Back-Roads Red Dragon of Wales Tour

Written by Helen Lang on 8th August 2012 at 03:15pm

Back-Roads Red Dragon of Wales Tour

My tour with Back-Roads Touring Company exceeded my expectations, was lots of fun and exceptional value for money. We sang along to Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey, learnt a lot about Welsh history, visited amazing places and continually drove through beautiful scenic landscapes. I fell in love with Wales, and I have Back-Roads to thank! I can say therefore, with certainty, that this will not be the last tour I do with this excellent, professional company.

 

There were 14 people on the tour (of a possible 16); 12 Australians and a Mum and Daughter from the USA, only 2 of us were under 60 years of age. I am a single woman 50 years old, but I enjoyed everyone’s company and had lots of fun. The coach was a new and impeccably clean 16 seater Mercedes mini-coach, with reclining comfortable leather seats. Accommodation was in historical hotels, all with tastefully furnished bedrooms, comfortable beds and all served delicious meals.

DAY 1
The tour departed from the Lancaster Gate hotel in London (near Hyde Park) at 8.30am, where I had been staying for 2 nights. Leaving London, our first morning tea stop was a very nice surprise; it was to be Castle Combe in the Cotswolds, a village I had long wanted to visit. Castle Combe is a small village in Wiltshire with a population of 350 and is, I think justifiably, referred to as “the prettiest village in England”, and we were fortunate to arrive before the hordes of tourists did!

Continuing our picturesque journey, we left England and crossed the River Severn into Wales and stopped in Chepstow, the ancient port which guards the entrance to the beautiful Wye Valley. In Chepstow we had time to visit the impressive Chepstow Castle, which is the oldest surviving Norman stone fortification in Britain, in use since 1067. After a very pleasant 45 minute scenic drive from Chepstow, we arrived at the St. Fagan’s Museum of Welsh Life. Opened in 1948, it has become Wale’s most popular heritage attraction, which has a wide range of buildings, which depict how the people of Wales have lived over several centuries. I can understand why it gets this rating as it was very interesting and luckily we had several hours to explore the 100-acre museum.

We then drove to Cardiff and had an orientation drive around the city (and saw Cardiff Castle) and also did a walking tour to the docks area, which I thought, was enough to get an impression of the city. We then drove to a very nice restaurant for dinner before we visited a Welsh choir who entertained us with their superb singing and Welsh hospitality, as we were all offered a cup of tea (for me this was a real highlight of the tour). It was late by this time and we then drove to our hotel for the next two nights in Crickhowell, a beautiful historic small market town in the Brecon Beacons National Park. I had a very comfortable room in the Bear Hotel, a building which dates back to 1432, and a bonus, the hotel had free Wi-Fi.

DAY 2
We left the hotel at 9am (there were no early starts on this tour) and drove 30 minutes to Big Pit, a museum opened in 2004 as a living, breathing reminder of the coal industry in Wales. It was so foggy you could not see much at all, but it did not matter as most of the visit was spent in doing an underground tour, which was excellent. The weather began to improve, the fog lifted and blue sky appeared as we drove firstly to Llanvihangel Crucorney, where we had lunch in The Skirrid Mountain Inn, which is one of the oldest public houses in Wales, and dates from at least 1110.

After a delicious lunch of potato and leek soup, we drove 20 minutes to the beautiful and remote ruins of the Llanthony Priory. This is one of the earliest Augustinian houses in Britain, dating back to 1100, and is located in the Vale of Ewyas, a secluded valley in the Black Mountains.
With the sun shining and blue sky to accompany us, we then drove through the beautiful ‘Gospel Pass’, a narrow mountain road, which is the highest road pass in Wales. This pass is located at the head of the Vale of Ewyas in the Black Mountains of southeast Wales; we stopped to take photos and then made our way to Hay-on-Wye.

Hay-on-Wye is often described as "the town of books”, and is a small town situated just within the Welsh side of the English border, on the east bank of the River Wye and is within the Brecon Beacons National Park. I was almost in heaven surrounded by so many bookshops selling new and second hand books of all descriptions. Due to travelling with a small suitcase I had to limit myself to 2 books! We then had a pleasant and very scenic drive back to the hotel at Crickhowell, where there was time for a walk before a very nice included dinner at the hotel.

