North Wales: Feisty and Poetic
In this program we explore North Wales, from towering Mount Snowdon to evocative medieval castles to grand Victorian promenades. We visit the castle-within-a-castle in Conwy, peek into 16th-century domestic life at Plas Mawr, go down deep in the Llechwedd Slate Caverns, and up high in Snowdonia National Park, then make a "Beatles pilgrimage" to Liverpool.
Dramatically situated on a rock overlooking the sea with eight linebacker towers, this castle has an interesting story to tell. Finished in just four years, it had a water gate that allowed safe entry for English boats in a land of hostile Welsh subjects. This is my favorite of the many castles in North Wales — it's compact, fun to explore, and has the best views.
Built during the reign of Elizabeth I, Plas Mawr is filled with historically accurate household items that bring the rooms to life, as does the refreshing lack of velvet ropes — you're free to wander as you imagine life in this house. Unlike the austere Welsh castles, here you'll feel like you're visiting a home where the 16th-century owner has just stepped out for a minute. Docents are happy to answer your questions — take advantage of their enthusiasm.
Edward I built this mighty castle 700 years ago to establish English rule over North Wales. Rather than being purely defensive, it also had elements of a palace — where Edward and his family could stay on visits to Wales. Modeled after the striped, angular walls of ancient Constantinople, the castle, though impressive, was never finished and never really used.
At Trefriw, five miles north of Betws-y-Coed, you can peek into a working woolen mill. It's surprisingly interesting if the machines are running (weekdays Easter–October). This mill turns British wool (and some from New Zealand) into bedspreads, rugs, and tweeds. The highlight is the mill museum, and the chance to follow a matted glob of fleece on its entire journey to becoming a fashionable cap or scarf.
A guided one-hour tour of this working slate mine on the northern edge of Blaenau Ffestiniog will give you a new appreciation for all those slate roofs you'll see in your travels. You'll descend on a cable railway about 400 feet into the mountain for an audiovisual dramatization, learn about the miners' primitive techniques and their (virtually nonexistent) safety measures, and even get to heft their tools and watch a brief slate-splitting demonstration. Dress warmly and be prepared for a half-mile of walking through tunnels and caves, plus some stairs and uneven footing.
If you're going to devote substantial time to any garden in Britain, this one deserves serious consideration. The highlight for many is the famous Laburnum Arch — a 180-foot-long canopy made of bright-yellow laburnum, hanging like stalactites over the heads of garden lovers who stroll beneath it (blooms late May through early June). The garden is also famous for its magnolias, rhododendrons, camellias, and roses — and for the way that the buildings of the estate complement the carefully planned landscaping — all with a backdrop of rolling hills and craggy Welsh mountains.
This is the easiest and most popular ascent of Mount Snowdon. You'll travel five miles from Llanberis to the summit on Britain's only rack-and-pinion railway (from 1896), climbing a total of 3,500 feet. You can take either the diesel-powered train with a 70-person car, or the steam train, carrying 34 passengers in a rebuilt Victorian carriage. Either trip takes 2.5 hours (one hour up, one hour down, 30 minutes free time at the summit). Don't confuse this with the (also recommended) Welsh Highland Railway, or the Llanberis Lake Railway, a different (and far less appealing) steam train that fascinates kids and runs to the end of Padarn Lake and back.
These museums tell the story of Liverpool: The third floor covers slavery, while the first, second, and basement handle maritime topics. The Slavery Museum starts with a description of life in West Africa; then comes a harrowing exhibit about enslavement and the Middle Passage, with an intense film that drives home the horrifying experience of being abducted from your home and taken thousands of miles away in life-threatening conditions. The exhibits don't shy away from how Liverpool profited from slavery; you can turn local street signs around to find out how they were named after slave traders — even Penny Lane has slavery connections. Finally, the museum examines the legacy of slavery — both the persistence of racism in contemporary society and the substantial positive impact that people of African descent have had on European and American cultures.
The Maritime Museum celebrates Liverpool's shipbuilding heritage, including extensive exhibits on the Titanic — the shipping line and its captain were based in Liverpool, and 89 of the crew members who died were from the city — and the Lusitania, which had 405 Liverpool-based crew members on board when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat.
It's sad to think the Beatles are stuck in a museum. Still, this exhibit — while overpriced and a bit small — is well done, the story's a fascinating one, and even an avid fan will pick up some new information. The museum has two parts: the original, main exhibit at the south end of the Albert Dock; and a much smaller branch in the Mersey Ferries terminal at Pier Head, near the Museum of Liverpool, just to the north. A free and frequent shuttle runs between the two locations.
