UK: A Wales of a Time

UK: A Wales of a Time

Discover the untamed beauty, Celtic culture and history of Wales

Lalitha Sridhar
June 08 , 2016
12 Min Read

We drove a great deal in a week, about 800 miles mostly along the coast in a near full circle, and motoring is really the most convenient way to see Wales and its dispersed attractions. We crossed over the Menai Straits via the Brittania bridge to Anglesey, the largest island in Britain. The brief stop at tiny Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgo­gerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch is good for a laugh over the marketing trickery of the town’s founders. Like all good Welsh names, it’s descriptive of its location–‘St Mary’s priory in the hollow of the white hazel near the rapid whirlpool and the priory of St Tysilio by the red cave’. Locals, being sensible folk, simply say Llanfair PG.

A hiker atop a hill in Snowdonia National Park

Onward then to the castle at Caenarfon, considered Edward I’s ultimate strong­hold. It has ornate polygonal towers (climb up!), colour-banded masonry inspired by Constantinople’s fifth-century walls, and very interesting museums and exhibits. We continued driving in and out of the pro­fusely verdant Snowdonia National Park, landing up one evening at the delightfully bizarre village of Portmeirion, which overlooks the Traeth Bach tidal estuary. The eye-popping sprawl of architectural experiments in what are now Grade II listed holiday cottages, gazebos, terraces and lookouts, was built over 50 years by the eccentric genius of Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis, who purchased this private peninsula in 1925 for £5,000 and kept working on it till he died at the age of 93.


We stopped for lunch at a cosy café in the market town of Machynlleth, next door to remarkably well-preserved medieval building where the first Welsh Parliament was summoned in 1404 by the rebel hero Owain Glyndwr. As we journeyed by road from the north to the middle to the south of Wales, we encountered a stunningly rugged land in painterly shades of green, brown and grey over miles upon miles of forests, meadows, rivers, mountains and sea, and we repeatedly kept halting for some memorable surprises.

Vaulted stained glass windows inside Cardiff Castle

This divine visual imagery was broken only by lovely villages and towns with slate-roofed buildings painted in pastels over most of rural Wales–Aberaeron, Aberystwyth, Cardigan, Porthgain, Tenby, Llandeilo. Splendid opportunities to walk, window shop and people watch, they are also sort of places to which anyone battling urban dystopia would want to move. We spent charmed mornings and afternoons at the immaculately kept medieval cathe­dral at St Davids (the atmospheric ruins of a bishop’s palace are just adjacent), and the evocative Dylan Thomas trail in peace­ful Laugharne. We wove in and out of the Snowdonia, Pembrokeshire and Brecon Beacons national parks. It was an embar­rassment of riches.

So, when we reached Cardiff, I found it a vibrant and gregarious antithesis of the Wales we had seen thus far, and I was by then careful not to slot it into easy catego­ries. We took a guided tour of the Cardiff castle, and strolled the Civic Centre, which is a magnificent cluster of important build­ings, including the Cardiff University, the Temple of Peace, the Welsh National War Memorial and the City Hall (behold the snarling dragon stop, guarding an egg that could be Wales beneath its claws). Short of time, I picked to enter the National Gallery and Museum of Wales here, for the terribly guilty pleasure of hurrying past the Davies Collection, the largest display of Impres­sionist and post-Impressionist art outside Paris, which includes Monet’s San Giorgio Maggiore and Renoir’s La Parisienne (Van Gogh’s Rain at Anvers was travelling to America when we visited).

The picturesque Wye Valley

If you have only one day to spare for Wales, I dare say you couldn’t do better than spend it at the exceptionally pictur­esque Wye Valley. We drove past white painted cottages behind stone walls, sunlit shrubbery arched over the road, the wind­ing Wye river forming a natural boundary with England, and grassy meadows where wild ponies grazed alongside fluffy sheep, rows of hedgerows and jungles of gorse.

We were headed for the atmospheric ruins of the 12th-century Tintern Abbey, the first Cistercian monastery in Wales. Fortunately, given how little time we had, we continued driving further up to the Vale of Ewyas, the easternmost valley of what are called the Black Mountains because of their brooding colour.

On the first day itself, I had meandered about a fabled garden, complete with a still-occupied manor house fitting my preconceived template of what’s best about Britain. Bodnant Gardens in the Conwy county of north Wales is 60 acres of planned verdure under the care of the National Trust, which is doing a fabulous job of protecting heritage treasures across the UK. The Old Park grassland here, dat­ing to the 1700s, is landscaped in the style that was fashionable at the time, with a Ha-Ha ditch (a surprising innovation and thus the name!) to keep livestock out for uninterrupted views. Bodnant is home to several levels of lily and rose terraces, and a croquet lawn, beside old blue cedars and oaks standing within buttressed walls. There are exotic species brought from plant hunting expeditions to faraway lands; there’s a gorgeous 180-foot-long laburnum arch that blooms for four weeks from the end of May, and its leaves were still sparkling wet from the night’s dew at noon. I remember sitting on a weathered wooden bench by the shade of a young starlight tree, breathing deeply, trying to memorise the loveliness of where I was, feeling grateful that I had seen everything I wanted to see on this trip if not my last. I was, as it turned out, wonderfully, wonder­fully wrong. In fact, as Marco would have said early on in our pages, you simply can’t see Wales in a week.

The Information

Getting There
Conwy and other attractions in northeast Wales are only about an hour’s drive out of Manchester, to which plentiful connections are available from India. Round trip fares are about ₹57,000 (economy), ex-Delhi.

Online applications for a UK visa can be made at (fee of ₹8,925; online appointments). The passport is returned in 15 working days.

£1= ₹96 (approx.)

Where To Stay
Our accommodation over the trip reflected the diversity of options available across Wales. We stayed at the old-fashioned and cosy The Castle Hotel (from £80; ) overlooking Conwy’s laidback High Street. The quirky exteriors of Portmeirion (from £100; ) went on to reveal very elegant and spacious rooms, no two of them alike (imagine a canopied, all-white, wrought iron bed in a room themed subtly around a pale blue). Gwesty’r Emlyn Hotel (from £80; ), about ten miles from Cardigan in Carmarthenshire, has compact rooms with efficient service. At the charming town of Llandeilo, we were put up at The Cawdor (from £65; ), which is both stylish and welcoming. At Cardiff, the centrally located and well-managed Clayton Hotel (from £90; ) was the first high-rise in which we stayed while in Wales. Our last night in Wales was spent at the Metropole Hotel (from £98; ), a 117-year-old family-run property in the spa town of Llandrindod. All rates are for standard doubles, inclusive breakfast.

Blossoms at Cathay Park in Cardiff

What To See & Do
Driving about is the quickest way to get around, which also allows flexibility in exploring the alluring Welsh countryside at will. There’s no admission fee and walking the ramparts of the Unesco-protected Conwy castle is a great way to get a sense of the little town by the coast.

There’s a generous supply of great castles in Wales but if you had to pick only a handful, Caernarfon, Harlech and Carreg Cennen (the last a steep climb worth the fantastic views) also make most lists. St Davids Cathedral in Pembrokeshire and Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire are splendid examples of historic sacred architecture.

Welsh museums and art galleries don’t need tickets (some castles do). The government-run Cadw (Welsh for ‘to protect’; works to preserve and promote the heritage sites in Wales. They sell 3/7-day Explorer Passes at many of the attractions they maintain. is an excellent resource for planning itineraries and finding accommodation.

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