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Right, I will not attempt to explain the history behind Harlech as I will probably come up short and give some misleading information. Instead I will review the town itself and give you my honest opinion. I do think that it is one of the best long weekend spots in the UK, despite having little to compare it too, however due to some flaws it does not deserve the full 5 stars. This is based on the premise of its location, both a charm and a curse. This is due to the fact that it is relatively remote, lying on the Welsh coast, close to Snowdonia. This remoteness allows for it to be one of the more unspoilt towns of its type and although it does cater for tourism it has not been overwhelmed by the influx of them like some other places. This however does have its drawbacks, for instance the town is very small and I would not suggest going for more than 4 days. Saying this it does have facilities as a public swimming pool and train station which is very handy.
The castle itself is beautiful, a true historic monument and is well worth a visit, we are lucky to have things of such historical significance right on our doorstep and should make the most of that if you ask me. Furthermore the overall surrounding is stunning, when in the town, which is up a hill of a fairly steep gradient there are many cafes with balconies to sit on and admire the view that Harlech has to boast, such as the beautiful beach to the Snowdonia region, it is simply breathtaking, especially on a fine summers day.
The beach is home to some of the largest sand dunes in the UK and these are accordingly sectioned off, for their preservation and safety of us. However the rest of the beach is made up of some fine sand and is reasonably unspoilt. Golfers would also appreciate the course which is literally right next to the beach, and what I believe to be a very good course.
Like I have discussed the major negatives would be the effort in getting to a place that is best only to visit for a few days, however I think it is worth the trek.
Having been there on a number of occasions for holidays, I thought it was time I reviewed Harlech, a pretty town full of character on the west Wales coast.
You may be wondering at the title of this review. Well, Harlech is certainly a nice place, but it's made to feel all the nicer because of the grotty towns nearby (Portmadoc and Barmouth being the main culprits).
We always go there by train, and if you plan to, then be prepared for a long and achingly slow journey. The leg of the journey from Bimingham New Street alone takes something like four hours, and it doesn't help that Wales & Borders Trains (I believe they still have the franchise for that region) only put two carriages on the trains, making journeys quite cramped a lot of the time. So after hours spent in the company of screaming kids whose parents can't be bothered controlling them, and of course the lovely stench of the train toilet (always on the blink), you're unlikely to be in the best mood when finally you stagger out onto the platform at Harlech station.
On of the first things you will notice about the place, especially if you come by train, is the impressive castle, built by Edward the First (more correctly, by his labourers) in 1282 on the vast slab of rock which looms over the bottom part of the town. Considering how long ago it was built, and the fact that for large parts of its history it has been neglected, the castle is in pretty good shape and is worth a look around. It is fairly bare (although there are a couple of rooms with plenty of historical information on display), and a bit run-down, with some of the towers barred from the public for safety reasons- but then again it was built well over 700 years ago!
Harlech is a very "spread out" town, with an Upper Harlech where most of the shops are, and a Lower Harlech, with the beach (of course), and some (not especially pleasant) council estates- but luckily you don't have to go through them to get to the beach. And between the upper and lower parts of the town are some VERY seep hills (one of them is in fact officially too steep for motor vehicles, but you still get the odd nutter trying to drive up or down it). So if you're averse to walking up hills- you have been warned!
As you come up the hill you will also notice that many of the houses are grey- entire streets seem to be grey for that matter. The main building material in Harlech is historically slate, and so parts of te town do have very grey-blue feel to them. If it's raining or overcast, then the weather coupled with the castle looming nearby and the slate and shale of the houses combine to make the entire world seem grey!
Once you've made it up the hill, you'll find yourself in the main shopping area- which is really not very large. Most of the shops are either on the High Street or near the castle (which itself is just a few hundreds yards away). There don't seem to be many chain stores there, which is a good thing. Most of the shops have some character to them, which makes for a refreshing change.
After walking up that hill, you're bound to be needing some refreshment. The Castle Restaurant is a small but pleasant place to eat and drink and I would certainly recommend it. The prices are not the cheapest but they're perfectly reasonable. If you're just after a swift pint or three then the Castle Hotel is okay (when we went there I think the pool was 30p a game, which is not bad at all). There's also the Red Lion, which is more of a "local" pub and probably best avoided if you're a tourist.
