Friday, 18 March 2016

A470: Part 3: Llandudno to Dolwyddelan

world-map llangelynin


It’s been a busy week this week for UTM as I’ve been hard at work editing all my travel videos for the past year or so. So, in the coming weeks, you’ll be treated to the v-logs of my trips to Scotland, Cuba, Madrid and the DPRK. Until then though, we have Wales…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of this travelogue

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: Llandudno

Also check out my other Welsh travelogues:

The Sacred Heart of Wales

Across the Sound

V-log: Llangelynin

V-log: Barmouth Cliff Walk

V-log: Walking Pilgrimage to Bardsey Island


Part 3: Llandudno to Dolwyddelan

The A470 heads due south from Llandudno to the unimaginatively-named Llandudno Junction, (so called because that was where the Chester & Holyhead Railway Company built the station where the branch line to the new resort left the mainline to Holyhead. That's a shame for if it had followed the banks of the River Conway which it picks up after Llandudno Junction, it would have gone through Deganwy. Like Llandudno, Deganwy is today a place dedicated to tourism, its centrepiece a large marina where the wealthy of the English north-west moor their yachts. It looks a modern place too, nothing older than the Victorians, but like its neighbour at the foot of the Orme, Deganwy is an ancient place indeed, and above the village, on two crags, are situated the scant remains of one of the royal castles of the Kings of Gwynedd, for a while in the 6th century, their capital. It has its place, quite unexpectedly, in an ancient holy legend. When I was researching the history of St. Modwen for a book on sacred sites of Staffordshire, I read that Modwen made landfall from Ireland at Deganwy along with three other saints: Luge, Athea and the famous St. Brigid of Kildare. What was remarkable about this is that, according to the legends, the holy foursome travelled over from the Emerald Isle, not on a boat, but a small piece of land which detached itself and then attached itself at Deganwy. So much for Stena Line steamers! Whatever the truth may have been, it seems that Modwen went on to Burton a where she settled, (and later had a construction company named after her), taking Luge with her whilst Brigid and Athea stayed on the banks of the Conwy.

But if Deganwy Castle and its settlement are important, it is the fortress on the opposite side of the river which can be seen from the A470 after Llandudno Junction, which really grabs our attention. Conwy Castle is truly spectacular, a symbol of Wales instantly recognisable to thousands. It and the walled town which lie alongside it are undoubtedly the most worthwhile thing to see along the whole of the North Wales Coast and I never bore of wandering through its narrow streets, or gazing from the ramparts of its walls. It's an evocative place and nowhere else in Britain does a town feel so mediaeval, except perhaps in Caernarvon, further along the coast.

Yet as a symbol of Welsh pride and identity, Conwy is a poor one. It was built between 1283 and 1289 as part of a series of impressive fortresses ringing the mountainous regions of North Wales under the instructions of King Edward I of England. He'd just fought a war against Llewelyn ap Gruffudd, the last Prince of Wales in which he had achieved a total and crushing victory but at great financial cost. As he had achieved a similar victory only five years earlier and, as soon as he had left, the Welsh Prince had decided not to abide by his overlord's rules, this time Edward wanted to make sure that his domination lasted and so he ordered the construction of a “ring of stone – fortresses some with attached walled towns – around the mountains of Snowdonia where the Welsh Princes had traditionally had their strongholds. Fflint, Rhuddlan, Denbigh, Conway, Beaumaris, Caernarvon and Harlech still remain today as testimony to the power, wealth and vision of Edward.[1] He'd just returned from the Crusades and brought with him the latest castle-building technology from the Middle East including concentric designs and round towers, far more difficult to attack than the traditional square ones. The royal fortress from which Wales was governed afterwards, Caernarvon, was even built with hexagonal towers and lines of stones so as to reflect the Walls of Byzantium, the greatest fortifications on earth at the time and a potent symbol of the imperial ambitions of Edward who then turned his attentions to the rebellious Scots. And that's why it’s ironic that those great castles, Conwy, Caernarvon and Harlech in particular, are seen as symbols of Welshness, for they were built by the English to subdue the Welsh, they represented the end of any hope for Welsh independence and in their walled towns no Welshman was allowed to dwell and settlement by the English was encouraged. It's the same as an Israeli settlement being seen as a symbol of the Palestinian nation today, but when seven centuries or so pass, then attitudes can mellow I suppose. I recall going drinking in the pubs of Conway with my brother one night and being a little disappointed that the only language that I heard was English and all the accents on show were more Lancashire than Llanrwst. But then again, for a town in which the Welsh for centuries were barred, what else should I have expected?

Conwy_castle,_early_1300sConwy in the 1300s

But back to the A470 and we were now trundling along at a reasonable pace. Not that we couldn't be too complacent mind; this stretch is notorious for its speed cameras and I know several people who've been caught there and having to be ever-alert, whilst perhaps a plus for road safety, nonetheless impacts upon the enjoyment of a drive.

