Snowdonia – a Pearl of North Wales
Two distinct halves, three passes and a thorough exploration of stately Snowdonia all go into this 100-mile ride. It also visits the seaside twice, and one of the places is so extraordinary, so unexpected, that they made a cult TV series there. Snowdonia has everything, including a fair amount of rain, but that only makes the dark slate scenery shine a little more. They say that every cloud has a silver lining; well, in Snowdonia they do. Snowdonia is mostly made of slate, with small outcrops of volcanic rocks. It’s an impressive, muscular place, and so are its towns and villages. You begin this ride in what was the heart of the Welsh slate industry at Blaenau Ffestiniog. There were ten mines here once, when North Wales was chapel, strong beliefs, moral rectitude and closed pubs on a Sunday. Today it has re-branded itself as a tourist destination, either as a place for wild adventures, or for creativity. There is a concerted effort to promote the arts in Snowdonia.
The first half of the ride describes a wide arc down to Tremadog Bay, then goes around the western flank of the mountains up to Caernarfon. The route runs very close to Portmeirion, and it’s worth turning off it to see the Italianate village designed and built by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis between 1925 and 1975. It has featured in many films and TV programmes, but is best known for a slightly weird 1960s spy drama called The Prisoner that even today has a huge following. You get a really good look at the bay when the road crosses the sands to Porthmadog. Then you go inland to ride along the feet of the mountains, with the wide open Lleyn peninsula on your left, bound for the sea at Caernarfon. This is one of the oldest places in Wales. A Celtic tribe, the Ordovices, some of the original Welsh people, lived here. It also guards the entrance to the Menai Strait, with access to huge mineral deposits in Anglesey and Snowdonia, so Caernarfon was a Roman stronghold. Caernarfon Castle, completed in 1330, secured the town and still dominates it today.
Caernarfon is where the ride changes. You enter the mountains just outside town and climb up to Pit’s Head before tackling the fearsome Pen-y-Pass, climbed via the Bwlch y Gwddel. Pen-y-Pass lies between Snowdon, which at 1085 metres is the highest mountain in Wales, and Glyder Fawr, which is one metre short of the 1000-metre mark. Several paths to the two peaks start at Pen-y-Pass, and there’s a youth hostel and a cafe. There’s a long descent down the Pass of Llanberis, with two beautiful lakes lying near the bottom. Then there’s a short flattish section to Bethesda, where the second major climb of this ride begins, the Nant Ffrancon Pass. Bethesda used to be famous for quarries; now it’s famous for music. Several successful bands, including Super Furry Animals, come from the place known locally as Pesda. Together they have created a music movement known as Pesda Rock.
Nant Ffrancon Pass tops out at just over 300 metres, and the descent goes through Capel Curig, where the forest on the opposite side of the road is part of Plas-y-Brenin, a mountain-adventure and mountain-bike centre. You continue past Swallow Falls to Betws-y-coed, then to the final climb, and the highest and hardest on the route, Bwlch y Gorddinan, or Crimea Pass in English, before a short descent back to Blaenau Ffestiniog. Find the A496 and turn left, then turn right onto the A487 and take the first right after the Porthmadog/Tremadog junction. This road joins the A487 at intervals, but keep taking right turns to pick it up, then stay on the A487 after Penygroes. Follow the A487 north to Caernarfon.
Turn right onto the A4085 and follow this road over Pitt’s Head to Beddgelert. Turn left onto the A498 and then left onto the A4086 over Pen-y-Pass and descend the Pass of Llanberis. Turn right at the north-west end of Llyn Padarn onto the A4244 and follow this road until you see the B4409 to Bethesda. Turn right onto the A5 and climb over the Nant Ffrancon. Continue through Capel Curig to Betws-y-coed, and there turn right and right again to join the A470 and climb the Crimea Pass back to Blaenau Ffestiniog.
Start and Finish. Snowdonia: Blaenau Ffestiniog
Getting There. Snowdonia: Blaenau Ffestiniog is 41 miles west of Llangollen using the A5 and A470.
Bike Shop. Snowdonia: There isn’t one at the moment, but a mountain-bike trail centre is planned and that should have a shop.
Cafe. Snowdonia: The Bridge Cafe on Church Street
Local Delicacy. Snowdonia: Tawts Pum Munud (it’s another kind of stew, cooked on top of the stove in an open pan and with smoked bacon in it)
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