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
* 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.”