Did you know Wales has the coolest flag in the world? Spot the Red Dragon, one of the first mythical beasts in British heraldry. There’s really no other flag like this.
The Land of Dragons
According to legend, two dragons once lived in this land. One day, the British King Vortigern decided to build a castle on top of a hill but little did he know, there were two dragons under the ground that was causing the castle walls to fall. King Vortigern decided to dig the ground to release the two dragons. The red and white dragon fought, and eventually, the red dragon won. The red dragon emblem has been featured on the battle flags of the British medieval troops in the 4th century and was later adopted by the Welsh kings.
This is Legend, This is Wales
Wales is a part of the United Kingdom, or Great Britain to be exact. A sovereign country, Wales is governed by the National Assembly for Wales. The history of Wales fascinates me as it dates back to 31,000 BC right after Ice Age with the first discovery of Homo sapiens. Wales is also known as Cymru, pronounced as come-ree in Welsh, which is the oldest living language in Europe. Interestingly, London is actually adapted from Llundain, named after a Welsh King.
Now you must be wondering why this tropical city girl flew halfway across the globe, alone, to Wales? After the whole trip, I am surprised at myself too. How on earth did I survive a 14-hours flight and 3-hours of rail journey to get to Wales?
It was an inspiration and perhaps an act of caprice? I remembered I read about Wales in a bookstore, the words accompanying the sweeping landscape intrigued me: This is Legend. This is Wales.
I knew I was under Wales’ spell. Thus, when I chanced upon Singapore Airlines’ Anniversary promotion, I knew I had to go. It was about time to get out of town right after I wrapped up an intensive exhibition – and because #YOLO.
If we’ve only got this life, This adventure oh then I
Adventure of a lifetime by Coldplay was playing on my Spotify as the plane ascended rapidly.
Oddly enough, the man who sat next to me on the plane wore a shirt that read ‘I am Legend’. I supposed this was a message from the Universe telling me that everything’s going to be fine, you, the legend.
It was March and Spring was nowhere in sight. The weather report has been pessimistic. The UK was badly affected by the Siberian blast, a freak weather phenomenon that blanketed Europe in snow. Flight cancellations, road closures and train delays were expected. But thank God, I arrived safely in London and my North Face wardrobe was prepared for the historic frost.
This wasn’t my first solo trip to Europe, however, I underestimated the strength needed to drag my luggage on snow-laden street. My dexterity went from 100 to 0.
I checked in at Pullman London St Pancras hotel near Euston station for a night before catching the morning train to Wales. I wasn’t that confident to schedule a train journey to Wales right after I landed in Heathrow airport, because I already did my research about the possible delays and the not-so-swift immigration custom. Just so you know, I was in the queue for more than an hour.
At the immigration counter, the officer asked where was I going and when I replied Wales, Snowdonia, he raised his eyebrow at me as if to say Seriously? Nobody goes to Wales.
”Wow, you look adventurous. Are you meeting someone there?”
”Yes, sir, I am meeting a tour guide.”
I was in the North Face ensemble – Mountain jacket, check. Insulated track pants, check.
If you speak to people from other parts of the UK, they’ll say that Wales has more sheep than citizens and you’ll hardly see tourist crowds as you travel further up north. While that is true, largely because it is a countryside blessed with an abundance of natural resources which bolster its agricultural industry — Wales is a land of legends too, peppered with historic ruins and relics. There are close to 600 castles here and I’m glad that some locals saw the opportunity to run small group tours for curious explorers like me.
London Euston Station to Betws-y-Coed Station
The next morning, I departed from Euston station to Wales, and in particular, further up north. I was enjoying the moment, finding my way to the platform.
A 3-hour train ride to the countryside, far from the hustle and bustle of the city, a much-needed retreat.
I have passed by snow-covered mountains, forests, lands with blackened mounds of snow yet they didn’t bore me at all — there was a sense of calm in the carriage and — outside, it was magic.
It was 2 degree Celsius when I stepped out of the Betws-y-Coed station.
Fresh air instead of air-conditioning and the sound of birds chirping replace the background hum of the office, this is the thrill of being in the great outdoors. I can see for miles and my eyes are soothed by the colours of nature. And I believe in the inevitable influence of inclement weathers, but despite the frost, ominous clouds and snowfall, I was utterly wonderstruck.
Where to Stay
Betws-y-Coed is popular among the Welsh as an inland resort during summer. I chose Betws-y-Coed (bet-us-ee-koyd) as my base for the first few nights. According to the locals, Betws is the gateway to the rugged beauty Snowdonia. I can’t drive but I manage to find a local tour guide that will take me on a 4-wheel drive around the ancient trails and marvel at some of the oldest rocks on earth.
I learned from my tour guide, Bernard that this was the first time he brought a Singaporean around Wales, he shared that he has met more Chinese tourists here and they were drawn to Wales because of the emblematic dragon.
