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We’ve all heard about the host of golden daffodils, and wand’ring lonely as a cloud.
But what was it about the Lake District that inspired an entire cultural movement? I wanted to find out for myself, to read between the lines of verse and see the landscape that launched a thousand couplets. I am following in a long line of travellers, inspired to climb these hills and walk beside these lakes by a group of writers and artists who redefined how we viewed nature.
In the late 18th century, with the era of the Grand Tour on the wane and city life increasingly uncomfortable, people started travelling here, and to other wild landscapes across Europe, to embrace the natural world as a means to restore health and harmony.
In April 1802, a young William Wordsworth, accompanied by his sister Dorothy, walked along the southwest bank of Ullswater, hugging the lakeside path towards Glenridding. The flowers “outdid the sparkling waves in glee.” That moment, frozen in time and alive with the sheer vitality of spring, moved him to pen the famous opening stanza of Daffodils.
The celebrated poet went on to write some 70,000 lines of verse in his lifetime – more than any other English poet. The visceral beauty of the Lakeland landscape had become a muse. And he repaid it in kind: Wordsworth’s vision of the Lakes has shaped how we see the area today.
Cumbria remains defined by its natural features to this day: the rugged, weather-eroded hills, the yawning, lush valleys and the gently lapping waters of its lakes, meres and tarns. Britain has plenty of natural beauty but, despite the encroaching coach tours and souvenir hunters, the Lake District remains its wild-man heartland.
The poet also helped to shape our relationship with nature. In 1798, Wordsworth and his firebrand friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, had published Lyrical Ballads, launching Britain’s Romantic manifesto. They looked to the natural world to replace classical ideals and spoke of poetry in which …
“The passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.”
They were soon joined in Cumbria by other heavyweights from the cultural scene of the day, notably the poet Robert Southey, to form an Establishment-challenging band of young literary gunslingers known as the Lake Poets.
Their philosophy of nature, suggests Alain de Botton in the book, The Art of Travel, made a huge contribution to the history of Western thought, proposing “Nature … was an indispensable corrective to the psychological damage inflicted by life in the city.”
But Wordsworth’s lyricism didn’t lead to instant acclaim. Lord Byron, reviewing Wordsworth’s Poems in Two Volumes in 1807, found couplets devoted to birds, daffodils and streams to be childish. “What will any reader out of the nursery say to such namby-pamby,” he wrote. Other critics took to cruelly parodying his work, but Wordsworth remained sanguine, confident he had captured something of the human condition, man’s relationship with nature in his verse.
He also had the last laugh. By the time he was appointed Poet Laureate in 1843, the critics were lauding Wordsworth’s rallying call to travel through nature as the perfect antidote to Britain’s increasingly urban lifestyle. Travellers came in increasing numbers to explore the region that inspired his words, a tourism industry was firmly established and other poets followed in search of similar inspiration.
It’s a literary tradition that continued through Beatrix Potter and Alfred Wainwright to Arthur Ransome of Swallows and Amazons fame and John Cunliffe, whose stories about Postman Pat and his faithful cat have delighted generations of children.
The Lake Poets blazed the trail and Wordsworth was their de-facto leader. The journalist Stuart Maconie, a passionate advocate of wild landscapes, likens the poets to punk rock.
“Writing about flowers was a political act, almost punkish in its ‘let’s explore our primal selves’ way.”
Romanticism, like punk, changed everything in its wake.
On the road
Sadly, the well-trodden tourist trail of the central Lakes fails to provide the edginess of punk, instead turning a revolutionary philosophy into a network of chintzy tearooms and craft-filled gift shops. Is it still possible to rediscover the radical fervour that drove the Romantics? After all, the Lake District is hardly a fragment of landscape frozen in time.
I believe it is. That’s why I’m pulling off the M6 on a blustery day in early April and following the signs for the North Lakes. I wanted to catch the first bloom of spring, to share in a moment so indelibly linked with the Romantics. It hadn’t been the most romantic of starts – just a swathe of landscape-dissecting motorway and lunch at an anodyne motorway services.