DAY 3
It was raining this morning as we sadly left the Brecon Beacons behind for the drive from South Wales to North Wales. Our first stop was at the Elan Valley Reservoirs, a chain of 4 main dams, and lakes. The water from these dams is notably soft, unlike water from the rest of the UK, which is hard, and my hair was continually frizzy outside of Wales. We continued another day of driving through beautiful picturesque countryside and we crossed the Devil’s Bridge, which is in fact three bridges one on top of another, before stopping in Machynlleth, for lunch, again leek soup was my choice!

The drive took us towards the coast and we stopped in view of Harlech Castle to take a photo of almost intact remains of a very impressive castle, constructed atop a cliff close to the Irish Sea. This Castle was largely completed in just 7 years and after 7 centuries it remains a testimony to the genius of master mason James of St. George, who built 12 of the 17 castles of King Edward I. Between 1276 and 1295 17 castles were either built or repaired as part of Edward’s plan to bring Wales under English rule. From here we drove the Llechwedd Slate Mines where we took the miners tramway on a memorable journey half a mile into the depths of the mines. I really enjoyed this very informative tour, and afterwards at the gift shop I bought some Slate coasters and a Welsh mug, which makes tea taste even nicer.

The day finished on a huge high for me, as our hotel location was changed from Conwy to the most beautiful village of Betws-y-Coed, (meaning Prayer house in the wood), the main village of the Snowdonia National Park. The village is near the joining of three rivers, with the average annual
rainfall in the catchment of the Llugwy the highest recorded in both England and Wales, and due to recent heavy rainfalls the River Llugwy was a spectacular sight. Our accommodation for the next two nights was in the beautiful Royal Oak Hotel, a former coaching inn which overlooks the Llugwy River and surrounding hills. I had a very beautiful room, with a stunning outlook and I did not want to leave and I promised the hotel receptionist I would one day return. I had a very beautiful room with a gorgeous view from my bedroom window! I had time to take a quick walk before dinner in the hotel and walked to St. Michaels Church, the original prayer house in the wood, a 14th century church and the oldest building in the village. Dinner was nice, a two course meal and one included drink. Also a bonus was free Wi-Fi and the connection speed was very fast! The bed was, again, very comfortable.

DAY 4
It had been raining overnight and the morning was cloudy, but it eventually turned out to be a nice day, with some brief patches of blue sky. We left the hotel at 9am and drove 30 minutes to Conwy, where we first visited Plas Mawr, the finest surviving Elizabethan town house in Britain, built between 1576 and 1585, and beautifully recreated. After an enjoyable visit, in which I learnt interesting facts about Welsh history, it was a short walk to Conwy Castle, which guards the entrance to the River Conwy with massive defensive walls. It was built in just 7 years, between 1283 and 1289 and is yet another castle of Kind Edward I. No photos or words can do justice to this castle, one of the most magnificent fortresses of Medieval Europe.

We drove to the Isle of Anglesey, to make a brief photo stop at Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogery........., before driving to Caernarfon Castle. Here we had time for a quick bite of lunch and a visit to yet another of King Edwards’s impressive castles, Caernarfon Castle, famous for the Investiture of Charles, the Prince of Wales. At 2.30 we boarded the Welsh Highland Railway for our 20km steam train journey into the Snowdonia National Park; it was a beautiful scenic trip, which went for approx. one and a half very enjoyable hours. We disembarked at Nantmor station and collected here by our driver, we were all disappointed the trip had to end! Our day finished with a drive through the Snowdonia Mountain ranges back to Betws-y-Coed, where we stopped at Cwm Dyli, which is the location of a hydro-electric power station and the pipe-line was used in the James Bond film ‘The World is not Enough’ The view was spectacular, and this photo is a poor representation of what the eye can see.