Aside from that, there's an amusement arcade near the castle- down an alleyway- which may provide some distraction for your kids if you have any. There are also a whole array of the usual gift shops full of tacky souvenirs. Harlech is quite a touristy place, but not overly so, and it does have more character and class to it than any of the other towns nearby. The locals are generally a bit more friendly than they tend to be in some of the other towns, especially the more "Welsh" towns to the north.
If you come to Harlech, you really must bring a camera with you. Especially when the sun is shining, the scenery is fantastic. You can get some excellent shots of the Snowdonia mountains to the north if you go near to the top castle entrance.
If you're into golf, then Harlech has a top golf course (I'm not into golf at all so I can't comment in much detail on the facilities, nor will I be providing a hole-by-hole account!). And if you have a family in tow, then a visit to the beach on a fine sunny day is essential. Harlech has one of the largest, sandiest beaches in the entire country and is also actually pretty clean. Although it's quite popular in the summer during good weather, there's more than enough space for everyone.
Looking slightly further afield, if you enjoy rambling and hill walking then there is plenty of that to do. Less than eight miles out of town are a number of grimly beautiful mountain ranges and deep, winding valleys. Some of the scenery is breathtaking. Again, taking your camera with you is an absolute must.
Once you've been round the castle, been to the beach and ducked into a few of the shops, Harlech does seem a bit more limited- it isn't an especially populous place even though it's quite spread out- but that's really just an opportunity to explore a little further afield. It's definitely a good place to visit if you're ever in the area- and it's certainly a classier place than the other towns nearby. Recommended for families with young kids, and for those people who like to ramble and explore.
Built for King Edward the First between 1283 and 1289, Harlech Castle is one of 14 that were built on the borders of North Wales. It's history is varied and violent, having been in prominent use during several key militry campaigns. During the Welsh national uprising of 1400 (circa), Harlech laid under seige and was eventually captured by the Welsh in early 1404. It became the home of Owain Glyndwr who led the uprising then pronounced himself Prince of Wales. It possible that it was here at the castle that he was crowned. He is now renowned amongst Welsh patriots as being at the forefront of Welsh nationalism. There is even talk of creating a national holiday in Wales in honour of him and his fight for independence. Five years later, following another long siege, the castle was retaken by the English and it is thought, that most of the damage to the curtain wall that can be seen today, is evidence of the battering that the castle took during that siege. Having later played a prominent role during the War of The Roses, there is not a great deal of evidence that suggests that the castle was used much, if at all, until the Civil War of 1642. In fact it was the taking of the castle by the Parliamentary forces of Oliver Cromwell's men from the Royalists forces in 1647, that signified the end of the war, having been the last fortification to fall. With the Snowdonia mountain range creating a stunning backdrop for this castle, the views from the battlements make a visit to the castle a must. The castle is maintained and administered by CADW: Welsh Historic Monuments and the castle is inscribed on the World Heritage list as site of outstanding natural beauty. The castle is not the best preserved castle in the United Kingdom, but it does have the honour of being one that has a great deal of history attached to it. Be very careful when walking the battlements; the drops either side are unprotected and it can be
extremely windy in this part of wales. It would be easy to imagine losing your balance and you would not really want to become part of the castle's history. There are many other attractions nearby including Port Merion (of which I shall write more about another time) and, obviously the Snowdonia mountain range.
