2019 is the “Year of Discovery” in Wales, so it’s time to discover your Wales. Blue Badge guide Carole Startin takes us on a tour across North Wales and shows us the sites off the beaten trail that you might not have heard about. Here are her top 12 hidden gems of North Wales.
Isle of Anglesey
1. Parys Mountain Viewing Point and Copper Kingdom Museum, Amlwch
“The lunar-like landscape is the remains of what was once the largest copper mine in the world. Parys Mountain in the northeast of the Isle of Anglesey supplied copper which enabled Lord Nelson to coat the bottom of his ships, stopping barnacles slowing his ships down and giving him a huge advantage of speed at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The copper was shipped to the Dee Estuary or Swansea (nicknamed Copperopolis) for smelting and transportation around the world. Today it’s a short walk from the car and coach park to a viewing point to take in this moon-like landscape with its myriad of mineral colours, used for alien movies. Nearby in the village of Amlwch, down by the harbour where the copper was shipped for smelting, is Copper Kingdom, a small museum to explore.
2. Moelfre Seawatch Centre and the Wreck of the Royal Charter
On the East coast of the Isle of Anglesey is the tiny village of Moelfre. A recent TV series, Saving Lives at Sea included the RNLI Moelfre Lifeboat Station in some of its stories. Dic Evans is the most famous Coxswain ever to man the lifeboat, with multiple bravery medals when open boats were launched to save lives at sea and his statue outside the Moelfre Sea Water Centre commemorates his bravery. The RNLI Lifeboat Station is close by, set up after hundreds of lives were lost in 1859 when the Royal Charter, laden with Australian gold, sunk in a ferocious storm in nearby Dulas Bay.
3. RAF Valley Viewing Point, Isle of Anglesey
Set up in 1941 during WWII, RAF Valley is the home to fighter jet training for the Royal Air Force and opposite to the entrance, there’s a public viewing point to watch the jets taking off and landing. Until a few year’s ago this was also home to RAF SAR or Search and Rescue, with its iconic yellow helicopters being seen regularly either in a training exercise or a real-life rescue out at sea or over the mountains of nearby Snowdonia. Prince William and Kate prior to their marriage stayed in a private cottage on the Bodorgan Estate, whilst Prince Williams did three and a half years training as a search and rescue pilot, and he could be seen driving around the island in his red Bugatti motorbike, whilst Kate would be shopping in Waitrose, Menai Bridge. They both loved their time on this tranquil and beautiful part of the UK.
Snowdonia & Llŷn Peninsula
4. Yr Ysgwrn, Trawsfynedd, Snowdonia
Set in the stunning landscape of Snowdonia National Park, yr Ysgwrn is a traditional Welsh farmhouse and Grade II listed building, dating from the 1830s. It came to international recognition in 1917, as the home of the Welsh poet Ellis Humphrey Evans, better known by his bardic name, Hedd Wyn (‘Blessed Peace’). After penning and finally submitting his entry for the 1917 Eisteddfod (celebration of traditional Welsh poetry, music and song) Hedd Wyn was killed at the Battle of Pilkem Ridge on 31st July 1917 just a month before he was to win the coveted “Chair”, the highest award to Welsh poets. He was therefore posthumously awarded the Chair, draped in black cloth and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house that day. It’s henceforth been know as the “Black Chair” and can be seen at yr Ysgwrn, along with some of his other Bardic awards. The cottage and surrounding buildings have been lovingly restored by Snowdonia National Park Authority and there’s now a Visitor Centre, café and the wonderful Welsh cottage, Hedd Wynn’s home, all set in the stunning scenery of Snowdonia National Park.
5. Nant Gwrtheyrn, Llŷn Peninsula, Snowdonia
Set in a former granite quarry, the location of Nant Gwrtheyrn on the north coast of the Llŷn Peninsula doesn’t come more stunning or hair-raising than this! The drive from the village of Llithfaen down to the quarry is spectacular and, once at the bottom, you’re greeted with beautifully restored quarrymen’s cottages, a café and bar/restaurant. It’s now the Welsh Language Learning Centre of Wales, so if you’d like to hear Welsh being spoken, it’s guaranteed here, but of course, they all speak English too. Whether a coffee stop at café Meinir (you’ll learn about the sad tale of Rhys and Meinir) or a longer stay you’re guaranteed a visit to remember.
