I joined a real-ale-themed tour of North Wales recently for Guardian Travel.
It was a trip around the hidden-gem rural pubs and microbreweries [pictured above] often overlooked by the stampede down the A55 towards Anglesey.
Based around Caernarfon, it highlighted the rise of community pubs at a time when our traditional village hostelries are struggling to survive.
There has been an explosion of local microbreweries and craft-ale pubs in recent years with The Albion Ale House in Conwy one of my favourites.
Here’s a preview of the article.
As the afternoon gave way to dusk, I was nursing a pint of Clogwyn Gold from the Conwy Brewery at The George in Carneddi, near Bangor, currently the Gwynedd a Mon branch of CAMRA’s Community Pub of the Year.
It was a tiny, no-frills bar with cheese rolls on the bar, beers stains on the carpet and a queue of people for the pool table but, an early Saturday evening in spring, it was bustling with a mix of regulars and ale-trail day trippers.
Landlord Dewi Sion says: “I still believe that serving a proper pint of local ale in a proper pub can create a place where a community comes together.”
I find Alison Bradley in the doorway of her Betws-y-Coed gallery checking the weather.
“I’m always struck by the movements in the clouds, the rain and the trees in the forest,” says the Nottingham-born artist, surrounded by her oil and charcoal Welsh landscapes from a landscape of a mist-shrouded Moel Siabod to dawn at Cwm Idwal.
“The Snowdonia weather is very changeable but it brings a dramatic variety of light and shade to the landscape.”
The Alison Bradley gallery opened two years ago in the Alpine-style village of Betws-y-Coed at the heart of the Snowdonia National Park.
But Alison is not the first artist to be inspired by the lush-verdant Gwydyr Forest on Snowdonia’s eastern flank, the valley-carving intersection of the Rivers Conwy and Llugwy, and the water-frothing Swallow Falls between Betws-y-Coed and Capel Curig.
While the village is better known today as a centre for walking, it was, in fact, home to Britain’s first ever artists’ colony.
The landscape artist David Cox, a contemporary of Turner, first came to Betws in 1844 to capture the transient beauty of the changing seasons in Snowdonia.
He made his summer base at the town’s Royal Oak Hotel and his students soon followed, establishing a popular retreat for artists during Victorian times.
His best-known work, A Welsh Funeral, inspired by the funeral of a young girl at the village’s 14th-century St Michael’s Church, is today exhibited at Tate Britain.
“Cox worked with atmosphere, the wind and rain, water running over stepping stones,” says Alison. “He was always checking the weather.”
This October, a small but dedicated group of local people is staging the Snowdonia Arts Festival in Betws-y-Coed. The event is only the second of its kind and a refined version of the Betws-y-Coed Arts Festival held last spring.
This year’s festival features a much-expanded programme of exhibitions by Welsh artists and practical workshops by day, plus music, literary and poetry events by night.
The festival centre and a showcase of craft producers from across North Wales will be housed in a marquee on Cae Llan, the village green.
“Setting up a new arts festival from scratch is really hard work and we’ve definitely learnt some lessons along the way,” says Jon Davies, a professional picture framer by trade and member of the festival’s eight-strong festival committee.
“It takes a small group of like-minded people who are passionate about something to grow the festival organically over time and build support from the local community.”
The event is underscored by its community ethos. The organisers are local residents working in tourism, who run galleries, B&Bs and hotels amongst others.
They plan to make use of various public spaces around the village from the Memorial Hall, which will house drama workshops, to the Waterloo Hotel, home to an open exhibition of artists working in all disciplines from ceramics to 3-D artworks.
Amongst the festival highlights, the workshops, priced £24-50 per person, include sessions on working with watercolours and mixed media with local artists Chloe Needham and Eleri Jones.
Alison is hosting a workshop about painting outdoors. For people staying over for the weekend, places to eat round Betws, such as stylish cafe Plas Derwen and local stalwart Bistro Betws-y-Coed, will be showcasing the best of local produce.
“We want to open up Betws to people outside the traditional community of walkers and encourage them to see the place in a new light,” says Marion Owen, Secretary of the Snowdonia Arts Festival and owner of the Mair Lys B&B in Betws-y-Coed.
“The autumn colours are beautiful here and there are lots of artists, working in studios around the region, just waiting to be discovered.”
Heading north through the Conwy Valley, the Mostyn gallery in Llandudno re-opened in May this year after three years of renovations.