Beatles bus tours
If you want to see as many Beatles-related sights as possible in a short time, these tours are the way to go. Each drives by the houses where the Fab Four grew up (only the National Trust tour gets you inside the homes), places they performed, and spots made famous by the lyrics of their hits. Even lukewarm fans will enjoy the commentary and seeing the shelter on the roundabout, the barber who shaves another customer, and the banker who never wears a mack in the pouring rain. (Very strange.)
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're in North Wales, splitting slate, exploring castles, and steaming up mountains. Thanks for joining us.
Wales' top historical, natural, and cultural wonders are found here in the north. From towering Mount Snowdon to evocative castles to sweeping Victorian promenades, it's a poem written in landscape. I think this area has as much site seeing diversity and interest as any place in Britain.
We'll mountain climb on a steam train, learn some Welsh, follow a miner deep into a slate mine, shepherd sheep, get passionate about castles, and immerse ourselves in Britain's top scenic wonders.
The British Isles consist of England and three Celtic lands. Our target this time is North Wales — where we'll visit a beach resort, two castle towns, a slate mine, and a national park with Wales' tallest peak. We finish just over the border in the English city of Liverpool.
We start in the town of Llandudno, a genteel Victorian beach resort. It was built after the advent of the railways, which made the Welsh sea coast easily accessible to England's industrial heartland.
In the 1800s the notion that bathing in sea water was good for your health was trendy. And the bracing sea air was just what the doctor ordered. Any self-respecting sea resort came with a nice long pier offering vacation goers a day at sea — and a good walk to boot. Llandudno is hugely popular with the English — you won't see many other foreigners here. The long lines of old-time hotels offer their guests the warmest welcome possible.
But in the fortified castle town of Conwy, just a few miles away, we learn that the English weren't always so welcome.
Eight centuries ago, those English were invaders, sent here by their king to help establish a foothold in a land he wanted to incorporate into his realm.
These English garrison towns — with awe-inspiring walls and state-of-the-art castles — created what was known as the "ring of stone and iron" around the land of the Welsh.
They say Wales has more castles per square mile than any place in Europe. And most of them are English castles, built here in the 13th century by the King Edward [I] to establish English rule here and subdue the feisty Welsh.
The greatest of Edward's castles — like Conwy Castle — were masterpieces of medieval engineering. Their towers were round — tougher to break through, with no corners to knock off. The castle-within-a-castle defense gave defenders a place to retreat and wreak havoc on the advancing enemy...or just wait for reinforcements. And with sea access, they could be restocked safely from England.
Conwy Castle has an interesting story and local guides—who hang out at the entrance ready to take you on an inexpensive impromptu tour—tell the story well. Neville Hortop brings this castle to life with gusto. [Castle visits no longer include guided castle tours.]
Neville: ...and it's a wonderful castle because it's two castles in one. We're going through into the soldier's part of the castle. We have this lovely great courtyard here.
Rick: This was a practical place where the military stayed then?
Neville: The military stayed here, because it was simply military castle with an adjunct for the king, really. This was here for the military. This is the banquet hall for everybody. There was wonder in the evenings here...a winter's evening with a massive fire, and a massive fire there, and the lovely smell of the meat, the odor of the wine, and the music from the minstrels. And all these people — the king, his people from London, the soldiers — all intermingled in here and this is the life of the castle.
But here's your thick wall. Here's your 10-foot wall, which is cutting you off from the soldiers' castle, and bringing you right into the king's part.
Rick: OK, so enemy comes, raise the drawbridge, into the king's zone.
Neville: So now, we're in the king's part of the castle. This is a luxury part. These are the Royal chambers all the way around here. This of course is the open courtyard for fresh air, a small food store there. The servants of the castle would be in these lower rooms, and these are the royal rooms.
And as we get out here, we really see the fulfillment of Edward's idea. Whenever he built a castle he's got to have a water exit; he's got to be able to supply it from the river, he's got to have an escape by the river, and this was in all Edward's planning, every castle he built has to have this water-defined entry and exit for him.
Rick: So, the Welsh could be controlling all the land and the English would still be fine here because they've got the water access.
Neville: They've got the water, they've got the supplies, and they've got this magnificent castle, of course.
