live slow, love nature, be adventurous

Friday, August 12, 2016

How We Spent A Day In Betws-Y-Coed, Wales

Every few weeks, I’m hit by the sudden desire to visit Great Britain again. I find myself dreaming about driving along rolling hills with grazing sheep, catch myself longing for some tea and scones and start spending too much time reading blogs about life in the British countryside. I can’t deny that my love for the UK is in large part based on a case of the grass is always greener on the other side and on the fact that I just haven’t spent enough time in this country to get over the initial honeymoon stage and to really notice some of its bad sides, but I also can’t deny that there is something about this part of the world that has called to my heart ever since I first visited as a child and that makes me come back for more, time and time again.

I think we all have a place where our soul feels truly at peace, whether that’s beneath the skyscrapers of New York, on a beach in Thailand or in a little village in the south of France and as far as I can tell right now, my own spirit place has got to be somewhere on this little island just off the coast of Europe’s mainland.

When my boyfriend and me visited Wales earlier this year, we spent our first three nights in Betws-Y-Coed, one of the touristic centers of Snowdonia National Park. We had spent one day falling for the lovely little seaside town of Conwy and another enjoying the breathtaking mountain landscape around Beddgelert, but not yet allowed any time for exploring our base and so we set aside a few hours to finally do so before we were scheduled to leave for our next destination.

Betws-Y-Coed has been one of the most popular resort towns in Snowdonia since Victorian times and continues to draw in the crowds today. I have seen it described as touristy and inauthentic before and you will probably find this to be true if your reason for visiting the national park is to get away from all other humans, but while the town itself – despite its many pretty slate buildings – might not be the reason why most people put visiting Wales on their bucket list, there are a few sights in the surrounding countryside that may very well do so.

Once you enter Betws-Y-Coed, there is no doubt that you have arrived in a town that is so focused on outdoor tourism that it can leave you wondering if there are any residents left at all that are not in some way involved in this industry. But whether you love it or hate it, you can’t deny that it makes Betws-Y-Coed a great place to base yourself in while visiting Snowdonia National Park for practical reasons alone.

Its location at a crossroads of multiple bus lines makes it a convenient stop for those that have decided to ditch a car in favor of public transport and despite its modest size - Betws-Y-Coed may be one of the larger towns in Snowdonia, but it’s hardly more than a large village – there is a good selection of B & Bs, hotels and restaurants that ensures that creature comforts are taken care of. We had dinner at Olif one evening which with its tapas-style menu of regionally sourced ingredients and wide selection of craft ciders and ales greatly captured the spirit of local eating. We also had breakfast at the Alpine Coffee Shop one morning and liked it so much that we returned later in the day for some cake and coffee and I really wouldn't mind if someone opened a similar kind of place in Heidelberg as well.

Betws-Y-Coed’s main selling points aren’t located in the town itself, though, but rather just outside its borders and the first one we decided to visit was the Fairy Glen, a little gorge just two kilometers south of town. I had first come across this place in a post on Buzzfeed while researching for our trip and it promptly made it on my list of places to visit in Wales because it just looked too darn pretty and I was curious to see if it really was as magical a place as it seemed to be on pictures.

Since we couldn’t find a nice footpath from Betws-Y-Coed to the glen online, we asked at the local tourist information – they really are gold in Wales! – where the friendly staff pointed out at a quiet country road to us that was barely frequented by cars anymore and would therefore make for a nice little walk. The road led us through a peaceful area of forest that seemed beautifully forlorn in the fog that was still lingering from the morning and as we ambled along quaint stone walls, crumbling old slate buildings and grazing sheep, I couldn’t help, but think that this was exactly the type of landscape that I had missed since my last visit to the UK.

After half an hour, our little country lane merged with a much busier road coming from the coast and we found ourselves at the end of our short journey. We payed the little entrance fee to the private property the Fairy Glen was located at and then crossed through the wooden gate that led us one step closer to our destination. With lush pastures and an unconstructed view over the valley, the property itself was beautiful and inviting already and by some stroke of fortune, the sun chose the exact moment of our arrival to suddenly break through the clouds again after days of seemingly non-stopping rain.

In the soft light of the sun, the landscape looked less austere, though no less striking, but following the signs to the glen and passing the first blooming flowers of the year, we soon left the view behind us again and instead found ourselves walking along a sort of rocky cliff from where we could just see a small stream burbling along below us. We had to climb down a few steep steps that were still slippery from the rain to get to the glen and just as we made it to the bottom, the sun fell into the gorge at just the right angle and in the blink of an eye created the kind of mythical atmosphere that I had hoped to encounter, but not really dared to expect.

