Two Castles and a Kayak

I was invited the other weekend to go kayaking in Llanberis, a small town just on the western edge of Snowdonia National Park.  It wasn’t until the Sunday afternoon, so with no other plans booked in that weekend, I decided to make it into a little overnight road trip, finishing up Sunday lunchtime in Llanberis for a kayak with friends.

A Unesco sites that I had been meaning to visit, but was just a bit too far for a day trip, were 2 of the 4 world heritage castles on the west coast, in the county of Gwynedd; Conwy and Caernarfon. I had visited Beaumaris previously over on Anglesey and the 4th, Harlech is a lot further south, but Conwy and Caenarfon are only about 35 minutes apart, so seemed doable in the same day.

It’s super easy to get to Conwy from where I live and I didn’t even need to use my maps to get me there and 90 minutes later I was parked up at the main long stay carpark.  It sits behind the castle walls, easily signposted and payment is by app or card, so no fumbling for money needed!

Conwy Castle is an incredibly well preserved Medieval fortress, over 700 years old. Built by Edward I, Edward Longshanks to his friends, Edward was born in England, but was intent on conquering Wales. The four castles along the coast with their imposing walls, were all part of his successful takeover plan and sent out a very strong message to the Welsh that he meant business!

I have to say, Conwy Castle is one of the most impressive castles I have visited, for sheer size and how it has retained its features. You really do feel transported back in time as you explore the many chambers, climb the spiral staircases up to the towers and walk along the high walls. The views of the Conwy Suspension Bridge over the River Conwy and Snowdonia’s mountainous skyline in the distance, is spectacular, I can’t think of a more perfect location for a castle.

Having been to Conwy before, I just had a short walk along the harbour, and sat and had my packed lunch, watching the tourists queue up to visit the ‘smallest house in Britain’ while a vicious seagull attempt to eat a families bag of chips, quite entertaining really. Then I took the long way back to the carpark, via the main high street for a bit of window shopping, before heading down the coast, to Castle no. 2.

Just over half an hour later, I was pulling into the carpark down by the waterfront, staring back up to the imposing castle walls in the town of Caenarfon. Although the building of this castle started the same year as Conwy, this castle took over 40 years to completion, compared to Conwy’s quick 7 year build.

It’s an ideal spot if you’re going to build a castle, as it sits at the tip of a peninsula, edged by the Menai Strait and River Seiont, affording great views and lots of protection.

Unlike its neighbour in Conwy, Canaerfon isn’t in as good a state of repair inside, but the walls and main structure are still none the less impressive. Much of the interior hasn’t survived that well and some of the buildings weren’t ever fully finished. That said, I preferred this castle to Conwy, it takes a little more effort to get too, and was nowhere near as busy, and for me that gave it its charm. There is still lots to explore here though, spiral staircases to climb and outstanding views from the top, as well as a museum inside too. Part of the castle was in the process of being renovated during my visit, leaving a few spots out of bounds, but all us visitors got a free guidebook as compensation instead.

Highlights for me included, the dark atmospheric passages taking you through the basement and up the Well Tower, the narrow stone spiral staircases winding you up to the 2nd floor for epic but windy views from the Chamberlain Tower and a surprising single stone glass window.

Once done, I took a short walk through the town centre, but as we are still in Covid times and with some places still closed and restrictions in place, I decided to power on and head to my final destination for the day, Bangor.

I only knew of Bangor from my University days, as they used to have a school of Podiatry there, but I knew absolutely nothing else. The reason I chose it as a place to stay the night was it’s a University town, so I knew there was a good chance of there being some affordable hotel options as well as probably some plant based food for sale somewhere, and it was only a 20 minute drive from my meeting spot the next day.

But I was pleasantly surprised, once checked in I headed to Yugen coffee house, to pick up an oat latte and some vegan cheesecake, then headed to the coastline located a nice bench and then just sat and took in the breathtaking views, of the Menai Straits and Anglesey to the front and Snowdonia behind.