A stroll along the best medieval walls in Britain rewards you with grand and evocative views. This garrison town was a kind of 13th-century "Green Zone" or safe base for the English invaders as they tried and tried to put down the angry Welsh insurgency.
You can still see the original checkerboard street plan the English came up with when they built the castle and the ramparts.
This grid plan of streets dates from about 1280, when Edward built Conwy and filled it with English settlers. Even though he nearly bankrupted the country with his extravagant castle building, many consider Edward to be England's finest monarch. He established and consolidated the United Kingdom — in other words, added Wales and Scotland to England — in order to create a realm big enough to compete with the rising European powers of the age.
Conwy's charming High Street leads down to the harbor, which permitted Edward to safely restock his castle. Wander downhill, enjoying the slice-of-Welsh-life scene.
Plas Mawr, a rare surviving Elizabethan house, dates from 1580. It was the first great Welsh home to be built within Conwy's walls. Stepping into the house, visitors are wowed by the heraldry over the fireplace. Repainted in its original bright colors, it proclaims the rich family's princely lineage.
Billed as the finest Elizabethan house in Wales, Plas Mawr offers a delightful peek into 16th-century domestic life. An excellent audio guide explains each room. The kitchen came with all the latest circa-1600 refinements: a hanging bread cage to keep food away from wandering critters, hay on the floor to add a little warmth and soak up the spillage, and a good supply of fresh meat in the pantry.
The lady of the house's bedroom doubled as a sitting room — with a foot warmer by the chair and a finely carved four-poster bed. The curtains were drawn at night to keep out the bugs and keep in the warmth.
The Great Chamber was for hearty feasting followed by boisterous gaming, dancing, and music. All this extravagant entertainment under a ceiling full of more heraldry — reflecting important, if dubious, family connections — left a powerful impact on guests.
Conwy's harbor — once vital for military purposes and then a busy industrial port — is now a laid-back zone that locals treat like a town square. It's Saturday night and the action is on the quay. The scene is mellow, multigenerational, and perfectly Welsh.
It's a small town and everyone's here: enjoying the local cuisine, chatting on the pier, spilling out of the pub, and savoring that great Welsh pastime…of torturing little crabs.
The next English castle town over is Caernarfon. Like Conwy, it originated as one of King Edward's garrison towns. It still spreads out from its protective castle following Edward's original grid plan laid within its still-impressive ramparts.
Caernarfon was the most expensive castle an English king ever built. Constructed as a key fortress in Edward's "iron ring" of castles, its sheer immensity was designed to prompt humility.
It's famous for its physical grandeur and for its association with the Prince of Wales. In modern times, to give the Welsh a sense of belonging to Britain [the UK], the Prince of Wales has been given his title here. It was here that, in 1969, Queen Elizabeth crowned her son Charles "Prince of Wales."
My friend and fellow tour guide, Martin de Lewandowicz, helps me with all this history.
Rick: So, why here, on this desolate windy north coast of Wales, would Edward build such an incredible castle?
Martin: Edward had to conquer Wales, and once he started to move west, he did what John Wayne did many years later: He moved west, he built forts, in the forts he put soldiers, the garrison of soldiers are safe, nobody else is safe, and therefore the fort controls the area. It's how any castle worked.
Rick: So, it was an English toehold here with an angry insurgency all around.
Martin: That's right — and when you think about the walled town of Caernarfon, think of those settlers moving in from back east — called "England" — they are really pioneer settlers sheltering in fear behind a medieval town wall.
Martin: This castle alone, one of 13, cost nearly a year's income for Edward I — it was the expensive castle ever built by a king of England.
Rick: And it's fancy.
Martin: It's one of the few castles, I think, that manages to achieve both architecture — art — and defensibility at the same time. It works as a castle, and it works as a piece of art at the same time.
You can re-live a medieval moment or two by watching a metal-thumping reenactment.
Rick: So, with all these incredible castles, were the English able to keep the Welsh down?
Martin: Well, politically yes, but culturally no. This is still the land of the Welsh language — where we compose poetry, and we sing songs, in Welsh.
Rick: Yeah. So poetry is a big deal?
Martin: Ah, poetry's huge. It is a manly thing to recite your recently composed poem to your workmates in work on a Monday morning.
Martin: Oh yeah!
Rick: Now, what is the state of the language today?
Martin: Well, today it is fantastic in that if you go to a primary school — a standard state primary school — everything is taught in Welsh.
Rick: So why is the Welsh language so important to you?