It was gone as quickly as it had come, but eager to capture its beauty, should it make an appearance again, I decided to climb over some more slippery rocks to find a better place to take photographs from. I had bought a new tripod just before our trip, but not thought to figure out how to set it up before leaving – a classic rookie mistake – and after fiddling around with it for a while, I just decided to let it be and enjoy the freedom of movement of hand-held photography instead. As I waited for the light to return and tried to avoid falling into the river, my boyfriend and me marvelled at the silence of the forest and both exclaimed to each other that we had never been to a place quite like this before and for a second the existence of fairies seemed almost palpable.

There were a few times when the sun illuminated the gorge nicely again, but the light was never quite as beautiful as in those first few moments and so I defeatedly had to concede that maybe the spirits of this place just didn’t want their true magic to be revealed to people outside of the glen. To my surprise, I later noticed that my pictures had turned out much better than they had looked at first glance inside the glen and so, maybe, the fairies decided to be lenient after all.

Since I had learned about the Fairy Glen on Buzzfeed, I had expected it to be a pretty touristy sight, but to our delight we found the complete opposite to be the case. When we arrived – it must have been some time between ten and eleven in the morning – the only other people around were an older couple that didn’t even climb down to the gorge and a family that was just getting ready to leave as we were arriving and so we literally had the entire gorge to ourselves. And of course, this gave the Fairy Glen an even more mysterious atmosphere and left us thinking that all the silly lists in the world were right: This place was definitely worth visiting.

We returned to Betws-Y-Coed soon after, but almost immediately set off in the opposite direction to go on a walk along the river Llugwy. The warmth of the early afternoon seemed to have lured out many other people to enjoy nature’s delights and so this walk was noticeably more busy than our previous one, though also even more lovely and scenic. Close to town, children were playing at the banks of the river, some of them tucking into boxes of Fish & Chips, others skipping rocks over the water, but with every passing step, the forest turned quieter until the trees suddenly opened up to a large clearing right next to the river.

In the distance, we could spot the first mountains of Snowdonia, while right in front of us old oak trees were lining the peacefully flowing river, their roots and branches almost touching the water. The scene was truly picturesque in every sense of the word and I had no trouble at all understanding why some of the first travellers that had come to this part of the world had been painters during the age of romanticism that were seeking – and subsequently finding - their perfect ideal of nature. I, too, was keen to capture the essence of the landscape in both its grandeur and its modesty, if not through a brushstroke than through my lens and my words, but whatever little skill I may possess blinds in comparison to the feeling that only nature itself can convey.

We strutted along a muddy path for a while, but before long the river banks grew increasingly rocky and steep while the path gained in elevation and led us back into the forest. Following the voices we could hear in the distance, we soon found ourselves at Miner’s Bridge, a small, wooden foot bridge that was not only the only place to safely cross the river in the area, but also a firm painter’s favorite back in the day.

Our original plan had been to keep on walking along the right bank of the river to the Ugly House while passing Swallow Falls, but I had accidently closed the tab with the walking description on my phone and couldn’t get it to load again and with no signs to be seen, we just couldn’t figure out just where we were supposed to be going. Since we were a bit short on time anyway, we therefore decided to scrap those plans in favor of walking in a more leisurely pace along the left side of the river until Swallow Falls.

During the last part of our walk, we went along what has to be one of the busiest roads in the national park which didn’t exactly make for the most panoramic of scenarios. But the adorable little lambs that we spotted on the side of the road more than made up for it and may or may not have brought out my inner five-year-old on more than one occasion. I mean, just look at the little ones – as long as this level of cuteness exists, there surely must be plenty of hope left for our world.

By the time we arrived at Swallow Falls, the weather had started to turn and the sun had hidden behind a veil of grey clouds again. Planning to catch the bus back to town (and used to it by now), we weren’t too worried about rain, though, and instead paid the entrance fee to the viewing platform. Swallow Falls is one of the few larger waterfalls in Snowdonia and one of the biggest attractions in the area. It was easily the busiest place we had visited all day – though it’s worth keeping in my mind that busy in Wales carries a completely different meaning than busy in, say, Paris – and while it didn’t come close to the charm of the Fairy Glen, we did have to admit that seeing the masses of water tumble down the rocks was very impressive in its own right.

Betws-Y-Coed may not be the most secluded place in Snowdonia, but it’s the ideal place for spending a leisurely day. Whether you’re not fond of climbing mountains, have little children with you or simply look for a break from more strenuous physical activities, there is plenty to love in Betws-Y-Coed – and it bears well to remember that even in places that are described as touristy, quiet corners can be found without much struggle.

When we were on the bus to Llanberis later – a town on the other side of the national park and our base for the next three nights – we already missed the first part of our trip. But, as always, we knew that more adventures were ahead.

Have you been to Betws-Y-Coed before? Which place can't I miss the next time I visit?


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