Get a thrill in Wales
So much has been written about the newest human-made thrills of Snowdonia, including the fastest zip line in the world at Penrhyn Slate Quarry – the 'nearest thing to flying' – and Bounce Below, where you jump from net to net in the immense subterranean cavern of a former slate mine.
Words by Helen Werin
Photography by Robin Weaver
For me, though, the biggest thrill of Snowdonia is, and always will be, the scenery. But my teenage daughter, Sophie, has read all the exciting publicity about the new adrenaline-fuelled attractions and the moment I mention that we are going to north Wales, she hijacks my trip with her high jinks.
I want to walk in the mountains and along beautiful valleys; struggle, head down into the wind on blustery beaches; soak up the legends and the history embedded in the slate landscape, and visit some of the best castles in the world.
My first-ever memory, aged two or three, is of digging in the sand on the vast beach at Harlech and looking up at the foreboding castle. However, any parent with a teenager in tow will be familiar with the "no more castles" moan.
That said, I wasn't going to let Sophie stop me visiting my favourite, Caernarfon. No other castle comes close in my estimation – and I have been to an awful lot of castles. Caernarfon's magical allure lies in its walls. Call me childish, but nothing beats a game of 'hide and seek' along its eerily dark corridors within these eight-feet (2.43m) thick walls. You may think these comments are me being a patriotic Welsh woman, but you'd be wrong. Caernarfon was built by an English king to keep the Welsh out!
I could spend weeks in Caernarfon Castle and never tire of the views across the Menai Strait.
And I'd climb up and down the narrow stone steps of the tower after tower until my legs could take no more. You'd think I'd know my way around, but I still get to the top of a tower and realise I've already been up here – several times. It is easy to get lost. It's a pity that I can't lose Sophie, who used to love running around this fortress, but who now thinks my obsession with castles is 'strange'. It doesn't help that she's terrified of spiders – and a lot are lurking in the shadows, so we make a far earlier exit than I would have liked.
Happily, Harlech Castle is much more acceptable to Sophie, and she scurries up to its ramparts to survey the magnificent sweep of Cardigan Bay. This castle sits on a rocky crag with an almost sheer drop of 200ft (61m) from two sides. It's exposed. And spiders don't appear to congregate here! There may not be a great deal left of Harlech Castle – though it has dungeons and towers – it is enough to get a sense of its presence and the active protection it offered.
Chasing an adrenaline high
Sophie's 'sweeteners' for our castle visits are the adrenaline hits of Zip World Velocity at Bethesda and Bounce Below in the Llechwedd Slate Caverns near Blaenau Ffestiniog. Unlike me, Sophie is not afraid of heights and doesn't have back problems (and, in case you ask, I don't much like spiders, either!), which explains why I am waiting in the middle of the enormous Penrhyn Quarry while she and her dad, Robin, take to the skies on the longest zip line in Europe. I stand with a group of other mums squinting across a lake, its extraordinary deep blue contrasting with the bleak landscape of slate levels, trying to spot the riders. We hear the riders' shrieks of delight (leastways, that's what they appear to be!) before they zoom
into view head-first, their helmets like red dots against the grey workings. We wave crazily at everyone; they all look the same in their red suits, and we want to avoid accusations of, "You didn't wave!" The long wait for Sophie and Robin to touch down is rewarded with the ecstatic look on their faces. Sophie asks, "Why didn't you do it, mum? It's incredible". There's some debate about whether they did reach a speed of 100mph. Robin reckons, "It probably doesn't feel as fast as what it is".
There are zip lines – and rope bridges, via ferrata and tunnels – inside the caverns at Llechwedd; however, Sophie and Robin are here for Bounce Below. Slides the height of two double-decker buses and a maze of nets over six levels promise a springing, slipping, rolling and struggling-to-stay-upright experience deep underground.
