Castles and Trains — Why You Should Take Your Kids to North Wales
So, I don’t actually have kids. But many of my friends do and I remember well what I loved as a kid.
If you have kids and are looking for a destination that will keep them happy: Consider North Wales. Specifically, Snowdonia National Park and its surrounds.
There are two primary reasons to take your kids there:
(And a few secondary reasons too).
Castles, Castles Everywhere
They’re called the Ring of Iron and Edward I built them to subjugate the Welsh. The Welsh now cheerfully use them to get money out of the English.
Seriously, the four castles of the Ring of Iron are considered the very height of the castle buyer’s art. The last to be built, Beaumaris on the Isle of Anglesey is unfinished: The king ran out of money, slowing construction, and then some schmuck invented cannons.
All four — Conwy, Caernarvon, Harlech, and Beaumaris are different, affected by where they were built. Conwy, for example, is narrow with the two wards next to each other, built on a defensible promontory. Beaumaris, built on flat land is a double ring concentric castle. It looks very squat because, as already mentioned?
(Also on my last trip there some prankster from the BBC parked a TARDIS on the walls).
Each of the castles warrants a full day of exploring, or at least close enough that you don’t want to pack them in. Harlech is also on the south side of the park, thus a bit of a drive by UK standards. (Be aware. The roads in North Wales aren’t great once you get off the coast road. They’re narrow, and may have sheep on them).
Do keep an eye on your kids, though. Don’t let them climb on anything they aren’t supposed to climb on.
The Great Little Trains of Wales
Mining used to be how Wales made its money. And this means mine trains.
Which, well, are still there. They’re now called the Great Little Trains of Wales; this is a marketing scheme, but they really are little trains. Most are narrow gauge steam trains, ranging in size from miniature trains to the full-size appearing Welsh Highland Railway.
And you can make an entire vacation out of just riding trains.
The Welsh Highland runs 25 miles out of Caernarfon to Porthmadog, and has a first class Pullman car with food. It’s wheelchair accessible (although contact them in advance; wheelchair spaces are limited). You can take the entire trip or use it as transportation to a trailhead.
There are ten other railroads in the Great Little Trains of Wales consortium, which run in various locations. Most of them are, indeed, former mine trains refurbished to carry passengers.
One of them is the Snowdon Mountain Railway, which is worth a special mention. The railway was built in 1896 as part of Victorian tourist development. It’s a rack railway (what Americans would call a cog railway) and while not as spectacular as some of the routes in Switzerland, it’s a truly awesome experience if the weather cooperates. (On our last trip we didn’t see a thing). Most of the trains that run are diesel, they run the original steam engines on a light schedule to preserve them. The trains leave from Llanberis (and you can also take the Llanberis Lake Railway and, which I recommend, visit the Slate Museum). The trains only run halfway in the spring. You can also get a one way ticket; quite a few people hike up Snowdon, realize they don’t want to hike down Snowdon…
Be aware of a few things: The carriages are very small. They’re actually kind of cramped. Because of this, they only allow service dogs. Wheelchair users and anyone with mobility issues should call first, as you will likely need assistance to board the train. Mobis/scooters will not fit on these trains. Trust me.
Other Things to Do
Done with castles and trains? There’s plenty more to offer. Here are some other things to do:
- Llandudno. I actually recommend Llandudno as a place to stay/base of operations. A planned resort built by the Victorians (the older village is still there and at least used to have a really awesome pub), Llandudno offers accommodations that range from affordable B&Bs to grand Victorian hotels. For things to do there: There is a fine beach and promenade, donkey rides, and a pier with amusement rides. By the way if you’ve seen that video of goats taking over a British town? That’s Llandudno.
- The Great Orme. Next to Llandudno, the Great Orme is a headland that is a semi-wild park. (That’s where the goats came from). There’s a tram that runs part of the way to the top, a cable car that runs all the way to the top, and plenty of hiking. Halfway up there’s an old mine you can take tours of. The views from the summit are pretty nifty.
- Ponies. There are no wild ponies in Snowdonia: The ponies are all owned by somebody. (Despite this, they should not be approached. They are raised without much human intervention. Mares with foals can be quite dangerous). But they are absolutely adorably cute. If you want closer interaction with equines, there are a number of pony trekking operations that run in Snowdonia, offering rides for all ranges of experience including people who have never sat on a horse before. Americans note that despite the term, yes, they have big enough horses for full grown adults.
- Hiking. Snowdonia is a hikers’ paradise. There are just so many places to go, with trails for every level including people with young kids. If your kids are older, there’s some awesome rock climbing too.
- White water. If canoeing is your thing, the National White Water Center is a famous training center for kayakers, but also offers white water rafting trips of an hour or two. (If you want a quiet canoeing experience, try Bala Lake).
- Electric Mountain. Got young kids? Want them to learn about hydroelectricity? Take them to Electric Mountain, where you can get a tour of Dinorwig Power Station. Which pretty much powers Wales.
And you can probably find more things if you hunt around. Basically, the biggest problem you will have is running out of time for all the things you want to do!
There is no airport in the region. For Americans, the best option is to fly to London or Manchester and then take the train. It’s 5 hours from London, 3 from Manchester. There is no high speed train due to the gradients.
You can also drive, but I personally recommend taking the train then renting a car once you get there. You can rent an automatic in most of the larger towns, but book in advance; most people in the UK drive sticks. (A stick is a lot cheaper if you can drive one). This means you can avoid dealing with the UK’s motorways.
The train from London leaves from Euston station, which means you will need to take the tube or a cab in London. Direct trains to Llandudno are rare. In most cases you will need to change trains in Crewe.
Get your train ticket in advance if you can; it’s much cheaper.
You will probably want a car. It’s possible to find enough to do that’s accessible only by train, though. The roads are not great. They’re narrow and you may be sharing them with sheep. However, with a car you can get to some of the more off beat hiking trails easily.
Still, if you don’t want to deal with the roads, you can avoid it.
I already mentioned that Llandudno is a great base of operations. However, there are bed and breakfasts all over the place. Stay in a bed and breakfast! Although it’s not quite at the level of Scotland, Wales has a very solid bed and breakfast tradition.
If you have more money, there are country house hotels you can stay in; these tend to be expensive, however, especially if you have kids.
Another option is what the British call “self-catering.” This is great for larger families. You can get a cottage or house with enough bedrooms for everyone. Self-catering accommodations have kitchens and may have laundry facilities. This means you can save money by preparing your own breakfast and sandwiches for lunch. If you have two or more kids, I strongly recommend finding a larger self-catering place. You’re paying a set rate for the entire place. (I know this sounds a lot like Air BnB, but it’s not the same thing; this is a tradition that’s been going on in Europe for years and you’ll get the same standards of cleanliness, etc, as with a hotel).
One word of warning: If you are renting a car, do not, do not stay in Conwy! Conwy is a beautiful Medieval town with the walls intact. And the original street plan intact. Don’t drive in Conwy. Just don’t. Visit Conwy. Get a meal there. But don’t drive there.
North Wales is just one of those amazing places where there’s things to do for absolutely everyone. Once we can all travel again, plan a trip there and build great memories for your kids. Especially if they’re obsessed with trains…