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North Wales: Wales with a difference

Updated: May 21, 2020

Wales is perhaps the most mysterious country in Western Europe. It is the area of the earth of which more is known that perhaps anywhere else, but the enclave of Wales on the west coast of the island of Britain is surely its biggest enigma.

If Cardiff is its capital, its beating heart and nerve centre, then surely north Wales is its soul, with the first language Welsh speaking castle town of Caernarfon in the north west its epicentre.

The view from atop the tower at Caernarfon Castle in north Wales.
Caernarfon Castle, Caernarfon

Much of the history of Wales stems from its north-west corner rather than today's more populous south coast. The mountainous terrain of the north was difficult to conquer for the Romans, Anglo-Saxons & Normans for the best part of 1,200 years, until Edward I finally conquered the entire area from 1283. Traditionally it has been the more highly populated part of the country rather than the now larger urban areas of Cardiff & Swansea, and Welsh culture, traditions and its national identity were cemented further north over the past 2,000 years despite the relatively recent shift of power to the south due to industrialisation in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Caernarfon is the home of Caernarfon Castle, of 90% first language Welsh speakers, the political home of David Lloyd George and the gateway to Anglessey and Snowdonia, the home of Edward II (perhaps less gloriously) and Lewis Jones of the Patagonian Welsh, and of course, is the location where Prince Charles was invested as the Prince of Wales in 1969. Much of Wales's independent history and ultimate conquering can be told through the prism of the town during the 13th century, as a prominent town along the Menai Stait during the days of Llewellyn and Dafydd ap Gruffudd, the divisive brothers of Gwynedd and the last native prince's of Wales prior to Edward I's takeover.

The history of the town and that feeling of its connection to Welsh identity and culture is evident in the town today, maintaining the charm of the middle ages and medieval times, with its modern identity as the prime Welsh speaking town of the country with a thriving tourism scene revolving around its current iconic 13th century castle and walls, a UNESCO world heritage site today.

Caernarfon Castle was initially built in the 11th century as a motte and bailey fortress, upon where the Romans were once based, to fend off the invading Normans who had already taken hold of the western and eastern borderlands of Wales in the Marcher Lordships. By the late 13th and early 14th century however, under the influence of King Edward I, the old wooden fort was replaced by the stone structure that dominates the town of 10,000 people even today. Despite never actually being completed in full, it would become one of the most powerful and famous castles of Wales, would be the birth place of his son and future Prince of Wales, Edward II, and still remains one of the finest examples of a medieval European castle on the continent today, due to its architectural influences from central and eastern Europe.

The interior grounds of Caernarfon Castle in the town of Caernarfon in north Wales.
Caernarfon Castle interior, Caernarfon

Across its history, the castle and by extension the town, has played a role in rebellions and civil war, becoming a derelict site from the English Civil War of the 1640s onwards until its reemergence as a tourist attraction in the 20th century, which attracts 200,000 visitors per year today.

There is more to the town that the castle and its walls however, such as the Welsh language, which is everywhere. Just walking down the street, grabbing a coffee or visiting a local bakery, you will hear the native language everywhere you go. You will of course hear Welsh across the country but perhaps in Caernarfon more than any other town in Wales. The wider county of Gwynedd contains the highest percentage of daily Welsh speakers across the country as well, of about 65% compared to the national average of 20%, which will become more apparent if visiting Snowdonia, Harlech, Blaenau Ffestiniog, Betws-y Coed or Llechwedd. On top of the novelty of hearing a minority language heard so prevalently, there are also plenty of souvenir shops, local amenities including chain restaurants, local cafes and independent pubs, such as the smallest pub in Wales as well, Bar Bach.

Bar Bach in Caernarfon is the smallest bar in all of Wales.
Bar Bach, Caernarfon, the smallest bar in Wales

As mentioned, the tallest peak in the southern half of Britain, at 1,085m high, Mount Snowdon, is within view of the town, and is easily accessible by car, or even by train. The Snowdon Mountain Railway even makes journey's and takes passengers from Llanberis to the peak of the mountain through spring and summer, but not in winter time.

The town of Caernarfon is also close to numerous other towns of interest in north Wales, such as the port town of Holyhead, the gateway to Ireland. There is also Bangor, the university town of the north-west, and Conwy, the impressive castle sister of Caernarfon.

Beyond the pretty towns and spectacular castles, there is also great industrial heritage to the area, and the renowned slate production industry continues today. While slate mines and quarries still operate, but not to the extent as in the past of course, a couple of the old mines function as tourist attractions today. The National Slate Museum of Wales at Gilfach Ddu in Llanberis is free, and is a well preserved quarry with plenty of Victorian features, adding a sense of going back in time to the visitor experience.

Elsewhere, Llechwedd slate mine outside Blaenau Ffestiniog in the heart of Snowdonia National Park has something for everybody, with real miners and slate producers showing you around the pits. The tour features Welsh music in the caves, plenty of interactive elements, audio visuals and there is even a zip line on the complex. The slate industry is said to have put a roof on the world, and over half a million tonnes of slate was produced annually in north Wales in the last 19th century, employing over 17,000 people at it's peak.

Inside Llechwedd slate mine, near Blaenau Ffestiniog
Inside Llechwedd slate mine, near Blaenau Ffestiniog

Returning to Caernarfon, it is a wonderful place to base oneself in order to embrace these surrounding treasures, and the town itself has plenty to offer any visitor and serves as both a step into Welsh history from Roman forts to Princes of Wales, and also as a step into the soul of modern Wales.

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