It's a miserably cold and wet afternoon, yet Robin and Sophie eventually emerge pink-faced and, in Robin's case, worn out from all that leaping about in the semi-darkness. Robin describes the interior of Bounce Below as "like a massive spider's web", complete with giant 'spider' lurking near the bottom, a disconcerting 85ft (26m) below. But it's one 'encounter' Sophie's very happy about, as is Robin, who adds, "It only takes a few minutes to find your feet on the nets and bounce around, or perfect a strange loping walk, which are the only ways to get around if you don't want to fall flat on your face. And that's half the fun!"
Our lively guide for the deep mine tour of the Llechwedd Slate Mines seems to have rather a lot of bounce, too, springing out as if from nowhere to tell us about the 250 chambers over 25 miles of tunnels. The guide herds us into the cramped metal 'cages' of the steepest cable railway in Britain for our 500ft (152m) descent into the caverns.
We laugh as our gymnastic young guide leaps about the cavern like a squirrel monkey, divulging the mine's history. The tunnels are not crawling with rats as they would have been in Victorian times when children as young as eight worked down here. It's just as well; tonnes of South Caernarfon Creameries' New Dragon Cheddar are maturing on pallets in a corner (to "create a firmer body and depth of flavour", I understand).
It's a lovely day for our planned trip up Snowdon on the mountain railway. Unfortunately, the man in the ticket office tells me that there are 90mph winds at the top, so they stop trains for safety's sake. Robin and Sophie heard from staff at an outdoors shop the wind speed is near 35mph. And they're determined to climb up as far as common sense allows. My problem is not going up, but coming down (dodgy knees) and I leave Sophie and Robin to their 'attack' on Britain's busiest mountain.
I think of them enjoying their hike up to the 3,500ft (1067m) summit as I sit on the terrace of the old quarry hospital overlooking Llyn (lake) Padarn, with a cloud-covered Snowdon as its backdrop.
I may be disappointed about the cancellation of my train journey, but this gorgeous view consoles me.
The pioneering hospital was built by the owners of Dinorwig, one of the most celebrated quarries of the world in its heyday, exclusively for the slate workers. I do question, though, as I read about operations which saved many lives and limbs, whether this place was just a way for the quarry-masters to make sure that their workers could be back on the job as soon as possible. There are gruesome implements on display to remind me of the often horrific injuries once treated here.
This hospital also used what was then the latest technology, including some of the first X-rays. Following one of the walking trails through Padarn Country Park around the quarry, the only sound is of the lake railway's whistle. Hence, it's a bit of a stretch to picture the back-breaking industry that went on here until 1969.
The National Slate Museum is in what were the workshops of Dinorwig. Welsh slate roofed the industrial revolution, the principality's slates were more prized and more durable and more aesthetically pleasing than any other slate in the world. I eat my picnic outside a row of slate workers' cottages, wondering where Robin and Sophie will take shelter with the Hafod Eryri (visitor centre and café) on Snowdon's summit closed due to the weather.
It's very peaceful; a century ago, this place would have quaked and thundered to the sound of forges, foundries and the massive water wheel, the biggest on mainland Britain. Getting up close to this 50ft 5in diameter giant is mesmerising. The chief engineer saved it from being burned when the quarry closed. His house is furnished as it would have been at the quarry's peak, is open to nose around.
Revealing pictures of workers adorn the walls of what was the refectory and workings. In one, from 1958, what is remarkable is that every member of the group is aged over 70 and still working. Another shows fresh faces looking as young as 12 in the front row.
I wander back through the first designated country park in Wales towards the shell of 13th-century Dolbadarn Castle. My view over the quarry from the tower serves to hit home even harder the harsh industrial past.
I meet Sophie and Robin back on our pitch at Llanberis Touring Park, close to the lake. They did make it to the top, although Sophie's report of having to hang on to the trig point on the summit for fear of being blown off is rather alarming.
Plenty of other people had gone up the mountain and the Halfway Café had remained open, so my hardy duo had been able to warm up with a well-earned hot chocolate on their way back down.
We head back to Blaenau Ffestiniog, the 'town that roofed the world', this time under the steam of the Ffestiniog Railway. I've jumped aboard from beside the picturesque harbour at Porthmadog with particular enthusiasm as it's my most favourite rail journey in the whole of the UK. Brochures describe the trip as 'memorable' and with 'dramatic twists and turns'. There's an impressive start, crossing the Cob, a mile-long embankment which holds back the sea.
