Tag: national parks

Story of the week: glamping in the Northumberland national park


* I spent a night this week in a living van [pictured above] and this week I’m taking the girls to a hut on Wales’ Llyn Peninusla. In the spirit of glamping for National Parks Week (July 28 to August 3 this year), here’s another camping story from the archives.

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The North of England has a new secret weapon to beat the downpours for a Great British summer of good-value holidays closer to home: pods.

Barrel-like, timber-built camping pods to be precise. They look like a cross a garden shed or a flat-pack frenzy at an IKEA store.

I’ve come to the Bellingham Camping and Caravanning Club site, 17 miles north of Hexham at the fringe of the rural Northumberland National Park, to test drive a pod for the night.

This is the UK’s second camp site to install the pods with the first group of ten having enjoyed a busy season at the Eskdale club site in Cumbria.

In pod we trust

Bellingham’s four pods are clustered together in a tree-shrouded, gated enclosure close to the camp shop and rather handy for what is known in camping parlance as the facilities block.

Inside, my mini-me chalet is functional and utilitarian.

A wooden-framed structure, insulated with sheep’s wool and tiled with weatherproof slates, they can accommodate two adults comfortably, a family with two small kids at a squeeze.

There’s plenty of headroom and enough space to swing a toddler – just.

The Bellingham pods come with two camp beds, two folding chairs and a folding table. They have French windows onto a decking porch and two small LED lights above the beds.

You need to bring pillows, sleeping bags and towels.

The five-and-a-half-acre site is clean and functional with hot showers, a children’s play area and Wi-Fi internet access. The pods arrived ready erected for the new season and are already proving a hit.

But, if you fancy adding one gazebo-style to the back garden, don’t expect much change from £6,000.

Local fare

That evening, as I sit on my tiny patch of decking, a fine drizzle liberally sprinkling my newspaper, I’m joined by fellow podders for the night.

Jaco and Nicola de Villiers from near Cape Town are on a three-week camping trip around Britain, taking in the Lake District, Scotland and Northumberland.

They joined the Camping and Caravanning Club prior to leaving South Africa for access to discounts and information.

“We like the atmosphere of camping, the closeness to nature, but after three nights under canvas, the pod feels really warm and cosy,” they enthuse.

“It’s a good-value alternative to camping when it rains.”

With the campers firing up Calor Gas stoves around me, my thoughts turn to dinner.

Option one: heating up some baked beans from the camp shop. Option two: a 15-minute stroll down to the village in search of a local hostelry.

A steak and kidney casserole and a pint of Black Sheep bitter at the Riverdale Hall Hotel all too inevitably win out and I wander back with a full stomach as the daylight fades over the farmland of the least populated county in Britain.

A hip flask of Jamieson whisky, a good book and a night in my pod await.

Wild night

Around 2am the true joy of the pod becomes apparent. I awake bleary eyed to find black sheets of rain lashing the camp site, gales blowing throaty gusts across the landscape and the kind of chill only brass monkeys appreciate.

The joy of glamping! I flick the switch on the in-pod radiator, crank the thermostat to nuclear and snuggle back under my sleeping back for some serious slumber.

The next morning heralds a brighter, fresher take on the landscape.

On a longer stay I might indulge in some waking, cycling or fishing by hiking along the Pennine Way footpath, which runs past the front gate. Ot try mountain biking around Kielder Water and Forest Park, the largest man-made lake in Europe some eight miles away, or casting off for salmon into the waters of the North Tyne from nearby Hadrian’s Wall.

Alnwick Castle, the fairytale location for the Harry Potter films, is a 50-minute drive; you can catch a culture-fix performance at The Sage Gateshead within 40 minutes.

But, with a train to catch later that day, I satisfy myself with an early-morning sortie to the village of Bellingham, a workaday farming community of stoic, stone-built cottages, village pubs and a traditional village bakery.

Shards of sunlight mark my half-mile stroll along country roads, skipping over a weather-beaten bridge and passing frolicking lambs en route.

Figures from the Camping & Caravanning Club indicates bookings at campsites are up 27 per cent year on year as people look for cheaper, simpler alternatives to the Eurozone’s currency rip-off and the bunfight at airports during half-term week.

Barry and Carole Howard, who run the Bellingham site as franchisees from the Camping and Caravanning Club, report their occupancy is up nearly 30 per cent.

“We’re finding the pods are bringing in a new generation,” says Barry,

“People are discovering that camping has moved on from its traditional image of a field and a tap.”

I was a cynic, too. But after my night in a pod, I may now even carry on camping.

* This story was first published in the Daily Express in 2009. Liked this? Try Exploring Snowdonia in National Parks Week.