6. Llŷn Peninsula, Snowdonia, Lusitano Stud, Trekking and Riding Centre
You may have heard of the Spanish Riding School and their world-renowned Lippizano horses, but their Portuguese cousins, the Lusitano, are perhaps a little less famous unless you work in TV or movies that is. The Pen Llŷn Lusitano Stud and Riding Centre is the best in the UK using these horses and was started over 30 years ago by Marcia Pendlebury and her husband Keith. Their daughter Janine worked with some of the best trainers and is now renowned for her skills and knowledge of this unique breed of horse. You can see them in action at the stud, which can provide displays, lessons and accommodation, all set in between the picturesque villages of Abersoch and Nefyn on the stunning Llŷn Peninsula west of Snowdonia.
Coastal North Wales
7. Great Orme Copper Mines, Llandudno
Take the Great Orme tramway or drive up (mid-size coach only) to the Great Orme Copper Mines in Llandudno. These mines date back 4,000 years to the Bronze Age and are the largest in the world. In 1987 the Great Orme above Llandudno was being landscaped, but no one could have imagined what they were about to uncover, hidden for millennia and it’s likely that only a fraction of the mines have yet been discovered. There’s a short film and information at the entrance, then you don a hard hat for your self-guided tour which takes you on a fascinating walk through the caves and caverns.
8. St Trillo’s Chapel, Rhos on Sea
This beautifully kept gem of a chapel seats a congregation of only six but still holds regular church services. Once the home of St Trillo in the 6th century, it’s now hidden on the rocky shore of Rhos on Sea, near Llandudno in North Wales for all to visit. A spring provided St Trillo with fresh water and also was said to have healing powers as do many of the holy wells across North Wales. You can still see the well today in front of the altar.
9. Aber Falls Gin & Whisky Distillery, Abergwyngregyn, near Bangor
For the first time in over 100 years, Welsh whisky is in production again in North Wales. It’s gently maturing away for its mandatory length of time and will go on sale in 2020. So quite a momentous moment. In the meantime, the Aber Falls Distillery is not resting on its laurels, far from it! It’s producing great gin and liqueurs taking advantage of the new “trend” in gin being the “it” drink – ok we’ve known about “gin and it” as a drink for ages but it has taken off as THE drink now. From orange marmalade and rhubarb and ginger gin to coffee and chocolate liqueur – Aber Falls Distillery can offer you choices and tastes you never knew existed! Your visit will include a tour and tasting session plus of course your chance to purchase those with the yum factor.
North East Wales
10. Rydymwyn WWII Secret Site (we can’t tell you it’s location!)
Still under 24 hr security, Valley Works at Rhydymwyn only became known about to the general public when the Official Secrets Act covering the site finally ended in the 1990s. Michael Portillo’s visit here with his Great British Railway Journeys programme, did much to put the location “on the map”, which was something to be avoided at all costs during WWII. The secrets you’ll discover here on your walk around the site with me, your Blue Badge Guide and a volunteer guide here, are quite chilling, but thankfully today it’s a haven of peace and tranquillity having developed into a wildlife reserve.
11. Sheep Dog Demonstration, Horseshoe Pass, Llangollen
One thing Wales has more of than anything is sheep. Around 10 million and that’s not including all the lambs being born in the spring. Welsh wool was worth more than gold in medieval times and it’s a sad fact today that it costs more to shear a sheep than the wool itself is worth to sell. We visit Gwyn in the beautiful surrounds of the Horseshoe Pass, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, who now breeds and trains sheepdogs or border collies, rather than farming sheep. Gwyn will give you a demonstration of the art of guiding sheep with a dog and the temperament needed by both the shepherd and the dog to work together successfully. Something not to be missed on your visit to Wales.
12. Brinkinalt Hall, Chirk
The Trevor family can trace their ancestry back to both the Roman occupation and very early Welsh ancestors and with links to the famous Duke of Wellington, your visit to Brynkinalt will be both exclusive and fascinating. The current owners, the Hill-Trevors, inherited the estate when their ancestors died without children. Kate Hill-Trevor, current owner along with her husband Ian, will take you around her home – the magnificent Brynkinalt Hall, located very close to both the village of Chirk and ancient Chirk Castle, dating back to the 13th century. She’ll tell you stories from the past and also what it takes to help a magnificent home like this to survive in today’s world. After your tour, there’ll be home-made cake and tea or coffee”.