After a quick check of maps on my phone, I could see what looked like a pier, stretching almost all the way to Anglesey, so I continued to walk south, until I arrived at a place I had no idea existed, Garth Pier. A Grade II listed Victorian Pier, there are 2 colourful Kiosks to welcome you, and a small fee to enter. Then its a lovely walk right out across the Menai Straits, with local crafts, ice cream and art work being sold, as well as a coffee shop right at the top. I had just filled up on coffee, so I just sat on a bench completely taken in with the surrounding views of the Welsh landscape, texting family and friends about this new (to me) discovery and recommending it to everyone.

Finally, all my plant based dreams came true and my bet on Bangor being vegan friendly paid off, the first fully plant based restaurant in Wales happened to be a 5 minute walk from the pier. Called Voltaire although they were fully booked, they were happy to let me have some take-out, so with one of their signature burgers and fries bagged up, I hotfooted it back to my hotel, and tucked in, it’s pretty much a whole reason in itself to return.

The next morning, feeling refreshed, I took the short drive to Llanberis and found myself a nice free parking spot by the lake. I arrived an hour early, so did a loop of the town, remembering the places I had visited previously, investigated the lake we would soon be sailing on, and watched admiringly the sweaty, tired looking hikers who were returning from Snowdon’s summit, which I had done a year earlier.

After a hearty breakfast with my fellow kayaker’s at Pete’s Eats we headed down to Snowdonia Watersports and got our kit. For £25 we got full kit hire and 2 hours out on the lake, you also get access to indoor changing rooms, a locker and hot showers, so absolutely worth it.

Of course I fell in, whilst the others gracefully climbed into their kayaks, but I regained my composure and tried again with my second attempt being successful, all while keeping my hair dry!

Then we were off, for a glorious, peaceful sail around the lake, with incredible 360 views of the lakeside steam train, the welsh mountains and the sun reflecting off the rippling water. It was a perfect sunny Sunday afternoon.

Once back on dry land and warmed up with a hot shower, we all headed back to Petes Eats for a hot drink, then it was time to load up another podcast for the drive and head back home to have that kind of deep rejuvenating sleep you can only have after a full day out in nature. Wonderful.

Hike to Snowdon Summit

The tallest mountain in Wales, and only second to Ben Nevis in being the highest summit in the whole of the UK. Its only a 2 hour drive from where I live in the North West, and its somewhere I’ve fancied doing for many years. Not because I’ve been a hiker or mountain explorer for years, but so many people I know have already hiked it and by people who I considered no fitter than myself, so I always had it on my bucket list to do.

Many times I’ve had offers or plans to hike it, but they always fell through, plus being an inexperienced hiker, I didnt want to do it solo or with someone even less experienced than me, so I always relied on someone else to organise it and so it never actually got organised.

Until 2020 happened, and a combination of all my foreign trips being cancelled, most things I could do socially had to be outside, (so hiking was No1 on my list) and the first hike I did with Bee Sober Manchester mentioned that Snowdon was planned for mid September. I quickly cleared my calender, booked a single, contact-free hotel room in Llanberis, the town inside the national park and got in training!

We decided we would start early on the Saturday morning, as all of us had arrived the night before, so it wasnt too painful to get up and get to the Pen y Pass carpark around 5.30AM so we could grab one of the limited car parking spaces (otherwise, you’re best to use the park and ride). The majority of the different paths all start from this carpark, so for £10 all day, its well worth it. Plus, there is wifi, handy if you’re co-ordinating a meet up with others, as phone service is sketchy and there’s toilets too.

We set off early to avoid the crowds, which have swamped to Snowdonia since lockdown, as well as to witness the sunrise on our way up, and boy was it worth it.

There are a number of different routes up to the summit and even a train, which I think you have to pre-book, but it wasn’t fully in service due to Covid. We hiked up the Pyg track, then came down on the Miners track, and its a route I would advise any first timers to do. It was completely managable for someone who hasnt done a whole lot of hiking in the last few years and the ascent only involved a bit of a scramble, with a lovely flat path down below on our way back. There’s lots of places to stop, (have a sneaky wee) rest, eat and take in those amazing views, absolutely worth the early start and we were back down by 12 and we looked back on the growing crowds with relief that we had avoided them with our early start. Also, by staying close by in Llaberris, I was having a hot shower and rest by 12.30.