A tour guide’s all-time favourite UK places.
This September, Visit Britain, the marketing arm of the British tourist industry, is launching its ‘Great British Staycation Campaign’ to encourage people to holiday in the UK.
Soul City Wanderer (aka Frank Molloy) is one of the UK’s most accredited and experienced tour guides. Over three decades he has visited nearly every part of the country, touring many of the places that Great Britain and Ireland has to offer.
In a new blog series, he will list his all-time favourite five places by area (spiralling out from London*). These are personal choices, some obvious, some obscure.
This week, Wales.
Take the A470 south from the North Wales Expressway (A55). At Tal-Y-Cafn take the B5279 across the river Conwy then the B5106 to Trefriw. The mineral waters from the local spring helped the town become a Victorian spa resort known as Trefriw Wells. The waters are the richest in the UK of a sulphur-iron solution known as chalybeate. Very metallic in taste, it is still sold for iron-deficient diets all over the world.
Also here you will find the hydro-powered Trefriw Woollen Mill, which still makes the famous Welsh bedspreads using traditional methods. A fascinating free tour takes you through the live factory process literally from the shorn sheep wool to the finished article.
Continue on the B5106 for a scenic route into the town at the base of Snowdonia, Betws-Y-Coed, or for a faster route, cross the ancient bridge at Llanrwst and take up the B470 again. Try to avoid Betws-Y-Coed at weekends when outward-bounders and tourists combine to make it the Bourton-on-the-Water of Wales.
Rhaeadr Ewynnol (or Swallow Falls) was popular with landscape painters who flocked here in the 19th century. The hills were literally alive with artists. It became the UK’s first artist ‘colony’, made famous by David Cox. He painted his most famous picture ‘Welsh Funeral’ here in 1848. The medieval church depicted is still there. Artists stayed at the Royal Oak Hotel which opened in 1768. A David Cox painting of Royal Oak hangs in the foyer.
At the western edge of Betws-Y-Coed you will find the Fairy Glen woodland walk and the Ty Gwyn Inn (LL24 0SG) which does superb food and has views over the river bridge.
Along the A470, as you hug the western slopes of Snowdonia, you will pass the ancient Dolwyddelan Castle above the roadside. On closer inspection you will see it is a solitary tower. It was traditionally the birthplace of Prince of Wales Llewellyn the Great. In January 1283 it was besieged and captured by Edward I’s forces. His soldiers dressed in white as camouflage against the snow.
Llechwedd Slate Mines
Further on, the Llechwedd Slate Mines are a real gem, with recreated mining village and museum. A slightly scary cable car ride takes us deep down into the bowels of the mountain where ex-quarrymen tell the story of slate mining. Keeps the kids fascinated but slightly nervous! To lighten the mood, there is a zip-wire and trampolining.
Blaenau Ffestiniog is the centre of the Welsh slate trade. Slate quarries have dominated industry around here for centuries. Welsh blue-grey slate is considered the best in world because it keeps its colour, looks better on rooftops, and can be split easily by hand. Today, most slate is mined on the surface. There are only two mining companies left but they produce nearly 800 tons a day here. Domestically, it is mainly used in restoration projects. Germany is the big export market, with much Welsh slate being used on the rooftops of Hamburg in particular. Blaenau Ffestiniog railway was built to take slate from the mines down to Porthmadog. Built in 1832, it is the oldest independent railway company in the world. The trains are articulated with powerful double engines to go around the winding hillsides.
Carry on along the A470 to Dogellau, then take the A493 to the seaside town of Fairbourne. If it’s a nice day and you’re outdoor types, and up for a walk, treat yourself to a visit to one of the most amazing but least known places in Britain, the magical Blue Lake Lagoon. Park at Fairbourne Station. From the station cross the level crossing, go past the church After about ¼ mile, when you reach the Telephone Exchange, follow the turning opposite into the hills. After passing several houses eventually you reach a five bar gate and stile on the right hand side (to see Panteinion Waterfall carry straight on). Follow the steep track up the hill and take the right-hand fork under the stone bridge. Pass under the second bridge and when the terrain allows, ascend to the plateau. This area offers excellent views of Cardigan Bay. Look for the tunnel (always wet underfoot) and pass through to get access to the lagoon in the old Goleuwern slate quarry. It’s a fine place to bring a picnic!
Another great place for food is the Bwyty Mawddach restaurant, at Maesygarnedd, Llanelltyd, near Dolgellau (LL40 2TA).
Note: All sites mentioned were operating pre-lockdown. Please check relevant websites before embarking on any potential visit. More recommendations will appear next week.
For the very best in guided private tours of the UK visit www.yourlondontours.com
*Operators in the UK tour industry often separate the areas of the country according to what touring can be achieved in a region in one day. As a London-based operator, my ‘map’ spirals outwards from the capital and is separated thus:
- Northern Home Counties (Beds/Herts/Cambs)
- Eastern Home Counties (Essex/Suffolk)
- Southern Home Counties (Kent, Surrey, Sussex)
- Western Home Counties (Ox/Berks/Bucks)
- South coast (Hants/Dorset)
- Western England (Somerset/Gloucs/Wilts)
- South West England (Devon & Cornwall)
- Wales (north & south)
- Welsh Borders (Herefordshire/Shropshire/Cheshire)
- Western Midlands (Brum/Worcs/Warks/Staffs)
- Eastern Midlands (Northants/Leics/Rutland/Hunts)
- Northern Midlands (Notts/Derbys)
- East coast (Norfolk/Lincs)
- Yorks (all ridings)
- North West (Manchester/Merseyside/Lancs/Lakes/Cumbria)
- North East (Durham/Tyne & Wear/Northumberland)
- Southern Scotland (Borders/Lowlands)
- Northern Scotland (Highlands/Islands)
- Ireland (Northern/Southern)