St. Michael Church
Betws-y-Coed in Welsh means Chapel in the Wood and within the vicinity of my lodging lies a six centuries-old St Michael’s Church, the oldest building in the village. Even though tombstones are lying around, this ancient chapel isn’t spooky at all. Perhaps the five strategically planted Yew trees help to ward off supernatural incidents. These sacred trees are as old as the church and this is one of my favourite photos.
Ugly House in the Woodland
One would usually think of ancient ruins as castles and monumental churches, but not this cottage constructed with large boulders nestled in the woodland known as the Ugly House. Really? This house isn’t ugly at all.
At that moment, it felt like I was in Tugley Woods featured in Lewis Carroll’s classic: Alice in Wonderland, which is a forest that never seems to end, and those who do not know it well enough often tend to get lost. Fortunately, I’ve got a local guide with me.
Legend has it that two outlaws built this cottage overnight. They named it the ugly house because they suspected it was a hiding place for thieves. Today, it has been transformed into a tea room with a beautiful garden in the backyard for a honey bees farm. But I believe that mythical creatures live there, I’m guessing two giants constructed this and they are probably asleep somewhere in the woodland.
Snowdonia National Park: Of Treacherous Peaks and Frozen Lakes
One of Britain’s most revered mountains, this is the Snowdonia experience that I’ve been dreaming of and I made it!
And I can still picture it now: wild moors, frozen waterfall, ancient forests and granite peaks. The vista before me was breath-taking and it is always a humbling experience to stand before these tall and grandiose natural wonders. I wouldn’t use the word conquered here. In the mountains, safety and humility go hand in hand.
Sadly, the Snowdon Mountain Railway is closed in March, otherwise, I’d love to go on a scenic railway ride. According to Bernard, the best time to visit Snowdonia is during the summer months (July and August).
Former Slate Mines
Mention Wales to the people living in the bigger UK cities, they’ll say it’s a countryside perfect for outdoor enthusiasts or a trip back to their hometown. That is because Wales is a country powered by traditional heavy industries such as coal mining industries, forestry, and livestock farming. However, times have changed along with the closure of mining sites, these industries are becoming sunset industries. The younger generations are moving to bigger cities in pursuit of better job opportunities. Bernard shared that much of the coal supplied during the war came from Wales. Before World War 2, coal mining and steel manufacture dominated in the South and slate mining in the North, and there was a strong shipping industry. Today, the former slate mine is both a museum and a diving site.
Oldest Medieval Castles in Europe
Wales has the most castles per capita in Europe. There were the Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Normans and Welsh Kingdoms. So you can imagine, medieval warriors and territorial conquest were prevalent.
During this trip, I’ve encountered Britain’s oldest Medieval castles like Chepstow Castle and Conwy Castle.
After their successful invasion and conquest of England, the Normans began a period of castle building that was to last right through the medieval period. Chepstow is a Norman Castle perched high above the banks of the River Wye. It is the oldest surviving post-Roman stone fortification built during the 11th century.
The Middle Ages was a time full of history, rich art, revolutionizing philosophy, epic heroes, and even a bit of magic, so this could also be the work of a wizard?
Though not as beautiful as the one you’d usually see in Disney’s movies, Conwy Castle is a true Medieval giant. Situated in Conwy, a quaint harbour town, it lies an imposing thirteenth-century fortification built by King Edward I of England. It would take at least one day to explore Conwy Town, besides the castle, there are seafood restaurants famous for its freshwater mussels and tiny cafes to while away your afternoon.
Smallest House in Great Britain
In the town of Conwy, there is a one-of-a-kind small house sporting a striking red façade. The two-room apartment is reputed to be the Smallest House in Great Britain which has been a hit with tourists. Apparently, such homes were common during the 16th century. The house may be small but it’s extremely practical, there’s just enough room for a single bed, a fireplace and a coal bunker.
Gothic Masterpiece – Tintern Abbey
We all know that old saying, “Save the best for last.” Here it is, Tintern Abbey, a famous ecclesiastical ruin built in the 12th century by the Cistercian monastery.
Tintern Abbey was also the muse of the Victorian poets and painters. There were only less than ten visitors here during the time of my visit. The stillness and beauty were profound.
The cloister is in perfect condition and the colossal windows transform the site into a cathedral of nature. The sight of it fills one with wonder, mystery and enchantment. How is it possible to build this without technology back then?
I spent about four nights in North Wales before travelling south to the Welsh Capital, Cardiff. It has been nothing short of amazing. I have explored remote places, submerged in nature, and marvelled at ancient wonders. I even managed to go on a scenic hike at Wye River Valley.
In the cacophony of everyday life, we can easily become jaded and uninspired. Some might say that travel is no cure for the mind, but I beg to differ, this is because the routine can be, in some form – lethal. Travel enriches the mind and anywhere you’ve been will indelibly become a part of you.
In the words of Ernest Hemingway, every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.
Prepare your out-of-office email and ditch your office chair, you know you deserve an adventure of a lifetime.
Lost remains, mysterious stones and legends of the mythical beasts – Wales has them all.
All photographs were taken by Kellin Chew unless otherwise stated.