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Story of the week: Winter travels in the Snowdonia National Park, Wales


* I’m sick of winter. But the first daffodils are in flower in the park I can see from my window, so let’s hope this is the last winter story for a while.

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Psst. Keep this one between us, right?

Those people following the ant trail across North Wales in summer, well, they got it all wrong.

Of course they will find the Snowdonia National Park (eryri-npa.co.uk) is stunning in August and the infrastructure geared towards the Great British holiday, but they’re all missing the chance to see Snowdonia during the best month: February.

No, really. The roads are quieter, the scenery more striking, the wood-burning fires cosier, the Penderyn whisky tastes smoother and the tradition of Welsh hospitality even more relaxed.

If you’re looking for walking, scenery, fresh air and homely, unfussy places to stay and eat this winter, then beat the crowds by a good six months and bag the best of Snowdonia by going off season.

“Snowdonia is beautiful with the snow on the tops,” says Jacky O’Hanlon, a walking guide and owner of the Coed Cae B&B (CoedCae.co.uk) on the Mawddach Estuary.

“When the bracken dies down and the trees shed their leaves, you can really see the ancient stone circles and standing stones that give Snowdonia its strong sense of Welsh identity and folklore.”

National park

Snowdonia was Wales’ first ever national park, formed in 1951 to protect the natural environment, particularly around Mount Snowdon, the highest mountain in England and Wales at an altitude of 3,560 ft (1,085m).

Today it remains the largest park in Wales and is characterised by the diversity of its landscape: 15 mountain tops over 3,000ft, 23 miles of stunning coastline, glistening lakes, cascading waterfalls and ancient woodland can all be found within the park’s 823 sq miles in northeast Wales.

It also remains hugely popular with some 11m visits each year according to the Snowdonia Society (snowdonia-society.org.uk).

Last summer Snowdonia was more popular than ever with the unveiling of two major new tourism projects in the region.

The Welsh Highland Railway (festrail.co.uk) was first opened in 1923, connecting the slate and mineral quarries that dominated a then industrialised North Wales. Volunteers saved the decaying track in 1997 and, six years and £30m later, a new 20-mile section from Caernarfon to Beddgelert is back in coal-powered action.

It’s a gloriously scenic route that cuts a swathe through the rural heart of the national park. The final seven-mile section to Porthmadog will open autumn 2010, joining up with the 13-mile-long Ffestiniog Railway route from Porthmadog to Blaenau Ffestiniog to form the longest narrow-gauge railway in Europe.

The unveiling of Hafod Eryri, the low-rise, granite-built visitor centre and cafe atop Mount Snowdon, proved more controversial, however.

The new centre replaces the well-worn original summit building from 1935, designed by Clough William-Ellis of Portmeirion fame, which Prince Charles once famously described as “the highest slum in England and Wales.”

But the delayed opening has given way to grumbles about queues, a cafe that rapidly runs out of stock and a dearth of locally sourced materials.

The Snowdon Mountain Railway (www.snowdonrailway.co.uk), a feat of Victorian engineering, is the lifeline to the summit for supplies. Some of the original 1896 steam engines still complete the five-mile climb in around one hour. They transport 140,000 passengers each year, a further 250,000 people walking up one of the six trails to the summit of Snowdon.

Most take the longer but more moderate Llanberis Path, a10-mile round trip, running beside the railway track. Hafod Eryri is now closed until the snow clears, while the Snowdon Mountain Railway starts a limited service from mid March.

Snowdonia remains a hub for activity seekers off season with rock climbing, white-water rafting, mountain biking and pony trekking all popular pursuits. Two perennial walking festivals, one based around Barmouth and one centred on Betws-y-Coed, bring in the Gore-Tex and hiking boots brigade en masse.

The landscape is free to enjoy and yearns to be explored with clumps of yellow-flowered gorse, frothy, gurgling brooks, mossy bridges and isolated, grey-stone cottages cowering stoically below the mountainous slate runs of the hillsides.

Never mind if a sheep absent-mindedly wanders across the trail. Just stop and admire the ospreys or red kites circling overhead instead.

Heritage sites 

For gentler excursions, the coastline features a World Heritage-listed chain of medieval castles (cadw.wales.gov.uk) with Caernarfon and Harlech within the national park, while Conwy and Beaumaris are within a short drive.

Exploring the nooks and crannies of the fairytale, Italianate village of Portmeirion (portmeirion-village.com), meanwhile, reveals another side of Snowdonia devoted to art, architecture and aesthetics.

