Panorama of Variety
By Victoria Burrows | Published: 01st June 2014 06:00 AM |
As we crossed over the old bridge, the ancient stone walls of the castle rose up around us. It was like stepping into a postcard—I couldn’t quite believe it was real. I could imagine myself on horseback in medieval times, clopping over cobblestones and looking up, marvelling at the thickness of the walls and the height of the turrets. Then I looked at the river below and saw the sprinkling of yachts, and it brought me back to the present day. Instead of a horse, my trusty steed was a hired car, and, while the Unesco World Heritage Site of Conwy castle remains standing in all its magnificent glory since it was completed in 1289, today’s town has burst its fortifications and spread prettily up the green hills beyond.
My friend Sam and I hired the car in London, as we wanted to get a glimpse of the British countryside for a few days after a longer visit enjoying the urban splendours of the British capital. Of the UK’s four countries (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales), Wales is the least familiar, despite being only a few hours’ drive from the capital. While South Wales is in closer reach of London, and is more well known as it is the home of Wales’ capital city, Cardiff, North Wales remains somewhat of a hidden gem. The charm of its countryside has not been overlooked, however, by discerning Britons through the ages.
Its most recent world-famous inhabitants include Prince William and Kate Middleton, who made their home on Anglesey, a picturesque island in the most northwesterly corner of Wales, before the birth of their son. William and Kate, now the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, are likely to inherit the title of the Prince and Princess of Wales, which usually is given to the heir apparent to the British monarchy. The title now rests with Prince Charles, and was bestowed on the late Diana. Prince Charles has made significant impact in his work as environmentalist, particularly championing organic produce, and it was with this in mind that Sam and I began our Welsh tour.
Rhug Estate is 12,500 acres of glorious countryside owned by Lord Newborough. Its farm started organic conversion in 1998 and is now fully certified. The farm grows a variety of organic vegetables, but is particularly famed for its meat, which includes a herd of Pedigree Aberdeen Angus cattle, Norfolk Bronze turkeys, Rhug Brown chickens, and three flocks of sheep. More surprisingly, Rhug also has a more-than-40-strong herd of bison.
“They’re every bit as majestic as they seem in cowboy movies, aren’t they? They look a bit out of place in this genteel, British landscape,” said Sam, as we gazed at the herd.
“Ah, but did you know that the bison has been here much longer than cows? Our bison came from a large herd of North American bison in southern Ireland. Bison from America pre-date cattle in Europe,” said one of the farm staff, Gary. “See that bull over there? He’s called Rambo,” he added with a chuckle.
Bison is the most popular meat sold at the Rhug farm deli, and it’s on the menu at The Bison Grill. I tried the bison burger for lunch. The twinge of guilt I felt at eating the animals I had just admired dissipated after the first, delicious bite.
The estate runs a variety of activities, from gorge walking to pheasant, duck and partridge shooting and fly-fishing. There is also a rally car testing track through forest, as well as off-road go karting.
Later, near to the charming alpine town of Betwys-y-Coed, we stopped for tea and cake at a mysterious little building made of stacked up boulders called The Ugly House. No one knows when or how the cottage was built; legends say it was built by thieves robbing travellers on the old stagecoach road into Snowdonia, while others say it’s the big, crude boulders that gave the house its name —in Welsh, the house is known as Tŷ Hyll, “hyll” meaning rough or crude, as well as ugly.
Behind the house are woodlands with beehives that the Snowdonia Society trust has been nurturing. Beekeeping has been important in this area for centuries. The Conwy Honey Fair was authorised by King Edward I in the nearby town’s Royal Charter more than 700 years ago, allowing beekeepers to sell honey within the town walls for one day each year on September 13.
A highlight of any trip to North Wales is a visit to Snowdonia National Park, with its iconic peak, Mt Snowdon. No giant at 1,085 m, it’s still the highest mountain in England, Ireland and Wales. The weather is notoriously changeable, so we carried a warm layer and waterproofs with us for the climb. There are three main routes up Snowdon: the tougher ascent over the knife-edged Crib Goch ridge; the easier old miner’s path called the Pyg Track; and by a small train for the less fit. Sam and I chose the Pyg Track, and a wise decision it was: most of the route is flat, with stunning views of the mountains cradling us in a horseshoe, and smooth lakes reflecting the scene. The final stretch was very steep, but after three hours, we had reached the top, and in the snatches of clear sky, the views over the valleys and out to the sea were breathtaking.
Before our return to London, we managed to fit in one more visit. The Tu Hwnt I’r Bont teahouse in Llanrwst must be one of the loveliest of tearooms in the world. Built in the late 1400s, it’s a low-ceiling cottage on the banks of River Conwy covered in ivy. There’s a huge fireplace to keep things cosy, tables are of heavy wood, and old artefacts copper pots line the uneven walls.
We indulged in an early afternoon tea of soft, warm scones with locally produced strawberry jam and clotted cream, accompanied by slices of bara brith, a traditional Welsh fruit cake.
“The best bara brith in Britain,” said a gentleman at the table next to us, who was on his weekly visit to the teahouse. “Take it from me; I consider myself somewhat of an expert,” he added rubbing his large belly, a twinkle in his eyes.