Martin: Rick, I don't think you can even conceive of Wales without the Welsh language. By that I mean the words to explain Wales only exist in Welsh. [Speaks Welsh]
Rick: What's that?
Martin: "It's a blessing, it's a privilege to be a Welshman who speaks Welsh."
[Welsh language spoken by locals]
Traveling through Wales, it's easy for the traveler not to realize that the language here actually is Welsh.
Locals speak Welsh to each other...and English to visitors. While everything here is bilingual, Welsh comes first.
Taking advantage of the mobility our rental car provides, we're enjoying a bed & breakfast immersed in the lush Welsh country side. The breakfast is as good as [at] any fancy hotel, the rooms come with elegant old four-poster beds, the lounge is just right for making friends from around the world, and the pristine setting is ideal for testing the reflexes of the family's sheepdogs.
Sheep are everywhere in Wales — they speckle the countryside. And every shepherd needs a good sheepdog. Dogs, trained to respond to different whistles, love to bully the sheep wherever the farmer wants them to go.
And every once in a while, that means in for a good haircut.
And where there are sheep there are woolen mills — and some welcome the public. My favorite is in the town of Trefriw, where you can follow the spinning process from raw wool to the final fabric. You'll see a traditional spinning wheel, and a busy historic mill, in action.
Here, the mechanical loom reads a pattern to weave an intricate design. And if all that hard work stokes your need for a warm and wearable souvenir, that's part of the mill visit as well.
For some heavier industry, we're visiting Blaenau Ffestiniog, the quintessential Welsh slate-mining town. The shops seem to have changed little since the mines stopped being profitable back in the 1960s. Long rows of humble homes, nicknamed "two-up and two-down" for their tiny rooms, feel empty as the town's population today is half what it was in its slate-mining heyday.
Blaenau Ffestiniog was a company town, and that company was the Llechwedd slate mine. Slate mining played a blockbuster role in Welsh heritage, and the Llechwedd mine now welcomes visitors. It does a fine job of explaining the mining culture of Victorian Wales.
Visitors ride a train deep into the mountain, where a guide tells of the harsh working conditions and traditional mining techniques.
Guide: Down here, we're about 300 feet underground. On the deep mines, though, you can go down to 450 feet, but the mine itself is over 1,500 feet deep. Working hours would be from 6:00 in the morning till 6:00 at night, half an hour break for the lunch, and they'd work for six days a week with Sundays being the only days off. They'd have three days holidays every year: They were usually Christmas day, Good Friday, and Thanksgiving Day, and they were taken without pay.
Our tour finishes with a slate-splitting demonstration.
Guide: Now to try and cut the slate down he would try and cut the block down in half every time. Slate splitting is still done the same way today as it was 150 years ago; it's still done by hand. They've tried to invent machines to do this work, but at the moment nothing can beat man in doing the job.
And for every ton of slate the miners produced, there were about 10 tons of waste left outside in heaps.
Singing helped the miners endure their harsh lives. While the mining culture is virtually gone, the tradition of singing survives. The men's choirs of Wales are famous for their beautiful music. Town choirs welcome visitors to both their weekly practices and their many concerts. Tonight, the men's choir of Denbigh is performing.
For peace and tranquility, don't miss Bodnant Garden. This sumptuous 80-acre display of floral color is one of Britain's most impressive gardens. While the flowers are at their best in spring and early summer, we're here in late August, and it's still plush with vibrant colors bursting out all over.
The gardens, terraces, and delightful reflecting ponds were designed to incorporate the existing landscape. The wild English style seems to spar playfully with the more formal Italian style gardens.
For nature at its wild and Welsh best, it's Snowdonia National Park — arguably Britain's most rugged and beautiful mountain area. The park — Britain's second largest with over 800 square miles of pristine hiking country and a dozen of its highest peaks — is one of the country's favorite natural playgrounds.
The resort center of Snowdonia National Park is Betws-y-Coed. While very touristy and commercial, this town is a picturesque and handy jumping off spot for exploring the scenic wonders of North Wales.
Betws-y-Coed is great for family fun, and it's the springboard for a world of popular hikes. The Miners' Bridge is a favorite for painters. And the scenic Swallow Falls are just upstream.
Nearby, Beddgelert is smaller and less touristy. This quintessential national-park village—also the starting point for many fine hikes — is ideal for those wanting to experience the natural grandeur of Snowdonia.