Despite the dull weather, it gets even better as we climb 700ft (213m) into the mountains through forests and past lakes and waterfalls in the gorgeous vale of Ffestiniog. It's too gloomy to get off at Tan-y-Bwlch and step into the Coed Llyn Mair National Nature Reserve for the wonderful Welsh rainforest experience that we've enjoyed on previous trips and to follow the nature trail to the banks of Llyn Mair for a paddle. We brace ourselves against the sides of the rattling carriages, peering into backyards, then opening the window to breathe in the steam as the train completely spirals around on itself at Dduallt.
Another steam train from the 'sister' Welsh Highland whisks us from Caernarfon to zig-zag through the foothills of Snowdon to picturesque Beddgelert. Fuelled by bacon butties from Café Colwyn, we have enough time for the short, circular walk through part of the pretty Aberglaslyn Pass to see the grave of Gelert, the beloved pet of legendary Prince Llywelyn. The sculpture of the dog, near the tree under which he is said to be buried, must have been patted a million of times and I wonder how many pause to consider the think-before-you-act moral behind this fable?
The Prince killed the dog because he wrongly assumed that it had mauled his toddler son to death. In fact, the blood all over Gelert was that of a wolf which the dog had fought to save the boy.
Many of my family's greatest holiday memories centre around Snowdonia. One of Sophie's proudest pictures is taken on top of Snowdon, aged eight. There are snaps of my children posing outside the pastel-painted houses at Portmeirion, standing in the steam of the Ffestinniog and Welsh Highland Railways or peering through the hoods of their waterproofs alongside the Swallow Falls at Betwys-y-Coed. North Wales has never disappointed us. I did wonder at the start that, but for the adventurous activities, whether our trip down Memory Lane would evoke similar precious recollections in future for our teenager.
To get to our second great base at Islawrfford Caravan Park, on the coast just north of Barmouth, we drove through the Llanberis Pass with a wonderfully clear view of Snowdon, Beddgelert again and along the Glaslyn valley, resplendent in its autumn colours. A stream runs through the pass's boulder-strewn landscape below scree-clad slopes.
I'm in seventh heaven to see that, yes, there is space in the free car park overlooking Llyn Peris (parking at the top of the pass is a whopping £5!). So, when Sophie points her camera towards the sparkling lake, one of the most photographed views in all of Wales, taking ages to get 'just the right shot' to remind her brother and sister just how lovely it is here, I sigh happily; I needn't have worried!
Where to stay
Llanberis Touring Park
Glyn Rhonwy, Llanberis LL55 4EL
T 01286 870700 W morris-leisure.co.uk
Open 1 March to 11 January Price £31.90
A smart, well-spaced site with 35 hardstanding and 19 super pitches on the edge of the village. There are pleasant walks in the woods behind the site, and Llyn Padarn is a few minutes’ walk away. The site’s pristine facilities include centrally heated toilets and showers with plentiful hot water, laundry and heated (whoopee!) washing-up room.
Islawrfford Caravan Park
Talybont, Barmouth, Gwynedd LL43 2AQ
T 01341 247269 W islawrffordd.co.uk
Open All year Price £45
This well-maintained, family-owned site right on the coast has very neat, level, serviced touring areas with hardstanding and a strip of serviced grass pitches. The one large toilet and shower block, with underfloor heating, has security entry and is shut overnight, but toilets are available on the outside of the building after about 9 pm.
Riverside touring park
Old Church Road Betws-y-Coed, LL24 0AL
T 01690 710310 W morris-leisure.co.uk
Open 17 February to 3 January Price £31.90
Located in the outdoorsy village of Betws-y-Coed, this five-star, eight-acre park has 60 pitches, including hardstanding with electric, and serviced pitches. There are a toilet block and showers (including disabled facilities), and a dishwashing area. WiFi is available for a fee. It's a great basecamp from which to explore Snowdonia.