Wales Travel Guide [y]

Although Cardiff boasts most of Wales’ national institutions, including the National Museum, the appeal of a visit lies outside the towns, where there is ample evidence of the war-mongering which shaped the country’s development. Castles are everywhere, from hard little stone keeps of the early Welsh princes and the mighty Carreg Cennen to Edward I’s doughty fortresses such as Beaumaris, Caernarfon, and Harlech. Passage graves and stone circles (such as on Holy Island ) offer a link to the pre-Roman era when the priestly order of Druids ruled over early Celtic peoples, and great medieval monastic houses, like ruined Tintern Abbey, are easily accessible.

All these attractions are enhanced by the beauty of the wild Welsh countryside. The backbone of the Cambrian Mountains terminates in the soaring peaks of Snowdonia National Park and the angular ridges of the Brecon Beacons; both are superb walking country, as is the Pembrokeshire Coast in the southwest. Much of the rest of the coast remains unspoiled, though long sweeps of sand are often backed by traditional British seaside resorts, such as Llandudno in the north of Tenby in the south.

Best of Wales

Snowdonia
One of Britain’s grandest national parks, a wedge of mountainous Welsh territory focused on the Snowdon massif.

Machynlleth
An amiable market town in the hills north of Aberystwyth, once proposed as the new capital of Wales.

St David’s Cathedral
Serene cathedral set in a small, quiet village that has drawn pilgrims to this westernmost tip of Wales for well over a thousand years.

Caernarfon Castle
The mightiest link in Edward I’s chain of Welsh castles. A splendid structure, its honeycomb of wall-walks and slender turrets offer fantastic views of the town.

Blaenafon
Fascinating ironworking town with a deep mine museum, where you’re kitted out with lamp, helmet and very heavy battery pack and lowered three hundred feet into the labyrinth of shafts and coal faces for a guided tour.

Laugharne
Dylan Thomas’ “heron-priested shore” evokes the spirit of the ebullient poet and playwright.

Sgwd-yr-Eira waterfall
A waterfall you can drive through, in the midst of the Brecon Beacons National Park.

Harlech
A perfect castle and beautiful town wedged between the mountains and the sea.

Cnapan Country House
Fine hotel, with a restaurant that exquisitely combines the freshest local produce.

Hay-on-Wye
The world capital of second-hand books, with plenty of pubs and restaurants in which to read them.

Outdoor Activities in Wales

No matter where you are in Britain, you’re never far from a stretch of countryside where you can lose the crowds on a brief walk or cycle ride. For tougher specimens, there are numerous long-distance footpaths, as well as opportunities for the more extreme disciplines of rock climbing and potholing (caving). On the coast and many of the inland lakes, you can follow the more urbane pursuits of sailing and windsurfing, and there are plenty of fine beaches for less structured fresh-air activities or just slobbing around

Walking and climbing

Walking routes trace many of Britain’s wilder areas, amid landscapes varied enough to suit anyone. More sedate walkers will be happy enough in England, where many of the footpaths traverse moorlands, but if you’re after more demanding exercise, or a feeling of isolation, head for Wales or Scotland. Welsh Snowdonia and the Scottish Highlands offer Britain’s best climbing and have acted as training grounds for some of the world’s greatest mountaineers.Numerous short walks and several major walks are covered in the guide – however, you should use these notes only as general outlines and always in conjunction with a good map . Where possible we have given details of the best maps to use – in most cases one of the Ordnance Survey (OS) series – along with advice, leaflets and specialist guidebooks from tourist offices and shops in walking areas. In England and Wales you need to keep to established routes as you’ll often be crossing private land, even within the National Parks: all OS maps mark public rights of way. Scotland, in contrast, has a tradition of free public access to most of the countryside, restricted only at certain times of the year.

At the time of writing, some footpaths were closed as a precaution against the further spreading of the Foot and Mouth epidemic. For the latest on this situation, contact any local tourist office or one of the companies we’ve listed.

Cycling
Although there has been a boom in the sale of mountain bikes and a rise in the number of towns and cities that have incorporated designated cycle routes into their traffic schemes, cyclists tend to be treated with disrespect by many motorists. British cyclists are estimated to be twelve times more likely to be killed or injured on the road (per miles cycled) than their counterparts in Denmark, where a network of safe cycle paths and traffic-calming schemes has been created, although the organization SUSTRANS is attempting to go some way towards addressing this problem.