Not that the stretch from Llandudno Junction to Llanrwst is really that great. It's not a bad road but I felt myself wishing that instead of driving, I was riding the rails on this section of the journey. After my childhood holidays, my next great love affair with the country next door was with her railways. As a teenager I began my independent travels by taking the train from my home near to Stoke-on-Trent to places round about. Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, the Peak District, Nottingham and Derby, I explored them all by rail, but my favourite trips were all Wales-ward, always involving a change at Crewe first. Although this is a book about a road trip, no one can write about Wales without mentioning her trains for they are amazing. I've travelled the globe pretty extensively by rail and yet the Welsh rides still stand out as being world class. There's the North Wales Coast Line from Crewe, through Chester to Llandudno Junction, over the river under the imposing shadow of Conwy Castle, across the Menai Straits to Anglesey and Holyhead where the ferry waits for Dun Laoghaire. It's the rail equivalent of the A55-A5 and it's a magical journey, the train clinging to the coastline, past castles and cliffs, the light dimming as we cross Anglesey, the knowledge that we're en route to another land with all the chatter in the coach conducted in melodious Irish accents and the nun sitting opposite me engrossed in a Maeve Binchy novel. Or what of the Cambrian Coast, pulling out of the magnificent station at Shrewsbury, heading through the moody hills of Mid Wales, pausing as trains pass at Machynlleth, (you can take the Aberystwyth-bound service from there), then Dovey Junction, a lonely platform in the middle of nowhere, (which always reminds me of the Arthur Askey film the ghost train in which the main characters are forced to spend the night on a similar lonely station), then the glorious Cambrian Coast itself, clinging onto the cliffs at Friog, crossing the magnificent mile-long bridge into Barmouth, spying Harlech Castle high on the rocks above you, Porthmadog, Criccieth and the Pwhelli, truly the end of the line. Or instead the Heart of Wales Line, over a hundred miles of lonely scenery punctuated by unpronounceable stops and glorious viaducts before backing up on itself at Llanelli and then finally rolling into Swansea. But the best of the lot has to be the Conwy Valley Line which follows the A470 closely all the way from Llandudno Junction down to Llanrwst, Betws-y-Coed, Dolwyddelan and Blaenau Ffestiniog. The valley is gentle at first and your eyes focus on the estuary itself, a vast lake with speedboats and yachts at high tide or a mudflat criss-crossed with the patterns of birds' feet at low, then after Betws-y-Coed it gets more rugged as we leave the Conwy Valley behind and enter the Lledr Valley, in and out of countless tunnels until we enter the mother of them all, the two-mile burrow under Crimea Pass before finally bursting out amongst the slate tips of Blaenau. It is one of the world's great train journeys and I enjoy it immensely every time that I take it.

Our first stop, Llanrwst, is notable to train travellers for the fact that this tiny town has two stations. With a population of just over 3,000, it doesn't really warrant them, but the reasoning is that the original was too far out of town so they opened another next to the centre in 1989. That's now Llanrwst whilst the old one has been renamed North Llanrwst. This time though, we were interested in neither, pulling up in the compact main square to buy some essentials, (well, beer...), for the night ahead. In her programme on the A470, Cerys Matthews talks at great length about the town which she knows well since one of the members of Catatonia hailed from there. She makes much of the local motto, "Cymru, Lloegr a Llanrwst" (Wales, England and Llanrwst), which dates from the time of Llewelyn who granted the town a degree of ecclesiastical independence and which has caused it to believe that it is independent of both Wales and England. This feeling is so strong locally that in 1947 the town council made a bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. Unsurprisingly it failed, but the legend remains, most notably in a rock song by local band Y Cryff.

Not that any of this rebellious thinking was apparent to us. We instead merely bought what we needed to, then wandered around its pretty narrow streets before admiring the graceful stone bridge over the Conwy and then making our way again.


Just across the river from Betws-y-Coed, we left the A470. This Welsh Route 66 was proving to be no match for its more illustrious American cousin for it doesn't even do what it claims, namely stretch from the tip to the toe of Wales. For a couple of hundred metres it simply disappears. When the patriotic renumberers got to work in the seventies, they forgot a bit.

Well, perhaps. Actually they probably knew full well but chose to keep the old numbering for those few metres for here the A470 crosses – and follows the same path as – a far more illustrious highway: the A5.

The A5 truly is one of Britain's great roads. Not necessarily to travel on; anyone who has endured the section around Cannock would never wax lyrical about it, but because of its lineage. The A5 is a Roman Road, straight as a dye for much of its route, linking Londinium (London) with Wroxeter (now abandoned, in Shropshire). It has existed as one of the main thoroughfares in England through the Dark Ages and Mediaeval Period but in the 19th century with the advent of toll roads the whole route was upgraded and extended through the troublesome terrain of the Welsh mountains to Anglesey and thence Holyhead thus linking London with Dublin, capital of the latest country to join the United Kingdom. The engineer who was assigned the job was Thomas Telford and he did it masterfully, gradients never exceeding 5% so that mail coaches could ply the route easily. Many of his original features survive, particular on the section through the Welsh mountains and for that reason it has been designated an historical route worthy of preservation and thus that is why, for this section only, the A470 does not take precedence. Not that we saw much of Telford's work mind on the short distance we travelled along his masterpiece before turning off to the right, but there was one monument of note, the glorious bridge over the Conwy made out of cast iron on which is inscribed the following:

'This arch was constructed in the same year the battle of Waterloo was fought'

21644253_6e93dfb430_zA5 Bridge, Betws-y-Coed

After the A5 the countryside became much wilder, pine-clad slopes closing in and jagged rocks on either side. We drove for a couple of miles down the valley, first of the Conwy, then the Lledr and then saw the sign that we craved, our camp site for the night, a favourite haunt of mine by the banks of the Lledr which Rob had not stayed at before. We turned off our faithful friend and headed down the slope and over the river to the field where we put up our tent in amongst crowds of midges and then, as the sun set and the clouds came out, lit a fire, cracked open the beers bought in Llanrwst, (now keeping cool in the river), and began to expound on the Welsh soul and the road that runs right through it as the sun slowly set beyond the peaks of Snowdonia and a million and one stars came out to take its place.

tanaeldroch-farm-3_14669173041_oCamping in the Lledr Valley

[1] He also built the castle and walled town of Aberystwyth but those fortifications were all but obliterated by Olver Cromwell three and a half centuries later whilst at the same time he took over and improved some Welsh castles, most notably that at Criccieth.

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