But, as I trundle down the first of many country roads, my heart swells. The dainty heads of pinprick wild flowers are already hinting at vital signs by the roadside.
I’m heading across the top of Lake District National Park (Britain’s second such park after the Peak District in 1951) to Cockermouth, a sturdy Cumbrian market town on the banks of fast-flowing, flood-prone River Cocker. Here, a Georgian townhouse marks the start of a Wordsworth trail that offers moments of intimacy among the tour groups.
The poet was born here in 1770, and it remained his home until the age of eight, when his mother died and his grieving father sent him and his older brother, John, away to Hawkshead Grammar School (deep in the central Lakes, between Lake Windermere and Coniston Water),
The young William spent, in his own words, “Half his boyhood running wild among the mountains,” and it was during his early childhood that he developed his love of the Cumbrian countryside. The National Trust now owns the Wordsworth House and Garden, which was restored using records from the Wordsworth archive and fulfils a living-museum role with costumed interpreters keeping the house alive.
Away from the bonneted servants and quill pen and ink demos, I catch a glimpse of Wordsworth in the walled garden, still planted with 18th-century vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers, such as lemon balm (good for stings) and garlic chives (a natural remedy for nausea).
My next stop is a tourist hotspot, with coach parties and time-limited tours. It’s Dove Cottage, the ramshackle former coaching inn outside Grasmere that Wordsworth and Coleridge discovered on a walking tour of Cumbria.
The cramped, whitewashed cottage provided the growing Wordsworth clan with a family home from 1799 to 1808.
He wrote much of his best-known poetry here, and his sister Dorothy kept her famous diary, later published as the Grasmere Journal, while living in the cottage with William, his wife Mary Hutchinson and, later, their three eldest children, John, Dora and Thomas.
The charitable Wordsworth Trust now manages Dove Cottage and the adjoining Wordsworth Museum and Library, which houses one of the greatest collections of manuscripts, books and paintings relating to British Romanticism. The collection includes over 90 per cent of Wordsworth’s surviving manuscripts.
Pick a quiet moment, or avoid the tour altogether and beat the hordes to the visit’s scholarly denouement, for a sense of the man reading, editing and re-writing these lines for the first time, long before his punk-rock prose was tamed by inclusion in school textbooks and tourist brochures. Wordsworth would feel at home here, scribbling away in the half light. He would, doubtless, despise the brouhaha of the gift shop.
Rydal Mount, just a short drive towards Ambleside hugging Rydal Water dappled with morning sun, feels more intimate with its homely entrance hall, easy-going ambiance and collection of family heirlooms. This was Wordsworth’s family home for 37 years from 1813 to 1850 and the property marks the 200th anniversary of Wordsworth’s arrival in May this year.
The family settled into a more stable lifestyle at Rydal Mount, buoyed by earnings from William’s writing and lectures. He revised many of his earlier works while living at Rydal Mount and completed the final draft of Daffodils here in 1815. Today the house remains privately owned by the Wordsworth family and retains a lived-in, welcoming ambience, offering a personal take on the Wordsworth story – an insight into William as the family man.
You can even sit in Wordsworth’s chair overlooking the terrace and admire the spring flowers bursting into life.
While the house contains portraits, personal possessions and first editions of the poet’s work, it’s in the four-acre, Romantic-style garden that I feel closest to understanding what motivated Wordsworth in his craft. He loved to potter here, and it remains as he designed it with rare shrubs, such as Smooth Japanese Maple and Japanese Red Cedar. Wordsworth joked that, if he hadn’t been a poet, he would have wanted to be a gardener.
“At Rydal, I feel close to him and his family – my ancestors. From spending time there, I’ve learnt a lot about the man, more than the poet,” says Christopher Andrew, six generations removed from the poet as Wordsworth’s great-great-great-great grandson. Andrew, who works in finance across Europe, still regularly visits the ancestral home. “I love sharing his sense of nature when walking in the garden at dusk.”
“I stroll down to Dora’s Field (dedicated to Wordsworth’s eldest daughter who died of pneumonia in 1847) and catch the deer prancing among the daffodils.”