Surprisingly, cycle helmets are not compulsory in Britain – but if you’re hellbent on tackling the congestion, pollution and aggression of city traffic, you’re well advised to get one. You do have to have a rear reflector and front and back lights when riding at night, and are not allowed to carry children without a special child seat. It is also illegal to cycle on pavements (sidewalks), and in most public parks. A secure lock (preferably some kind of “D” lock) is also indispensable and it’s always a good idea to make a note of your frame number in case you have to report a theft to the police.

Bike rental is available at cycle shops in most large towns, and at villages within national parks and other scenic areas; the addresses and telephone numbers of these appear in the relevant sections of the guide. Expect to pay in the region of £10-20 per day for something sturdy, with discounts for longer periods.

Beaches
Britain is ringed by fine beaches and bays, the best of which are readily accessible by public transport – though of course that means they tend to get very busy in high summer. For a combination of decent climate and good sand, southwest England is the best area, especially the coast of north Cornwall and Devon. The beaches of England’s southern coast become more pebbly as you approach the southeastern corner of the country – resorts round here are more garish than their southwestern counterparts. Moving up the east coast, the East Anglian shore is predominantly pebbly and very exposed, making it ideal for those who want to escape the crowds rather than bask in the sun, while right up in the northeast there are some wonderful sandy strands and old-fashioned seaside resorts, though the North Sea breezes often require a degree of stoicism. Over in the northwest, the inland hills of Cumbria are a greater attraction than anything on the coast, though Blackpool has a certain appeal as the apotheosis of the “kiss-me-quick” holiday town.

Many of Scotland’s beaches and bays are deserted even in high summer – perhaps hardly surprising given the bracing winds and icy water. Though you’re unlikely to come here for a beach holiday, it’s worth sampling one or two beaches, even if you never shed as much as a sweater. A rash of slightly melancholy seaside towns lies within easy reach of Glasgow, while on the east coast, the relatively low cliffs and miles of sandy beaches are ideal for walking. Despite the low temperature of the water, the beaches in the northeast are beginning to figure on surfers’ itineraries, attracting enthusiasts from all over Europe. Perhaps the most beautiful beaches of all are to be found on Scotland’s islands: endless, isolated stretches that on a sunny day can seem the epitome of the Scottish Hebridean dream.

In Wales the best areas to head to for sunbathing and swimming are the Gower peninsula, the Pembrokeshire coast, the Llyn and the southwest coast of Anglesey. The southwest-facing beaches of Wales offer the best conditions for surfing, key spots being Rhossili, at the western tip of the Gower, and Whitesands Bay near St David’s. Windsurfers tend to congregate at Barmouth, Borth, around the Pembrokeshire coast and at The Mumbles. Though the north coast has more resorts than any other section of the Welsh coastline, its beaches are certainly not the most attractive and nor is it a good place to swim.

It has to be said that Britain’s beaches are not the cleanest in Europe, and many of those that the British authorities declare to be acceptable actually fall below EU standards . Although steps are being taken to improve the situation, far too many stretches of the coastline are contaminated by sea-borne effluent or other rubbish. For annually updated, detailed information on the condition of Britain’s beaches, the Good Beach Guide (£3.50), compiled by the Marine Conservation Society (tel 01989/566017, ), is the definitive source.

Golf
There are over 400 golf courses in Scotland , where the game is less elitist, cheaper and more accessible than anywhere else in the world. The game as it’s known today took shape in the sixteenth century on the dunes of Scotland’s east coast, and today you’ll find some of the oldest courses in the world on these early coastal sites, known as “links”. If you want a round of golf, it’s often possible just to turn up and play, though it’s sensible to phone ahead and book, and essential for the championship courses. It’s worth asking at the tourist office for the Golf Pass Scotland which will give you a discount on courses for either three or five days. Prices vary according to the area.

Public courses are owned by the local council, while private courses belong to a club. You can play on both – occasionally the private courses require that you be a member of another club, and the odd one asks for introductions from a member, but these rules are often waived for overseas visitors and all you need to do is pay a one-off fee. The cost of one round will set you back between around £10 for small, nine-hole courses, up to more than £40 for eighteen holes. Simply pay as you enter and play. In remote areas the courses are sometimes unmanned – just put the admission fee into the honor box. Most courses have resident professionals who give lessons, and some rented equipment at reasonable rates. Renting a caddy car will add an extra few pounds depending on the swankiness of the course you are playing.