Harlech is a small seaside village (- I won't say resort!) located between Portmadoc and Barmouth. My experience of Harlech is both as a resident and later a tourist. It was as a teenager Mum packed us all in a car and announced that we were going to live in Wales for a year whilest she went to the local College. Colege Harlech is an adult education college similar to Ruskin college and prior to access courses was prehaps the only way an adult lacking the prequisite A levels could go to University. This was in the late 70's. I've mixed feelings about my year there as a teenager living miles from any where it was hell on earth for me but now as an adult I often yearn for the tranquility that is Harlech! It was not until the early 90's did I venture back to Harlech, and now apart from the year my daughter was born, I've been back every year! Harlech would be an unremarkable village if it was not for the College situated there and the castle. Every town has that special landmark that if you know the place well you look out for as you get near, Harlech's landmark is the Castle. The Castle itself is nothing spectacular, if you want a "good" castle then drive to near by Caenarvon! If you should find yourself in Harlech then obviously do visit the views are spectacular! But try to go when they are doing one of the pagents, it really makes a visit extra special. Harlech itself, contains several mini markets ( as the brouchures would say), a growing number of gift shops, a bank with a cash point, several resturant/cafes and two pubs! If you're after a night life place then Harlech is not for you! Accomadation is in plentiful supply from Grand hotels to a caravan site to self catering flats and cottages. The College also has a cinema which is open to the public showing a variety of films. With the closing of the near by Nuclear power station ( perfectly safe!) unemployment has hit the village
and you will be greeted with an ever growing number of for sale signs. Harlech beach is a good 30 minute plus walk away from the village down hill so take your car! There is a car park about a 5 minute walk away from the beach. The beach is spectacular, clean, covered in shells, the sea is relatively shallow so is ok for kids to paddle in under supervision. But best of all is practically empty even in August! Getting to Harlech is an epic adventure which takes practically all day, once you've left the motorway at Chester ( if coming from the North) or just outside Shrewsbury ( if coming from the South) you join the typical country lanes which have some wonderful views and hair raising drops as you drive throw Snowdonia. The train journey is again an epic, my brother made it from London, changing at Birmingham. The journey post Birmingham was made on a local train which stopped at every little sheep shed on route. Harlech is a relatively isolated place so unfortunately a car is a must for getting out to other places. The train line does run semi frequent services from Barmouth to Pwhelli, but to be honest having waited an eternity one time for a train I've never used it since! Harlech is well situated for visits to a number of places, check out the tourist Information office for ideas. Barmouth is about a half hours drive along the coast from Harlech. It a quaint Victorian town which has gone a little to seed. Barmouth has the usual tourist attractions eg nice beah complete with donkeys, a fun fair that has seen better days and the usual proliferation of gift shops, sporting equipement shops, cafes and pubs. It also contains the all important co -op supermarket, a must if you're in Self Catering accomadation. If you've got a child to amuse then Barmouth is ideal. A trip across the bay in a rickety old boat will bring you to a minature railway where a 20 minute journey will take you to another small village
a cafe and a " museum". The other nearby town is Portmadoc this is more of a town then a tourist resort. There a plenty of shops here as well as 2 supermarkets. Portmadoc itself does not have a beach itself but if you drive out of the town following signs to Black Rock Sands you'll find a spectacular beach which allows cars straight on it - Beware the tide coming in!! Portmadoc is also the starting point for the Bleauneu Ffestiniog Steam railway - a spectacular journey by steam trian up into the mountains. Portmarion an italianate folly built in the 20's is located near to Portmadoc. Port Marion is better known as the setting for the 1960's cult TV series the Prisoner. It's well worth a visit even if it does get a little bit crowded. I visited it once when the Prisoner society were actually re enacting bits from the show. Driving along the Llyen penninsula out of Portmadoc you'll come across a number of small Villages/towns. Cricceth, is actually a very sweet little village complete with mini castle and its claim to fame as the home of David Lloyd George - A liberal prime minister. It well worth a look around and grabbing a sandwich in one of the cafes. The next big town on the Lleyn pennisula is Pwhelli once home to the Butlins camp, now a Haven holiday village. Pwhelli apart from its market on a Thursday has little to recommend. Drive straight throw to Abersoch. Abersoch is a small village, which has been adopted by the sailing fraternity, so you'll find sailing boats glore here. The shops and resturants are obviously geared up for the invasion of the sailors! The Beach is wonderful, complete with the obligatory shells. If you want nothing else but to have a good lunch, a lounge on the beach with a good book and watch the sail boats then Abersoch is ideal. On the road out of Harlech towards Barmouth is the small village of Llanfair, if you've got small children then a
visit to the Childrens farm is a must. you only pay once for a muti admission ticket. Also located by the farm is an old slate mine with tours. Harlech is also very near to Mount Snowdian so if you're feeling very energetic then you could always try a walk up Snowdian. If you just fancy a gentle hike then the countryside around is ideal walking territory The weather, unfortunately, Harlech can be hell if it does nothing but rain for your entire holiday, but if the sun comes out then thats another matter! Mobile phone reception, BT cellnet is as clear as a bell here, Vodaphone is ok but forget it with One to One. I entitled this review Sunset heaven, well if your sat out with a cool beer or a nice glass of wine, as the sun goes down over the Lleyn Penninsula glowing in the tranquil sea it really is heaven! The best sunset's in the world are to be seen over Harlech bay! Should you want further information on Harlech try the following web sites: www.Harlech.com www.searchwales.com www.harlech.ac.uk