The building, finally freed of scaffolding, looks aesthetically striking with the original terracotta facade restored to its turn-of-the-century finery and light, high-ceilinged galleries to show off the work of contemporary artists from around the world.
“There’s an increasingly lively arts scene across North Wales with artists like Bedwyr Williams coming back home to establish their practices. The ease of transport and communication is helping drive the largest return to Wales since the day’s of the Betws artists’ colony,” says Martin Barlow, Director of Mostyn.
But how some words of advice for the Snowdonia Arts Festival in its bid to establish a presence on the art circuit?
“Most arts events are born out of the passion and dedication of a small number of people at the outset,” he adds. “They need that to sustain them until they gain wider funding and support.”
Later that afternoon Alison leads me along the bustling, tree-lined main thoroughfare through Betws, the old Holyhead to London stage coach route.
Hikers are busily scouring the outdoor shops for bargains, families are devouring ice creams after rides on the model train and grandparents are browsing for souvenirs at Anna Davies, the history-packed independent department store with its lost-in-time feel.
The majority are probably are oblivious to the rich artistic heritage of the village, but clues abound.
Alison knows a hidden-gem hint to former glories. She leads me into the lounge-bar of the Royal Oak Hotel, where David Cox’s 1847 painting for the hotel sign still hangs above the fireplace.
In the wake of Cox, Betws remained an artistic community until the First World War. In 1882, the artist Clarence Whaite and other colony artists were instrumental in the founding of the Royal Cambrian Academy in nearby Conwy, a place to celebrate the art produced in, and inspired by, Wales.
Today, with a new generation of artists discovering Snowdonia as a place to fuel their artistic fire, its time has come again.
“We’re a small festival and the emphasis is currently on the quality of the art, not the visitor numbers,” says Alison.
“We hope the festival will, over time, put Betws-y-Coed on the map once more.”
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* This week marks National Camping and Caravanning Week. My piece for the Daily Mail was held over but here’s a preview.
I don’t get glamping.
Indeed, as the black sheets of rains swirled around me on the drive through rural North Wales, I couldn’t find much glamour in a blustery Bank Holiday weekend of camping.
But, with National Camping and Caravanning Week running May 25-31, The Camping and Caravanning Club has a new plan to lure skeptics like me to their sites – Ready Camp.
The concept is simple: a turn-up-and-stay, ready pitched tent sleeping up to six people amid some of Britain’s most glorious scenery. There’s no need for camping equipment or wrestling with guy ropes in a storm as everything is prepared for you.
You simply bring bedding and towels, and stop at a supermarket along the way to stock up on supplies.
Ready Camp tents are now available at 17 Club sites around Britain and I had to come to the small, rural site near Baal Lake, Snowdonia [picture above], to test drive the concept with a night under canvas.
“Ready Camp a stepping stone from urban to country life,” said site manager Graham Bland, showing me to my brown-canvas tent.
“It’s a soft option for first-time campers like families and young couples.”
As I unzipped the flysheet I was pleasantly surprised.
The tent comprises two bedrooms with proper beds and an open-plan kitchenette/dining area with a few home comforts, such as a sofa and a microwave oven. There are sockets to plug in electrical devices and WiFi is available at a charge of £2 per day.
You can also hire an electric heater from reception for chilly evenings.
The campsite itself, popular with outdoors types and rail enthusiasts visiting the Welsh Highland Heritage Railway at nearby Porthmadog, was compact and tranquil.
Beyond the bathroom block and laundry facilities, I could hear the sound of a gurgling stream running alongside the pitches. Red kites and buzzards soared overhead as I made myself at home.
“This is our favourite site to work on,” explained co-manager Tina Bland, arriving with teabags from the handy on-site shop.
“I just like the feeling here of being close to nature.”
That night, after some home-cooked pub grub and a couple of pints of Purple Moose, a local microbrewery ale, at The Bryntirion Inn, I was feeling more relaxed – despite the steep, two-mile walk back to the campsite.
The clouds had cleared and the stars emerged to bathe the rolling hills in a silvery glow, the outside lights of my Ready Camp tent a beacon in the distance.
So, did the Ready Camp concept convert me?
Well, after a surprisingly snug night under canvas, breakfast on the patio with views of the Berwyn range of mountains and a slap-up brunch the next morning at Rhug Estate, a nearby farm shop with a fine line in local organic produce, I was coming round to the idea of glamping