Translated as the ‘Prayer house in the woods’ the idyllically pretty Betws-y-Coed in the Conwy Valley was once home to a monastery during the sixth century, though any evidence of a religious bearing has long since disappeared.
The abbots who settled here chose their location well, close to the Conwy river within the tranquil Gwydyr Forest valley – a fertile and a quiet landscape the backdrop for their peaceful existence. In the 13th century, Edward I stumbled across the village while plotting a route through the newly conquered region to the coast. It is said the English king deployed 1,000 woodcutters to clear the way through the valley, exposing the village for the first time to the wider world.
By the 18th century the village was a popular coaching stop (as it is today) and the community grew as local quarries provided work for slate, copper and lead mining. The English aristocracy was the next to discover the fairytale aspect of the area when their Grand Tour travels overseas were halted by the Napoleonic Wars; Snowdonia offering a beautiful alternative to the continent. As such this forested area was to earn itself a nickname as ‘Little Switzerland’.
Simultaneously, more sophisticated access was underway. Thomas Telford’s cast iron Waterloo Bridge opened on the village outskirts in 1815, formally connecting England to the Welsh coast beyond. In 1868 further progress was made when the railway network granted the village a station. Word was spreading of Betws’ beauty and artists and writers were flocking to explore this newfound territory.
Famous visitors include poets Shelley and Wordsworth, Mathew Arnold, Charles Darwin, Charles Kingsley, Alexander Graham Bell, Sir Edward Elgar. JMW Turner was perhaps the most famous of artists, while English landscape painter David Cox headed up an artists colony, holding court at the Royal Oak Hotel in the village centre, a Victorian addition.
Building of the period extended to a pretty collection of stone dwellings and guesthouses, and in 1873 St Mary’s Church was built to accommodate the growing population and seasonal swell of visitors. The scene was set for the dawn of tourism and today the area is still among the most visited of North Wales’ attractions. Summer visitors flock here, turning a couple of streets into something of a peak season honey-pot. Once the crowds have dispersed in low season, the village returns to its ethereal nature – the stillness, the remoteness that once drew people here more pronounced.
An excellent base for walkers, there are many well trodden paths through the surrounding forest taking in fantasy settings such as Fairy Glen, or the spectacular Swallow Falls on the River Llugwy; or the Conwy Falls. It is possible out of season to have these well photographed areas to yourself.
Betws-y-Coed is on the A5 which cuts through northern Snowdonia from the Midlands, leading off the M54 neat Wolverhampton. There is a train station in the village centre. For times and fares go to www.nationalrail.co.uk