey Coastal Path for a mile or so before turning inland. In the trees here nestles a ruin marked "Pandy" on the map, and so presumably (I looked it up) a fulling mill. The path eventually leaves the forest, crosses a field marked by "Beware of the Bull" signs (no bull visible) to clamber into someone's back garden at Bryn Rhedyn.

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Devil's Kitchen

Next morning we joined the crowd gathering outside the Mountain Rescue Centre to begin a quick morning stroll to the Devil's Kitchen, a narrow cleft in the hillside. Fortunately the hordes were dispersing in all directions, so our route wasn't impossibly crowded, though as we normally come across at the most two other walkers on most of the routes we walk, it seemed to us a bit like a footpath version of the M25.

It's a great walk, gentle at the beginning and end, but with a fierce scramble in the middle, with the coming down as challenging, if not more so, than the going up.

The early morning had been dry, but we reached the car in drizzle, so although sorry to be leaving such a splendid spot, we were glad to be setting off back to Nottingham in our warm and dry tin box...

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SOME LINKS

Caernarfon Castle

Welsh Highland Railway (Caernarfon)

Welsh Highland Railway (Porthmadoc)

Llanberis Lake Railway

National Slate Museum

Beamaris Castle

Llys Rhosyr

Newborough Warren and Llanddwyn Island

Llanddwyn Island

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