Of all the places to base yourself, tiny Beddgelert is probably the most picture-postcard striking village in the national park. Built around an ivy-coated bridge, it positively oozes bucolic charm from between the stone cottages and flourishes of wild flowers.

It’s also home to one of North Wales’ favourite folk tales, the story of Gelert, the faithful hound of the 13th-century Welsh prince, Llewellyn.

The prince killed his beloved dog believing him to have savaged his baby son. In fact, the blood-splattered hound had saved the child from a wolf. Gelert’s grave, located along a gentle riverside stroll and marked with a stark statue, is now a site of minor pilgrimage.

Betws-y-Coed and Llanberis are the main hubs for visitors, but the former looks rather unloved these days, while the latter is increasingly the domain of coach parties and window shoppers marveling at the inordinate number of outdoor shops lining the main drag, Holyhead Road.

For a more grass roots taste of Snowdonia life, therefore, consider heading towards the south of the park and making your base around Dolgellau.

This imposing, stone-build market town, enclosed by looming mountains, feels properly Welsh – as it should for a region whereby around 65% of people speak Cymraeg as their first language.

Walkers love Dolgellau for the nearby trails to the summit of Cader Idris (2929ft, 893m), the lesser-known alternative to Mount Snowdon, while savvy mountain bikers flock en masse to Coed y Brenin Forest Park (forestry.gov.uk/wales) for some of the best biking trails in the UK. Better still, access to all the trails and facilities is, once you’ve paid for parking, completely free.

“Winter is when the panoramas open up. I love the coolness of the air, the flocks of siskin and the fallow deer, and the views across the park, especially from Moel Hafod Owen on the Volcano Trail, the highest part of the park at 1430ft (435m),” says the park’s Recreation Ranger, Graeme Stringer.

“The Family Cycle Trail is also particularly spectacular at this time of year as the high rainfall means the waterfalls are at their best.”

Compared to the rugged Gwydyr Forest, another Forestry Commission Wales site near Betws-y-Coed, Coed Y Brenin is a more multi-purpose centre, its 9,000-acre extent including a visitor centre, seven mountain biking trails, a new geo-caching trail and a series of colour-coded walking trails, some of them accessible by wheelchair and pushchair.

A brand new high ropes facility from Go Ape (goape.co.uk) opens Easter 2010 and a junior version of the course is planned for 2011.

Foodie favourites 

Aside from activities and heritage sites, Snowdonia is also winning over a new generation of fans for its burgeoning food scene and boutique accommodation.

Wales has made great leaps in terms of quality since the dark days of Seventies surly B&B owners and the formica tablecloths. Snowdonia is one the regions to propel the momentum forward.

Places like Ffynnon in Dolgellau, Castle Cottage in Harlech and Plas Tan-Yr-Allt near Tremadog have brought boutique-style accommodation to the region without loosing the warmth of the local welcome. The restaurant Mawddach, The Purple Moose microbrewery in Porthmadog and upscale cafe Plas Derwen in Betws-y-Coed all fly the flag for the excellent local produce, such as beef, lamb, cheeses, ales, cockles and lava bread.

A recent addition to the roll of honour is Graig Wen (graigwen.co.uk), a triumvirate of B&B, yurts and holiday cottages with a rock-music motif in the southern Snowdonia.

Owner Sarah Heyworth is a convert to exploring Snowdonia off season. She says: “The variety of the landscape invites different levels of engagement throughout the seasons – from the rugged uplands of central Snowdonia to the nature-filled estuary walks of the southwest.

“I love the quietness of the place in winter, the closeness to nature and getting outside to pick sloes for gin. Simple country pleasures.”

Close to nature

Snowdonia still keeps those simple pleasures alive, but it also offers an increasingly sophisticated vision of Wales. Activities are thriving, new places to stay and eat exploding across the region and new blood proudly keeping the traditions alive.

A visit in winter, away from the crowds and the traffic jams, is the best way to discover Snowdonia as a place of nature, history and harmony.

Debra Harris, chair of Discover Dolgellau (discoverdolgellau.com), a cooperate of local tourism businesses promoting the attractions of the destination year round, sums it up:

“There’s something quite ethereal about Snowdonia in winter: the light, the frost-shrouded landscape, the sense of being the only human around.”

“I find it,” she smiles, “really quite spiritual.”

* This story was first published in Countryfile magazine in 2009. Liked this? Try also A Treasure Hunt in Southern Snowdonia.

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Story of the week: Exploring Snowdonia in National Parks Week


* This week marks National Parks Week. The annual event, backed by a series of events and walks, celebrates the 15 national parks across England, Scotland and Wales, including my persona favourite – Snowdonia. Our national parks attract 90m visitors per year. The below story may be an old one but it captures the perennial appeal of Snowdonia.

