The Conwy Valley
The Conwy Valley stretches from the heart of Snowdonia out to Wales north west coast and is an ecologically precious area rich in ancient history. Most people head here to enjoy the spectacular walking in the national park, yet there is so much more to this pocket of North Wales than simply Snowdonia. Visitors really looking to get the most from the region must take the time to explore among others the 12th century walled town of Conwy, the amazing Bodnant Gardens and the eccentric seaside town of Llandudno with its wacky pier, and cable car up the famous Great Orme.
CONWY VALLEY BACKPACKERS BARN run by organic livestock farmer Claudia Bryan, the in the village of Tal-Y-Bont is ideally positioned to explore all of these, as well Snowdonia, which which is just a short drive away. Consider however before setting off in your car for Snowdon, that with an early start and an OS map some of the UK’s best walking can be achieved straight from the Conwy Valley Backpackers’ doorstep.
One for the road at Conwy Valley Backpackers.
Among the first details most backpackers research when choosing a hostel is the proximity of the nearest decent pub, and The Conwy Valley Backpackers has two excellent ones within quick and easy walking distance. The nearest of them, Y Bedol, bustles with locals enjoying real ales and early evening chat, while a busy dining room testifies to good pub food in a region where farming is the mainstay. The second and slightly further away Ye Olde Bull Inn in neighbouring Llanbedr-y-Cennin, deserves heritage status such is the wonderfully preserved antiquity of its oak beams and masonry. To clamber into the Bull, and be welcomed by those propping up the bar is worth a stay at the Backpackers in itself. On consecutive evenings we sat by the log fire with pints of the excellent J.W. Lees ale before prizing ourselves out in the cold night where hooting owls and vivid constellations saw us back down the hill to the Conwy Valley Backpackers Barn (see common room below).
The Conwy Valley Backpackers Barn possesses a magnificent communal area set in a converted cowshed that makes the transition from pub to hostel easy. The room has great comfy sofas, a wood burner and an enormous table fit for a banquet. On each wall huge photographs of an Everest expedition taken by a local mountaineer reaffirm the travellers’ heart of this great hostel.
The barn is such a relaxing place to hang out that an entire evening passed before it registered there was no television. You don’t miss it, besides, a CD player complete with a Proclaimers cassette is on hand for background music. In fact, such is the captivating ambience of the room I even ended up pining for The Proclaimers when I arrived back home, now that’s chemistry.
The large clean kitchen is well stocked with all the tools necessary for making a good meal, so come packed with a decent pantry and the oven’s your oyster. Apparently the Ty Asha Balti House in nearby Llanrwst does a decent take-away (collection only), I look forward to verifying this on my return…
Tal-Y-Bont’s immediate surroundings are of historic, cultural and ecological significance. From the entrance to the hostel you look up to Pen y Gaer, an iron age fort . A walk to the top of which offers commanding views down the valley to Conwy and Llandudno. Tal-Y-Bont and Llanbedr-y-Cennin have long been a magnet to artists seeking inspiration from these tranquil surrounds. The area is also regarded among ornithologists as one of the best places to observe the shy and secretive Hawfinch. Claudia informs me of pockets of ancient woodland nearby which are home to Dragonfly and other rare British wildlife and that the area also has its own micro climate which often defies regional weather forecasts. The nearby village of Caerhun is the site of the Roman fort of Canovium, which was excavated in the 1920s and is worth a visit for keen historians.
A whole new world
I’d only previously visited one Botanic Gardens, Abbey Gardens on Tresco on the Isles of Scilly, which was so magical I’ve foolishly ignored other floral opportunities since. The National Trust owned Bodnant Gardens in the Conwy Valley is wholly equal to its southern counterpart for surreal beauty and total tranquility. The fact we were there in early March meant that only the most hardy species were on show (mostly Rhododendrums), but this was easily offset by the view of the distant snow capped mountains from the Lily Terrace. Only the cold drove me from The Dell where I could have easily spent a day gazing at the extraordinary Californian Redwoods, the biggest of which planted in 1886, and climbing to 45m is utterly mesmerising. As it was, we wandered around the vast grounds for several hours inspecting the various buds as they fought to burst into spring. This was followed by tea in the excellent Magnolia tea-room, before stocking up on local cheese, fresh eggs and bread from the small but handy farm shop. So, from March to November, don’t leave North Wales without a visit Bodnant Gardens, the £8.15 admission fee soon feels like great value, whatever the weather.
With daylight slipping away we made the short journey to the Conwy RSPB reserve in the Conwy Valley. Unfortunately disturbed by the hum of the A55, this wetland is home to all number of migrating birds grateful for a watery haven; against a mountain backdrop we observed Lapwing, Shelduck and we think Red-Breasted Merganser.
As the sun set a walk around the castle walls of Conwy seemed the perfect way to finish the day. Conwy is the UK’s most complete medieval walled town and combined with the estuary walk stretching from west shore Llandudno is an essential part of the region’s attractions. We walked down to the quay, past the UK’s smallest house (which by the way is smaller than you’d imagine) and found a staircase up to the walls. The views from the walls over the sea and mountains were impressive even with an icy wind taking the skin off my nose. From our vantage point you could see back up the valley, and I thought of the Conway Backpackers Barn, of the last few days and what a great time we’d had. We’ll be returning very soon, hopefully see you there…