* 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.”
* 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.
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.
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.