The Wordsworth family grave [pictured above] is the in the grounds of St Oswald’s Church, which lies at the heart of Grasmere village. The weather-stained graves of William, Mary and Dorothy, as well as the children Dora, William, Thomas and Catherine, are regularly decorated with displays of fresh flowers from well wishers. Behind the graves, the Wordsworth Daffodil Garden skirts the fringe of the graveyard.
Wordsworth once described Grasmere as “the fairest place on earth” and, on a calm spring day with the daffodils gently bathed in spring dew, you can almost feel his words still resonating around the village on the breeze.
“Even if you don’t believe in God,” says Christopher Andrew, “you can still believe in nature.”
Relishing these moments of insight, I aim to find out more about the Romantics by tracing the footsteps of Wordsworth’s fellow poets and the generations of artists who followed in their wake. While Coleridge is also well-known, the role of Robert Southey, another poet of the Romantic school and Poet Laureate from 1813 until his death in 1843, is only just being rediscovered.
Their lives entwined at Greta Hall on the fringe of Keswick, an evocative Georgian pile where Coleridge lived from 1800 to 1803 and Southey from 1803 to 1843. Today the property, swirling with the ghosts of the past, combines self-catering accommodation in the Coleridge Wing with a space for literary-salon events in the book-lined study where Southey once toiled. Outside, the grounds resonate to the sound of the ducks rampaging through the wildflower-strewn borders.
Coleridge, prone to dabbling with opium and nature-inspired wandering, left his family behind at the house in Southey’s care (their wives were sisters). He produced great works, notably The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan, but the family suffered from his prolonged absence. Southey remained behind to provide for the families living under his roof.
The early 19th-century house was purchased by the Palmer family in 1996 as a run-down schoolhouse and re-opened to guests in 2002. For them, the house now serves to highlight the much-overlooked contribution made by Southey.
While his poetry was primarily observational and often ridiculed by Wordsworth, his academic work and hard-working nature earned him wider respect in the literary community of the day. His story The Three Bears (1837), today displayed in a case in his study, is the original take on the now better-known Goldilocks fairytale.
“Southey was the rock that enabled the Romantic Movement to grow,” explains owner Jeronime Palmer, showing me around rooms where Coleridge slept and Southey dined with the likes of Wordsworth, Byron and Keats.
“By setting Wordsworth and Coleridge free to prove themselves as Romantic poets, he proved his friendship to them.”
That night, I settle down under the covers of an elaborately carved Chinese opium bed, not an original piece but one, no doubt, Coleridge would approve of, to read works by the poet.
The house creaks and groans around me while dusty tomes, leather bound and crinkly paged, litter the bedspread. I can imagine the poets poring over their manuscripts in the same way, propped up on pillows with moonlight over the fells beyond the window.
“Southey is quite the underplayed figure,” says Palmer, delivering a breakfast of home-baked bread and freshly laid duck eggs. “I’m delighted academics have picked up his mantle in recent years.”
I drive onwards from Keswick towards Coniston, tracing mud-splattered arc in second gear round windy country roads, cruising past snow-topped fells, to find traces of a philosophy that added to Romantic ideals with scientific discoveries inspired by nature.
While the Romantics were busy crafting purple prose about the beauty of the Lakes, a new movement of artists was also discovering Cumbria. JMW Turner, Gainsborough and, later, Constable all journeyed north in search of those quintessentially brooding Lakeland vistas. Most importantly, it is the Victorian polymath, John Ruskin, who picked up the mantle and took the Romantic Movement forward to a new era.
By 1872, when Ruskin moved to Brantwood House, an elegant, stately home on the peaceful eastern shore of Coniston Water, the Lakes Poets were long dead. Wordsworth had become increasingly disillusioned with what he saw as the invading hordes and Coleridge, a victim of ill health and opium addiction, had settled into a steady decline.
But Ruskin, the artist, writer and social reformer, took their ideas, blending them with his patronage of Turner (his collection today features 140 Turner works) and his friendship with Charles Darwin. His ideas would inspire a new generation of thinkers, writers and activists, Ghandi and Tolstoy amongst them.
