Conwy’s Charms

Bodnant Garden, one of Britain's best, lies a few miles south of Conwy.
By Rick Steves

This garrison town was built with Conwy Castle in the 1280s to give Edward I an English toehold in Wales. What's left today are the best medieval walls in Britain surrounding a humble town and crowned by the bleak and barren hulk of a castle that was awesome in its day.

Conwy's charming High Street leads from Lancaster Square (with the bus stop, unmanned train station, and a column honoring the town's founder, Welsh prince Llywelyn the Great) down to a fishy harbor that permitted Edward to safely restock his castle. Since the highway was tunneled under the town, a strolling ambience has returned to Conwy. Beyond the castle, the mighty Telford suspension bridge is a 19th-century slice of English imperialism, built in 1826 to better connect (and control) the route to Ireland.

St. Mary's Parish Church, sitting lonely in the center of town, was the centerpiece of a Cistercian abbey that stood here a hundred years before the town. The Cistercians were French monks who built their abbeys in lonely places, "far from the haunts of man." Popular here because they were French and not English, the Cistercians taught locals farming and mussel-gathering techniques. Edward moved the monks 12 miles upstream but kept the church for his town. Notice the tombstone of a victim of the Battle of Trafalgar just left of the north transept. On the other side of the church, a tomb containing seven brothers and sisters is marked "We Are Seven." It inspired William Wordsworth to write his poem of the same name. The slate tombstones look new even though many are hundreds of years old. Pure slate weathers better than marble.

Stroll the harbor past the the Smallest House in Great Britain (72 inches wide, 122 inches high, and worth the small admission fee to see), the Queen Victoria tour boat, the lifeboat house, and the Mussels Centre, where this important local catch is processed "in the months with an r" and open to visitors in months without.

The tourist information office shares a building with the castle's ticket office and gift shop. Since Conwy's train and bus stations are unstaffed, ask at the tourism office about train or bus schedules for your departure. The tourism office sells books and maps on the area, such as The Ascent of Snowdon. The tourism office also reserves rooms for a fee and makes theater bookings. Don't confuse the actual tourist information office with the tacky "Conwy Visitors Centre," a big gift shop with a goofy little video show near the station.

Conwy Castle, dramatically situated on a rock overlooking the sea with eight linebacker towers, has an interesting story to tell. Built in four years, the castle had a water gate that allowed safe entry for English boats in a land of hostile Welsh. Guides wait inside to take you on a one-hour tour. If the booth is empty, look for the group and join it.

Bodnant Garden is a sumptuous 80-acre display of floral color just six miles south of Conwy. Set in the lush green of Snowdonia, this garden is one of Britain's best. It's famous for its magnolias, rhododendrons, camellias, and floral arch made of bright-yellow laburnum, which blooms mid-May through early June.