Scotland’s championship courses , which often host the British Open tournament, are renowned for their immaculately kept greens and challenging holes, and though they’re favored by serious players, anybody with a valid handicap certificate can enjoy them. St Andrews (tel 01334/466666, ) is the top destination for golfers: it’s the home of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, the international controlling body that regulates the rules of the game. Of its six courses, the best known is the Old Course, a particularly intriguing ground with eleven enormous greens and the world-famous “Road Hole”. If you want to play, there’s no introduction needed, but you’ll need to book months in advance and for the Old and the New Courses have a handicap certificate – handicap limits are 24 for men and 36 for women. You could also enter your name for the daily lottery – call before 2pm on the day you’d like to play. One of the easier championship courses to get into is Carnoustie , in Angus (tel 01241/853249; £75), though you should still try and book as far ahead as possible; a handicap certificate is required – 28 for men and 36 for women. Other championship courses include Gleneagles in Perthshire (tel 01764/662231; £100), Royal Dornoch in Sutherland (tel 01862/810219; £60) and Turnberry in Ayrshire (tel 01655/331000; £120). Near Edinburgh, Muirfield (tel 01620/842123; £85; Tues & Thurs only), considered by professional players to be one of the most testing grounds in the world, is also one of the most reactionary – women can play only if accompanied by a man, and they aren’t allowed into the clubhouse.

Spectator sports

As a quick glance at the national press will tell you, sport in Britain is a serious matter. Football, rugby and cricket are the major spectator sports, and horseracing also has a big following, though a fair proportion of its public has little interest beyond the Grand National, the Brits’ most popular opportunity for a gamble until the National Lottery came along. The calendar is chock-full of one-off quality sports events, ranging from the massed masochism of the London Marathon to the Wimbledon championship, one of the world’s greatest tennis tournaments.

For the top international events, it can be almost impossible to track down a ticket without resorting to the services of a grossly overcharging ticket agency, but for many fixtures, you can make credit card bookings. Should you be thwarted in your attempts to gain admission, you can often fall back on TV or radio coverage. BBC Radio 5 has live commentaries on major sporting events, while TV carries live transmission of the big international rugby and cricket matches, though very little is available on the basic analog stations, many pubs offer free big-screen viewing of major sporting events to draw in custom

Getting Around Wales

As you’d expect of such a small and densely populated island, just about every place in Britain is accessible by train or bus. However, costs are among the highest in Europe – London’s commuters spend more on getting to work than any of their European counterparts – while cross-country travel can eat up a large part of your budget. It pays to plan ahead and make sure you’re aware of all the passes and special deals on offer – note that some are only available outside Britain and must be purchased before you arrive. It’s often cheaper to drive yourself around, though fuel and car rental costs again are among the highest in Europe and will seem prohibitive to North Americans. Congestion around the main cities can be bad, and even the motorways are liable to sporadic gridlocks, especially on public holidays when what seems like half the population takes to the road.

Internal flights
Since the distances involved are so small, internal flights are not the most obvious choice for getting around Britain. However, with several regional airports – including Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, Glasgow, and Edinburgh – well served by…

By train
In the recent past, Britain’s rail network has suffered a foolhardy privatization process and a chronic under-investment, resulting in a severe decline in services. With the ownership of the track and stations put into the hands of Railtrack,…

By bus and coach
Inter-town bus services (known as coaches in Britain) duplicate many rail routes, very often at half the price of the train or less. The frequency of service is often comparable to rail and in some instances the difference in a journey…

By car
In order to drive in Britain, you need a current full driving license. If you’re bringing your own vehicle, you should also carry your vehicle registration or ownership document at all times. Furthermore,…

Taxis
Taxis are a useful option for finding that hostel or sight that’s off the beaten track or when time is limited. Also, if you’re with a group hiring a taxi can work out as cheap as taking a bus. Reckon on paying around £3 for the first mile and £1…

Food & Drink

Though the British still tends to regard eating as a functional necessity rather than a focal point of the day, great advances towards a more sophisticated appreciation of the culinary arts have been made in recent years. Every major town has its top-range restaurants, many of them boasting awards for excellence, while it’s nearly always possible to eat well and inexpensively, thanks chiefly to the influence of Britain’s various immigrant communities. However, the pub will long remain the center of social life in Britain, a drink in a traditional “local” often making the best introduction to the life of a town.