“Ruskin evolved the ideas of the Romantics.”
“His vital role was taking the notion of nature as an inspiration to the human spirit and reconciling it with the scientific world,” explains Brantwood’s Director Howard Hull as we soak up the ambiance in Ruskin’s well-preserved study, an impressive, heavy-wood armillary sphere taking pride of place in the centre of the room.
“He introduced the moral dimension of our responsibility towards the natural world, an early inspiration for the establishment of the National Trust.”
Ruskin expanded the property according to his idea of ‘organic architecture’, incorporating elements of the burgeoning Arts and Crafts movement. I spend an idyllic morning exploring the 250-acre estate, skipping from an art exhibition of Ruskin’s uneasy relationship with women (soon to be the subject of a film by Emma Thompson) to a modern update of his rock lithophone, a kind of stone-mineral xylophone, is on display in Linton Room.
Copies of his seminal work on social justice and equality, Unto This Last (1860), are doing a brisk business in the gift shop.
Most impressive of all is the array of contrasting gardens as nurtured according to Rukin’s vision. The eight sections, arranged over a hillside behind the property, include a herb garden, Victorian herbaceous borders and the Zig-Zaggy, inspired by Dante’s Inferno. The High Walk is particularly impressive in spring with wild spring beds of flowers giving way to fine views across lapping Coniston Water.
Ruskin had an ability to link complex issues, such as social justice, economics and conservation, with great clarity. Brantwood was always a place of warmth, contemplation and debate.
Today hosts a series of courses in art, literature and horticulture, themes much loved by its patron, and smart new accommodation is available in a self-catering holiday cottage complete with the views looking past the tiny jetty and across tranquil Coniston Water to the village pubs of Coniston beyond, and the original Victorian bath that inspired Ruskin’s blue-sky thinking. Erudition was his gift to the movement and Brantwood remains a centre of learning as his legacy. Ruskin wrote:
“The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way.”
From the ivory towers above Coniston Water, I choose to end my journey through Romanticism by immersing myself in the original spirit that inspired its founders.
I head back towards the North Lakes, following near-deserted country roads beyond the fringes of the National Park to find the daffodils blossoming the southwest bank of Ullswater. Shorter and stubbier than other varieties, their yellow heads are pushing upwards in search of spring.
The frost can permeate into May around these parts but I can already feel nature stirring in early April: the snow melt on the top of the St Sunday crag, Canadian geese chattering over Norfolk Island and, most of all, the golden host beside the dark-watered ribbon lake. I spend a moment admiring the views from what is known locally as Dora’s Wood, before taking the Ullswater Steamer towards Pooley Bridge.
The mist-shrouded lake has a spectral quality, the changing of the seasons heralding new life around me.
“I’m constantly intrigued by the complexity of Ullswater – every minute of every day,” says Christian Grammer, skipper for Ullswater Steamers as we cruise past Glencoyne Bay, explosions of snowdrops and early-flowering daffodils peppering the banks with tiny dashes of their radiant hues. “She has a personality all of her own.”
I finish my walk through the landscapes that informed and inspired Wordsworth’s work, heading up to the waterfalls at Aira Force in the shadow of Gowbarrow Fell. The trail, immortalised by Wordsworth in The Somnambulist (1833), takes me through a wood of Irish Yew and Silver Fir, inhabited by red squirrel and red deer. It is tranquil yet deliciously alive.
It took something as simple as spring flowers to spark a new cultural movement. Here, surrounded by the stirring of spring high above Ullswater, I too feel the power of nature in the North Lakes as something tangible, something immense, something that could truly change the world. The nature makes me feel alive.
“No part of the country is more distinguished by its sublimity,” wrote Wordsworth.
* Staying close to home this week for another camping story from the archives.
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Crocus was eyeing me suspiciously.
It had been a perfectly normal start to the day for the 15-year-old cow until I started manhandling her udders in the milking shed with all the dexterity of a ham-fisted townie.