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Why go now?

The Snowdonia National Park [Maya pictured above at Coed-y-Brenin, near Dolgellau] is one of Britain’s most stunning natural landscapes. It already has superb walking and flower-strewn mountain vistas, and is home to a clutch of sturdy, stone-built villages, where some warm Welsh hospitality is assured.

But this summer it unveils two major new attractions. The extension to the Welsh Highland Railway cuts a steam-powered swathe through the national park from Caernarfon to Beddgelert. The final leg to Porthmadog will open next spring. Hafod Eryri, the new visitor centre and cafe atop Mount Snowdon, opens soon. The revamped Snowdon Mountain Railway will also re-open for those who don’t fancy the eight-mile climb for a cream tea.

Where to stay

Dolgellau, all slate-topped cottages and attractive market square, makes an excellent base. It also has some seriously smart places to stay and eat, of which Ffynnon (ffynnontownhouse.com) is the pick of the bunch. A boutique B&B with three rooms, it combines elegance with a family-friendly policy.

Nearby, Y Meirionnydd (themeirionnydd.com) has homely rooms and a cosy cellar restaurant. For a country-house weekend, Plas Tan-Yr-Allt (tanyrallt.co.uk;) is a stately property between Tremadog and Beddgelert. The emphasis is on home-cooked food with locally sourced meals served en famillle at a nightly dinner party.

Don’t miss

North Wales is renowned for its four Word Heritage castles, including Harlech Castle (cadw.wales.gov.uk). The walls speak of a battle-scared history that inspired one of Wales’ most famous hymns, Men of Harlech.

The fairytale village of Portmeirion (portmeirion-village.com) also inspires devotion, albeit primarily from devotees of the cult 1960s TV series, The Prisoner. Visit early or late in the day to catch the light illuminating the surrealist architecture that made the village the real star of the show.

Further north, bustling Betws-y-Coed is a major hub for visitors but a series of easy day walks soon lead away from the crowds, some of them even push- or wheelchair accessible. Ask at the National Park Information Centre (eryri-npa.co.uk) for details.

Where to eat

Near Llanberis, Pen-y-Gwryd (pyg.co.uk) serves the most atmospheric pub food in the national park. Edmund Hilary and the 1953 Everest team used the inn as a training base. Today their memorabilia fills the dining room.

For a more contemporary dinner, Dolgellau’s Mawddach (mawddach.com) brings a touch of style to rural North Wales. The lamb is fresh from the adjoining farm and local fish specials a regular feature.

Finally, Siop Y Gornel (siop-y-gornel.co.uk) in Bala is a great little deli for homemade snacks on the go, while Glaslyn Ices (glaslynices.co.uk) in Beddgelert has the creamiest double scoop in Snowdonia.

The perfect pub

For real ales and traditional pub grub, the Golden Fleece Inn (01766 512421) in Tremadog’s market square is hard to beat. They have hearty food and serve a decent pint of Snowdonia Ale, brewed by the award-winning, local Purple Moose microbrewery (purplemoose.co.uk).

For a taste of contemporary Wales, DOC cafe bar in the modernist Galeri Caernarfon arts centre (galericaernarfon.com) is ideal for some liquid refreshment before the performance.

Retail therapy

A visit to Snowdonia is a superb way to delve into Wales’ Celtic tradition of music, literature and folklore.

Browse the CDs at Ty Siamas (tysiamas.com), the National Centre for Welsh Folk Music in Dolgellau, or stock up on books about Welsh legends at the tourist office in Beddgelert (01766 890615), including the famous tale of Prince Llewellyn’s loyal dog, which gave the village its name.

Take a hike

The Mawddach Trail is a converted railway line meandering along the estuary from Dolgellau to the brash seaside town of Barmouth. The gentle trail skirts woodland and a RSPB nature reserve.

More strenuous, but less demanding than climbing Snowdon, is the ascent of Cader Idris. The most popular trail is the Ty Nant path, starting just southeast of Dolgellau. Complete the five-hour yomp to be back in time for a late-afternoon pint at the Unicorn. Best check routes and weather at the tourist office (eryri-npa.co.uk) before you set out.

Take the family

The Bala Lake Steam Railway (bala-lake-railway.co.uk) remains a family favourite for a chug around the lake that is allegedly home to Teggie, Wales’ answer to the Loch Ness Monster. Alternatively, Gwydyr Stables (01690 760248) arranges pony-trekking forest excursions around Betws-y-Coed.

This story was first published in the Observer in 2009 as part of the Great British Escapes series.

Liked this? Try also, Green Travels in Wales.

More on National Parks Week.

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