DAY 5
It was hard to say goodbye to beautiful Betws-y-Coed and Wales, as we were travelling back into England and would stay the final night of the tour in Shrewsbury. It was raining lightly as we left at 9.30am for our first stop at St. Rhychwyn’s Church, which is situated in land behind a farm in breathtaking surroundings overlooking the Conwy Valley. The small stone Church is more than 800 years old and King Llywelyn the Great and his wife Joan (daughter of King John of England) worshipped here in the early 13th century. The view from the churchyard was spectacular. To get to the church we really had to drive on the Back-Roads! Back-Roads Tours really lives up to its name and we drove on many narrow, one way roads, where we often had to back up to let cars pass! But only on the back-roads do you really get an appreciation for Wales. After a 30 minute drive, the next stop was at Bodnant Gardens, which is one of the most beautiful gardens in the UK, spanning some 80 acres situated above the River Conwy on ground looking across the valley towards the Snowdonia range. Sadly the spring flowers had finished blooming early, due to the recent heavy rain falls, hydrangeas and very fragrant roses were still in flower. We spent an hour and a half here, and I loved every minute of my visit. I have made a vow that I will return again one day in spring and spend hours, when the flowers would be at their best. We then drove for an hour to reach Llangollen, a town of 3,000 and best known for the annual International Musical Eisteddfod, held every July, when some 120,000 visitors descend on the town. The River Dee is a spectacular feature of this pretty town, and we had an hour here for lunch.

Driving a short distance, we arrived at the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, which carries the Llangollen canal over the River Dee, and is not only a must-see, is an awesome experience when travelling over by either boat or foot! It is truly a remarkable feat of canal engineering; it is 125 feet high, and is unprotected on one side, giving the impression of a sheer drop when crossing in a narrowboat. In 2009, the structure deservedly joined the Great Barrier Reef and the Statue of Liberty as a World Heritage Site. We had time to walk across the aqueduct and I decided to brave the strong winds, and it is feat I am proud of achieving!

We then had a one hour drive to reach our overnight accommodation in the Prince Rupert Hotel, in the heart of historical Shrewsbury in England. Lying on the River Severn, Shrewsbury has almost 100,000 inhabitants, and is the headquarters of Shropshire Council. It is a historic market town with the town centre having a largely unaltered medieval street plan. The town features over 660 historic listed buildings, including several examples of timber framing from the 15th and 16th century. There was time to walk around and take photos before our final dinner at the hotel to finish a great tour of a beautiful country.

DAY 6
Our final day had sadly arrived all too soon, but every day was filled to the brim with sights and wonderful memories. We left Shrewsbury at 9am and drove 40 minutes to Stokesay Castle, a fortified manor house built in the 13th century. We all chose not to visit the castle, but walked around the grounds and took photos.

It was then just a 15 minute drive to Ludlow, where we had a morning tea stop and time to visit some of the historical buildings. I chose to visit the Castle Lodge, which is famous for being the residence of Catherine of Aragon when she was married to Prince Arthur, who died of tuberculosis and so she then went on to marry Henry VIII, Arthur's younger brother. Another famous building (apart from the Castle, which was built in the 12th century to hold back the unconquered Welsh), is the Feathers Hotel, Built in 1619 by a local and is a Tudor-style half-timbered building, famous for its Jacobean furnishings.

We then had a drive of 1 ½ hours to Stratford-upon-Avon, our final stop on the tour before arriving back into London. In Stratford, there was time to have lunch and visit Shakespeare’s house before the included visit to Anne Hathaway’s cottage. As I had visited Shakespeare’s house before and not Anne’s cottage, I was really happy to be making a visit here. The rain stopped and the sun came our briefly and the garden looked so beautiful, especially the many different varieties of Sweet Pea colours. We had a very interesting guided tour and I really enjoyed the time spent here.

Leaving here it began to rain, and the rain continued, and became quite heavy, all the way back to London, which was a 2 hour drive. It was then time to say goodbye to my wonderful fellow travellers and the excellent driver/guide Ian kindly dropped me off at the Victoria Station to catch the Gatwick Express to Gatwick Airport to fly to Edinburgh for an 8 night stay.

Some final comments about Wales - I found it to be a very peaceful, beautiful country, and the Welsh are a proud people, who are genuine and very friendly. The Welsh language is very unusual and is commonly spoken, with all street signs and location information, firstly printed in Welsh and then in English. Wales has endured difficulties throughout its history, and for such a small country the impact of their mining industries was phenomenal. Their bread, ice-cream, and in fact all their food, is delicious.