I was trying to draw off the milk between my thumb and first finger to test for its clarity, but Crocus was clearly not amused.
My early-morning attempt at milking was just part of my farmer for a day experience at Gorstage Green Farm in the rural Cheshire village of Weaverham.
Putting on the mandatory green Wellies on a spring morning in Cheshire, I was in for some hands-on experience of working with the farm’s 100 Holstein-Friesian cows, which produce 850,000 litres of milk per year.
The Davis family has been involved in dairy farming since the 1920’s. After seeing the industry suffer numerous setbacks, from Foot and Mouth Disease to supermarkets squeezing the price of milk, the current owner, 39-year-old farmer Charles Davis, decided to diversify.
Today, Charles, who is keen to challenge the stereotype of farmers as ruddy-faced men verging on retirement, welcomes volunteers to his 150-acre holdingfor an insight into farm life – and some free manual labour.
“I work an 18-hour day with a half day at weekends, two weeks holiday per year and catch the odd Liverpool home game,” explains Charles, as we tuck into a post-milking breakfast of tea and toast around the kitchen table in the 17th century farmhouse.
He smiles, downing his mug of tea.
“After spending a day with me, I hope people go home understanding that farmers are the custodians of the countryside.”
I had arrived the day before and made my base the Pheasant Inn, a rustic B&B nestled in the village of High Burwardsley.
With views across the Cheshire Plains to North Wales, the Pheasant is a perennial favourite for walkers tackling the three sections of the 34-mile Sandstone Trail from Frodsham to Whitchurch, which passes its front door.
To soak up the country air I took in a spin around the leafy country lanes, stopping for dairy ice cream and a chance to admire the llamas at Cheshire Farm Ice Cream (www.cheshirefarmicecream.co.uk), and to stock up on gourmet country produce at the Hollies Farm Shop (www.theholliesfarmshop.com). Driving over to Knutsford.
I spend a few hours wandering round National Trust property Tatton Park (www.tattonpark.org.uk), which features Home Farm, a 1950’s-style working farm, which is popular with families and school parties for step-back-in-time visits.
Returning to the Pheasant for supper, the country-inn ambiance – all open fires and rustic fittings – was reassuringly traditional, while the 12 cottage-style rooms, set in annexes off the main bar-cum-restaurant, were a chintz-free zone.
Dinner that night was a braised lamb shank with mint gravy and mash, which made the most of local farm produce.
As I headed past the bar for an early night, the rows of muddy walking boots outside the front door testified to its popularity for a post-yomp supper and a pint of the local Eastgate Ale.
Next morning at the farm there was work to be done: worming and ear-tagging in the morning, working in the fields in the afternoon before milking the cows, feeding and bedding them down at dusk.
Most nights, rather than getting his head down to prepare for tomorrow’s 6am start, Charles is up late at the computer doing accounts and paperwork.
As the morning slips away I get a crash course in the diversity of daily tasks and the highly physical nature of the job, from mucking out to holding a 12-month-old calf steady while Charles empties worming vaccination down her neck.
By lunchtime I’m starting to feel more comfortable around the animals and confident about handling them.
That is, until I find myself trying to lure a five-day-old calf between enclosures by sucking on my finger (an old farmers’ trick that simulates sucking on her mother’s teat).
But as I gently entice her across the yard, she makes a break for the front gate, leaving me chasing breathlessly behind. Thankfully, Charles’ loyal dog, Crystal, is on hand to chase her back on my behalf.
By late afternoon my day as a trusty farmhand is nearly over, but there’s one last experience: a ride in Charles’ tractor.
“You’re not allowed to drive for health and safety reasons, but you can ride up front with me as we spread the slurry,” he smiles.
As we chug home with the sun setting over the fields, I can appreciate Charles’ love of the land and the comradeship he shares with the animals, such as his favourite cow, Crocus, that keep him company each day as he ploughs his lonely furrow across the Cheshire countryside.
“I’m not one to get stuck in an office,” he says as we shake mud-splattered hands.
“My theory in life is this: look after your animals and they will look after you.”
* 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.”
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.
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.
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.”