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.

Sunderland Point – tides, slavery and a muddy causeway.

Feeling tired, but still wanting a little adventure, I asked mum and her Borrow My Doggy Sam if they would like to visit an area of my home county Lancashire that I hadn’t really explored. Turns out they had both been before, Sam when he was a puppy & mum over 30 years ago, so they were both keen to re-visit. The area I fancied was along the coast, south of Morecambe, south west of Lancaster, starting at Sunderland Point, then driving up to Heysham.

Sunderland Point is a small hamlet overlooking the River Lune, and can be accessed by one single track road from the neighbouring village of Overton. But you can’t just turn up any time, when it’s high tide the road becomes flooded, so this little Lancashire peninsula becomes cut off from the mainland twice a day. We set off early, taking junction 34 off the M6 and using the A68 Bay Gateway which neither of us had used before, as its only been open since 2016, before turning off towards Overton. It must have been around 10.30am when we arrived, and although the single track road was clear, it was still muddy in patches and made for a fun drive over.

 

As soon as you get to the other side, there is a small parking area, with a helpful HIGH WATER LINE sign as well as a lifebuoy, in case I guess you are too late back and the tide has come in, good to know! A little higher up on the ground above the water line, are some public toilets, a map and a little history of this fascinating patch of Lancashire.

There are approximately 35 houses here, with just 3 main streets, and other than some farmland, there are no schools or businesses here, so whether you need to drive to the mainland for work, school or your groceries, its all entirely dependant on the tides, it wouldn’t do for me, but I can understand the appeal.

But other than the excitement of driving along the single track causeway and the beautiful windswept views on arrival,  there’s a lot more here to make it worth your while.

First of all there is a footpath to take you around the tip of the peninsula, it’s about 3 miles, so short enough that you can take your time, drink in those views and still get back  to your car with plenty of time before the tide returns. We took a right turn between the houses and headed west, following the sign post for Sambo’s Grave.

We walked down the footpath, between some farm land across to the other side, once you get there, take the well maintained path to your left, leading you to the grave site.

This is were the slave history comes in, this seemingly unspoilt, quiet, remote part of Lancashire, was actually an important and busy port that formed part of the Slavery Triangle and was used to import cotton, sugar as well as enslaved Africans. This was in the early 1700’s and the area thrived until the Port of Lancaster opened up, becoming the 4th biggest port in the country.  (For a more comprehensive timeline, the Open Learn website has a great article to read). But back to Sambo, he was a young African boy, taken from Africa to the West Indies as a slave, then travelled with his master in 1736 over to Sunderland Point, where he became ill and died on arrival. I was pleased to see such an important but often hidden part of our UK history remembered here, with the grave being well take care of by the local residents.

Next to the grave is a stone chamber, which I initially thought had something to do with Sambo, but its actually an art installation by Chris Drury and features a camera obscura to observe the skyline of Morecambe Bay. Or if you are a small dog, it features a little ledge to climb on and you observe the view that way instead.

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We then continued our walk along the shoreline around the tip of the peninsula, its a bit tricky in parts, as you negotiate large rocks, some still slippy from the recent high tide, as well as large pieces of driftwood and other things that usually spend half their day under the water. There is a tonne of wildlife too, I’m not too familiar on my birds, but mum was better informed and pointed out some curlews and a heron.

The path understandably becomes hard to follow in places, as it is often submerged, but you can walk right around the edge, before you find yourself coming back towards the houses again. We came across a few other walkers, and we all checked in with each other, ‘yes, you can walk all the way around’ as well as ‘yes, you should have plenty of time to get back to your car before the tide comes in’. That didn’t stop me checking the time every few minutes as well as keeping an eye on the direction of the water, mum and Sam seemed less bothered than me though, but then they had both been here before.

As we approached civilisation and our car again, I slowed down, wanting to take in the windswept views for one last time, as I wasn’t sure if or when I would ever return, the landscape was truly stunning and peaceful, the complete opposite I presume from when it was a busy slave port 300 years earlier.

We grabbed some wild blackberries to eat and curious about house prices, I took note of a house for sale (it was £235.000). Then I wandered out, as close to the water as possible without getting too muddy, to take a few last photos before I drove us back across the causeway and quite literally back to dry land.

Next stop . . .  Heysham . . .