Eating
In many hotels and B&Bs you’ll be offered what’s termed an ” English breakfast ” – or Welsh or Scottish in the respective countries – which is basically sausage, bacon, and eggs plus tea and toast.

Drinking
The combination of an inclement climate and a British temperamental aversion to casual chat makes the simple café a rare phenomenon outside the biggest cities. A growing number of pubs now serve tea and coffee during the day.

Belgium Festivals

In terms of the number of tourists they attract, the biggest occasions in the English calendar are the rituals that have associations with the ruling classes – from the courtly pageant of the Trooping of the Colour to the annual rowing race between Oxford and Cambridge universities. In Scotland many visitors home straight in on bagpipes, ceilidhs and Highland Games; such anachronisms certainly reflect the endemic British taste for nostalgia, but to gauge the spirit of the nation you should sample a wider range of events. London’s large-scale festivals range from the riotous street party of the Notting Hill Carnival to the Promenade concerts, Europe’s most egalitarian high-class music season, while the Edinburgh Festival and Welsh National Eisteddfod are vast cultural jamborees that have attained international status. Every major town in Britain has its own local arts festival, the best of which, along with various other local fairs and commemorative shows, are mentioned in the guide; we’ve listed the very biggest ones.

To see Britain at its most idiosyncratic, take a look at one of the numerous regional celebrations that perpetuate ancient customs, the origins, and meanings of which have often been lost or conveniently forgotten. The sight of the entire population of a village scrambling around a field after a barrel (that they call a bottle), or chasing a cheese downhill is not easily forgotten. Some of these strange rituals are mentioned in the guide and included in the list. Bear in mind that at a few of the smaller, more obscure events casual visitors are not always welcome. If in doubt, check with the local tourist office.

Also included in the list are the main sports events, which may often be difficult to get tickets for, but are invariably televised. In addition to these, there are of course football matches every Saturday (and some Sundays) from late August till early May, and cricket matches every day throughout the summer – both interesting social phenomena even for those unenthralled by team sports.

 

When to Go

Considering the temperate nature of the British climate, it’s amazing how much mileage the locals get out of the subject: a two-day cold snap is discussed as if it were the onset of a new Ice Age, and a week in the upper 70s starts rumors of a heatwave. The fact is that summers rarely get hot and the winters don’t get very cold, except in the north of Scotland and on the highest points of the Welsh and Scottish uplands. Rainfall is fairly even, though again mountainous areas get higher quantities throughout the year (the west coast of Scotland is especially damp, and Llanberis, at the foot of Snowdon, gets more than twice as much rainfall as Caernarfon, seven miles away). In general, the south gets more hours of sunshine than the north.

The bottom line is that it’s impossible to say with any degree of certainty what the weather will be like. May might be wet and grey one year and gloriously sunny the next; November stands an equal chance of being crisp and clear or foggy and grim. If you’re planning to lie on a beach, or camp in the dry, you’ll want to visit between June and September – a period when you shouldn’t go anywhere without booking your accommodation in advance. Elsewhere, if you’re balancing the clemency of the weather against the density of the crowds, the best months to explore are April, May, September and October

Cardiff

Although Cardiff boasts most of Wales’ national institutions, including the National Museum, the appeal of a visit lies outside the towns, where there is ample evidence of the war-mongering which shaped the country’s development. Castles are everywhere, from hard little stone keeps of the early Welsh princes and the mighty Carreg Cennen to Edward I’s doughty fortresses such as Beaumaris, Caernarfon, and Harlech. Passage graves and stone circles (such as on Holy Island ) offer a link to the pre-Roman era when the priestly order of Druids ruled over early Celtic peoples, and great medieval monastic houses, like ruined Tintern Abbey, are easily accessible.

All these attractions are enhanced by the beauty of the wild Welsh countryside. The backbone of the Cambrian Mountains terminates in the soaring peaks of Snowdonia National Park and the angular ridges of the Brecon Beacons; both are superb walking country, as is the Pembrokeshire Coast in the southwest. Much of the rest of the coast remains unspoiled, though long sweeps of sand are often backed by traditional British seaside resorts, such as Llandudno in the north of Tenby in the south.