Welcome to the Wales you don’t know

With “Welcome to Wrexham” landing the North Wales city on the international radar, what else is hiding among the region’s more famous scenic draws? Quite a lot.

By Simon Ingram
Published 19 Oct 2022, 09:52 BST
The River Dee flows through Llangollen, one of many under-the-radar towns in North Wales, United Kingdom.
The River Dee flows through Llangollen, one of many under-the-radar towns in North Wales, United Kingdom.
Photograph by Keith Morris, Alamy Stock Photo

There’s a loaded line in the new Disney+ docuseries Welcome to Wrexham: “A lot of people outside the U.K. aren’t even aware that Wales is not in England.” It’s proof that this proud and storied country—at 8,023 square miles, smaller than the U.S. state of New Jersey—deserves more attention than it gets.

That’s not to say it goes unnoticed. International travellers might know Wales for its capital, Cardiff; or Snowdon, its highest mountain, training ground for Sir Edmund Hillary’s Everest expedition and highlight of Snowdonia National Park. They may even be familiar with that region’s once derided, now celebrated, slate spoils; the grass-felted hills of the Brecon Beacons; or the coastal twinkle of an Anglesey lighthouse. “It’s small,” they might say, “but there’s a lot in it.”

The Great Orme Tramway climbs the hills above Llandudno, in North Wales, a charming seaside village that was once a mining town.
Illustrated by National Geographic Staff, Alamy Stock Photo

This was the only Wales I knew. Growing up close to the border, I could see from my English village the hills above Ruthin rumpling the western horizon. “That’s Wales,” I was told as a kid, without really realising what that meant. My grandmother was Welsh. There was a Prince of Wales on TV, but confusingly, he was English. Some people in Wales spoke a different language but some didn’t. I knew two Welsh words: croeso, welcome, because it was written on a border sign, and araf, slow, because it was written on the roads.

In time, northeast Wales became a familiar neighbour with a subtle charm. The woods were bigger, the summits higher, and the coastlines longer. It was in this Wales I climbed my first hill, drove my first car, and took a family walk every Boxing Day. The towns we passed through were bustling vignettes of rain-smeared light and woodsmoke. It was different and exciting, and beyond the horizon, there was—and is—more.

Forget the stats; when you’re in it, Wales feels anything but small. Here are destinations with star-sized charisma, in a part of Wales that often escapes the limelight.

Wrexham became Wales' seventh city in September 2022. 

Illustrated by National Geographic Staff

A part of the country that doesn’t draw many travellers’ attention is northeast Wales, with its castled patchwork of valleys, coast, and benevolently profiled hills. It’s home to Wrexham, now known for, yes, its celebrity-owned 1864-vintage football club. Wales's seventh city (granted the status in September 2022) also claims the historic Bersham Ironworks, which crafted parts for the first steam engines and revolutionised cannon design. In the city centre, imposing St. Giles church is the final resting place of the founder of the prestigious Yale University in the United States. (A tower inspired by the church forms the centerpiece of the Connecticut college.)

Historical treasures

Everywhere in Wales, the past feels close, be it in the signs of ancient occupation or a prosperity closer in time. Located on the northern coast, Llandudno started out as a mining town and became a well-heeled seaside escape in the late 1800s. Grand Victorian buildings rose along the seafront; a majestic 2,295-foot pier—Wales’s longest—was completed in 1884; and the town grew a network of trams and cable cars. These, plus Bronze Age settlements, a famous road called Marine Drive, and a climbing route of mythical repute create an alluring mix of scenery and culture.

Entering Wales from Shropshire, Llangollen is signalled when you spy Castell Dinas Brân perched on a hill. This 13th-century ruin was painted by Turner and radiates Tolkien vibes, yet it’s only the town’s second most striking feature. The River Dee bisects Llangollen, with the UNESCO-recognised Pontcysyllte Aqueduct just downstream epitomising Llangollen’s history as a key logistical point in the North Wales industrial canal system, now repurposed for tourism.

The ruins of 13th-century Castell Dinas Brân sit on a hill above the northeast Wales town of Llangollen.
Photograph by Robin Weaver, Alamy Stock Photo

Storybook charm and mythical tales

From the Welsh folk epic The Mabinogion to the poems and stories of Dylan Thomas, the Welsh have always loved a good tale. At the foot of the Clwydian Hills, Ruthin (pronounced rith-in) is sprinkled with half-timbered edifices and red-stone houses and forts, including a fairytale castle. Aquifers once fed the town’s brimming mineral water industry. Among these is the Horseshoe Pass, an infamous roadway slinking across the local hills. Its Welsh name is more evocative: Bwlch yr Oernant, or “pass of the cold stream.”

Like many bodies of water in Wales, the country’s largest lake, Llyn Tegid, runs deep with mythology. A beast, affectionately nicknamed “Teggie,” supposedly haunts this nearly five-mile-long glacial artefact at the quiet eastern end of Snowdonia National Park. The lake is home to the gwyniad fish—an Ice Age relic typically the length of a paperback now critically threatened by invasive species and runoff from farming.

Sweeping nature

While there may be more obviously dramatic parts of Wales, the northeast weaves its own atmospheric spell. Forest-ringed, 1,820-foot Moel Famau is possibly the most distinctive hill in northeast Wales, thanks to its curious topknot, the Jubilee Tower. Construction on the unfinished mock-obelisk began in 1810 to commemorate King George III’s golden jubilee, but a storm largely brought it down in 1862. Now the ruin serves as a perch for magnificent views of Liverpool, Chester, and Wrexham, as well as the mountains of Snowdonia and the Vale of Clwyd. Hike up after sunset to see the landscape lit up to spellbinding effect.

Visitors enjoy water sports on Llyn Tegid, near the town of Bala. The lake is said to be the home of Teggie, Wales’s version of the mythical Loch Ness Monster.
Photograph by Rob Carter, Alamy Stock Photo

Locally named the Mynydd Hiraethog, the Denbigh Moors is a beautiful pause between the vales of the Clwydian hills and the wild contours of Snowdonia. Among fields of heather, the once grand Gwylfa Hiraethog mansion makes for an evocative, abandoned ruin. The artificial lakes of Llyn Brenig and Llyn Alwen offer scenic trails, kayaking, and fly fishing. But the real lure here—and throughout North Wales—is solitude, space, and views.

Simon Ingram is a journalist, author, and U.K. online editor for National Geographic. Follow him on Twitter.

Welcome to Wrexham is streaming on Disney+. The Walt Disney Company is the majority owner of National Geographic Partners.

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