Beyond London – Wild Wales
This year marks Wales’s Year of Legends, a tribute to the ancient nation’s epic myths and stories of the past, present and future. There are many magical places to explore, so follow our guide for some of the best highlights.
Lovers of The Lord of the Rings who visit North Wales may experience a pang of recognition. Here are the Misty Mountains, the disused slate quarries reminiscent of the Mines of Moria, and the sparkling lakes where you suspect a tentacled creature might lurk. The writer JRR Tolkien was much inspired by the landscape, but also by the Welsh language – which formed the basis of his Elvish language – and by the tales of giants and rings of invisibility in the medieval book of Welsh fables, The Mabinogion.
As for mythical monsters, look no further than the Welsh flag, which bears the Red Dragon referred to in prophecy by the wizard Merlin. For this is the land of King Arthur and Merlin just as much as of Aragorn and Gandalf. You can track down the real-life locations seen in the recent film, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, at Capel Curig, gateway to the mighty peak of Snowdon; the Nant Gwynant area near Beddgelert; the rocks of Tryfan; and Vivian Quarry near Llanberis.
At Corris in mid-Wales, you can descend deep into a cavern with a lake fed by an underground waterfall; this magical subterranean world has been transformed into the visitor’s attraction King Arthur’s Labyrinth. Other places that are linked to the legend include Caerleon, cited by Geoffrey of Monmouth, the 12th-century scribe of Arthurian legend, as the site of Camelot; Carmarthen, Merlin’s home town; the lakes of Llydaw, Dinas and Ogwen near Snowdon, which all claim to be the home of Excalibur and Llyn Barfog near Aberdyfi, a lake where Arthur supposedly vanquished a water monster, his horse leaving the imprint of a hoof in the rock, which can still be seen today.
This is indeed a land of warriors, of great battles past, studded with impregnable castles like a real-life version of Game of Thrones. There’s the small but perfect Harlech Castle, which resembles a sandcastle deposited by a giant’s child and turned to stone by the dawn; lovely little Criccieth, right out on the Llŷn Peninsula, with its magnificent views of coast and sea; the vast castles at Caerphilly and Caernarfon and the grand and well-preserved castle at Conwy, which has breathtaking mountain views and hosts The Tournament (24-25 Jun), a living history weekend of storytelling and sword fights.
But Wales is also the home of bards and singers and tellers of tall tales. The greatest honour in the land is the prize for poetry bestowed by the Archdruid at the National Eisteddfod each August, with the Llangollen International Music Eisteddfod celebrating 70 years this year (3-9 Jul). Wales also hosts the UK’s biggest literary event, the Hay Festival at Hay-on-Wye (to 4 Jun).
Fans of Wales’s greatest poet, Dylan Thomas, should visit Laugharne in South Wales, where the boathouse in which he wrote has been turned into a museum. The fishing village’s curious inhabitants inspired Thomas’s epic poem Under Milk Wood.
As with Under Milk Wood, legends continue to be forged anew. While North Wales is steeped in ancient myth, Cardiff in South Wales is spawning new ones for the 21st century. This is where the BBC series Doctor Who is filmed, with its intergalactic cast of fantastical aliens, killer robots and sinister weeping angels. Fans of the hit show should not miss the Doctor Who Experience, an interactive, multi-sensory space with exhibits on show icons, props and costumes. Here, you can travel through space and time in the Tardis, or be amazed by monsters, sets, props and costumes in the Exhibition Hall.
Cardiff in South Wales is the home of sporting legends. On 3 Jun, the Principality Stadium hosts the UEFA Champions League Final, the world’s biggest club football event, which will be watched by up to 300 million people around the world – three times the audience of America’s Super Bowl. Legendary Welsh striker Ian Rush is the event’s ambassador. The Principality Stadium also hosts the FIM British Speedway Grand Prix (22 Jul), where 16 riders will go full throttle at speeds of more than 120 km per hour in specially designed motorbikes that have one single gear and no brakes – it takes amazing skill to slow and stop the bike.
Sporting fans will find no shortage of things to do outside of these events. Take a stroll in Bute Park & Arboretum, designed by the 19th-century horticulturalist Andrew Pettigrew. Right beside it is Cardiff Castle, where the third Marquess of Bute created an opulent fantasy palace from the structure of a medieval castle, itself built on the site of a Roman fort. Explore the National Museum Cardiff, St Fagans Natural Museum of History and Big Pit National Coal Museum; while children will enjoy Techniquest, a hands-on, interactive science discovery centre.
Festivals over the summer include the Cardiff Open Air Festival (22 Jun-29 Jul) at Sophia Gardens, which has productions of Monty Python’s Spamalot, Shakespeare’s Macbeth and a stage adaptation of the BBC’s much-loved comedy series The Vicar of Dibley.
The International Food & Drink Festival (14-16 Jul) offers street food, music and more than 100 stalls at the Producers’ Fayre and Farmers’ Market. And near Cardiff, legendary musicians have been creating a storm at the Brecon Jazz Festival since 1984 (11-13 Aug).
Getting there: London Paddington to Cardiff Central by train in just over two hours.