Mount Snowdon — the tallest mountain in England or Wales — is the park's centerpiece. Each year, half a million people scale this 3,500-foot peak. While the standard hike to the summit takes only about four hours, there's plenty of challenge for those looking for tougher routes. In fact, Sir Edmund Hillary and his gang trained here before tackling Mount Everest.
The easiest ascent is by the Snowdon Mountain Railway, a four-mile-long cog railway dating from 1896. The mighty little engines push the jam-packed cars scenically up past the tree line and ultimately to the top of Wales.
Here on Mount Snowdon, we're higher than anybody in Wales — or England. Everything we've seen so far is within about 20 miles of this spot. And there's lots more nearby. Ireland is just over the sea to the west. England is just that way. And about 50 miles northeast, the Beatles performed for their first time in Liverpool.
Liverpool, just over the border in England, is a gritty but surprisingly enjoyable city. It offers a fascinating urban contrast to the natural splendors of Wales. It's an interesting stop both for Beatles fans and for those who'd like to look urban Britain straight in the eyes.
The city, once run down and pretty grim, is enjoying a renaissance. Albert Dock is the centerpiece. Opened in 1846 by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband, the docks enclose seven acres of water. It's surrounded by a five-story-tall brick warehouse— now housing fine restaurants, concert venues, a convention center, and fancy condos.
In its day, Liverpool was England's greatest seaport. It prospered as one corner of the triangular commerce of the 18th-century slave trade.
British merchants and shippers powered this three-sided trading scheme. They exported manufactured goods to Africa in exchange for enslaved Africans, who were then shipped to the Americas and traded for raw materials — like cotton, tobacco, and sugar — which they imported back to Britain. While parties on all three sides made money, the big profits came home to England. As Britain boomed, so did Liverpool.
The Merseyside Maritime Museum tells the story of the port of what was the second city of the British Empire. After the shipping of slaves was outlawed in Britain in the early 1800s, Liverpool kept its port busy as a transfer point for emigrants.
Whether your ancestors came from Scandinavia, Ukraine, Ireland or Wales, there's a good chance they left Europe from this port. Between 1830 and 1930, nine million emigrants sailed from Liverpool to find their dreams in the New World. Most went to the USA. Awe-inspiring steamers like the Lusitania called this port home.
Many of us know Liverpool as the springboard for the band that changed the world back in the 1960s — the Beatles. The Beatles Story is a museum about the band that made rock and roll a worldwide phenomenon. Many people visit Liverpool just to remember John, Paul, George, and Ringo.
Guide: OK, folks, on the right-hand side is the McCartney house. John and Paul wrote some of their first hits in this house.
For a proper Beatle pilgrimage you need to take a Beatles tour. Several companies run tours daily — from slick big buses to more personal minibus tours. Guides are fountains of Beatle trivia, giving you the entire rundown on every sight in town associated with the group and its music.
Guide: And it was in these poorer parts of Liverpool that the Beatles were born and grew up, and in fact Ringo Starr living in Admiral Grove on the right. We're even going past the pub where his mother had to work to pay for the rent.
This is the neighborhood known to the people of Liverpool as "Penny Lane," and Paul McCartney and all the Beatles would be coming here as young boys .Now this is the shelter in the middle of the roundabout that Paul sings about: "Behind the shelter in the middle of the roundabout there's a pretty nurse selling poppies from a tray."
Then you've got the bank on the corner, with the "arrogant" bank manager. And Paul McCartney sings, "on the corner there's a banker with a motor car; the little children laugh behind his back."
Further down the road is the fire station with the "clean machine." "On the corner there's a barber showing photographs of all the heads he's had the pleasure to have known. All the people stop and say hello." You've got all these things you see throughout the year that Paul McCartney describes in songs are taking place still to this day.
Liverpool entertains, from its Beatle lore, to its powerful shipping heritage. And North Wales — from its dramatic castles, to its evocative landscape and history, and from its natural beauty, to its friendly people — packs an impressive sightseeing punch.
This is a fascinating corner of Great Britain. As we've learned again, having local friends and guides to explain what we're looking at brings our sightseeing to life. I'm Rick Steves. Thanks for joining us. Until next time, keep on travelin'.
As we've learned again having local friends and guides to bring…
Say, "you look funny with that big camera on your shoulder." [Girl saying that in Welsh.]
Neville: And he married Eleanor of Castile and she gave him 14 children and then she said, "that's enough" — but anyway…
North Wales has as much fun and sightseeing and just fascinating stuff as anyplace you'd find this side of the Mississippi.