Those of you who have read my books and stories, even some of my articles on here, will have probably seen me mention Bethesda, a small town in the north west of Wales. But whilst my fictional version of Bethesda may be slightly exaggerated (slightly?) the real Bethesda still isn’t without its own peculiar charms or merits. Guarding the head of the Ogwen valley and both the Carneddau and Glyderau mountains, Bethesda remains one of the few places in the area where you can still find the look and feel of a true Welsh working class community. But should you visit Bethesda? And if you do what is there to see and do there? Let’s explore shall we.
Now I’m not saying that you should book a two week holiday to Bethesda, far from it. There are far more ideal and picturesque places in the area to spend your holidays, Conwy for example, but a day is plenty of time to sample all the delights this town has to offer. And the first thing you’ll notice, as you enter on the A5 from either the Ogwen Valley end of the town or the western end, is how stark and utilitarian the architecture is. On a cold, wet winters day the town can appear drab, grey, cold and uninviting, the slated rooftops blackend by rain and the render upon the buildings unloved and in need of a coat of paint. But come the summer and with the sun beating down on your back the town transforms and takes on an almost continental appeal, like one of those quaint French villages where time is but a memory and the modern world has passed on by without a glance. Each building along the high street, with a few notable exceptions, fronts immediately onto the narrow pavement and whilst many share a similar, uniform design, each has its own character and distinct flavour to it. There are few flourishes or fancy touches, except perhaps on a few of the churches and chapels, and this lack of flair tells you that Bethesda is a working class community and proud of it. There is no room for middle class pretensions here. Save that sort of thing for the tourist traps, for Betwys Y Coed or Llandudno.
Along the length of the high street you will find a rich assortment of cafés, shops and pubs. The shops range from butchers and grocers and bookstores through to clothing stores, charity shops and builders merchants. Each one is independent, unique to Bethesda. You aren’t going to find any of your average high street chain stores here. The only familiar name you might recognize here is Spar. The cafés are a mix of the tea room kind, all humble and cosy, and the old ‘working man’ type where you can order a bacon sandwich and a strong mug of tea. One café, Fitzpatrick’s, even advertises itself as having a balcony overlooking the river, offering a pleasant and peaceful setting to while your time away. And finally you have the pubs, all of which you’ll find on the south side of the High Street owing to the fact that the A5 once marked the boundary of the freehold land and the land which was owned by the Penrhyn estate. But be warned, these are true Welsh pubs and most are likely to be wary of strangers coming in through their door, particularly if you’re English. But ignore the stares from the locals, don’t stare back, be friendly and polite and you’ll be fine. Pubs here include The Douglas Amrs and The Hotel Victoria. There’s no Queen Elizabeth for those who would like to know (and never has been to my knowledge) but there are many other bars to make up for it, though I sincerely doubt they offer the ‘services’ of the Queen Elizabeth, if you understand my meaning.
If churches are more your thing then Bethesda is certainly the place to go. The original Bethesda chapel for which the town was name has now been converted to residential apartments but it can still be seen on the south side of the high street, unmistakable for its white and gold paintwork and the word BETHESDA written in big letters at the top of the building. Many of the churches that remain are presbyterian and very typical of that kind of structure, very square and formal with even spaced windows and little in the way of spectacle, but there is one church in Bethesda that defies the convention. Alas, I couldn’t find what this church might be called (could be St Mary’s if memory serves, but might not be) but you can’t miss it as it is the only church in town with a spire, which makes it without a doubt, also, the tallest structure in town. There is also a large and extensive graveyard surrounding the place, parts of which have been left overgrown which adds a whole, beautifully creepy vibe to the place. I’m sure that most of the chapels and churches in the town are welcoming to visitors who wish to look around and although they aren’t likely to charge an entrance fee it is still good manners to drop a few coins in the collection box on your way out.
You’ll find the high street of Bethesda peppered with off cuts, alley ways and side roads and these are well worth exploring. To the south you find the Afon Ogwen, a picturesque river flowing from Llyn Ogwen further up the A5 and meandering its way through the town, coursing over rocks and creating mini waterfalls here and there. A walk along here on a warm summer or a brisk and snowy winters day is a must. To the north of the high street there are many winding, sloping roads leading up into the lower Carneddaus, bedecked by old workers cottages and offering spectacular glimpses of the surrounding mountains. Whatever you do though, don’t park your car up here as the locals become irritated at the congestion it causes. There is, instead, free and extensive parking down by the river as well as several other car parks throughout the town.
Activities in the town are plentiful. Besides the aforementioned shopping, Bethesda has its own football team, Bethesda Athletic. If you’re a football fan you might perhaps go and watch a match at their stadium, Parc Meurig. They play in the second division of the Welsh Alliance (not to be confused with the similarly named Cymru Alliance) so don’t expect Aston Villa levels of play- though they did win their league in 2009. The hiking opportunities are also plentiful. From Bethesda it is an easy hop up into the Carneddau or the Glyderau or down to the Ogwen Valley. Indeed, a walk into these mountains is more rewarding and more peaceful than a walk up the more popular Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon.) Most people who go mountain walking in these parts head straight for there and ignore the Glyderau and Carneddau and as a result, even in Winter, Yr Wyddfa can be rather congested. As a result, hiking up a mountain in the Glyders or the Carneddau can be a much more rewarding experience.
Bethesda also has something for culture and music lovers with the annual ‘Pesda Roc’ festival, which has been held since nineteen eighty three, featuring the great and the good of Welsh music (including local group, The Super Fury Animals!) There is also the ‘Afon Ogwen’ river festival, held in the autumn around October, which features music, art exhibitions and other fun activities.
One can’t mention Bethesda without including the very thing which made the town famous, Slate, and the Penrhyn Slate Quarry, sight of the longest industrial dispute in British history (from 1900 to 1903) and holds the distinction of once being the world’s largest slate quarry, although now merely the largest in Britain. As it is still a working a quarry it is not possible to fully explore the workings on your own, although they can still be seen from the opposite side of Bethesda in the area known as Gerlan and the foothills just behind. The other way to see the quarry is by booking yourself a place at Bethesda’s newest attraction, ZIP WORLD, where you will be driven through the quarry in off road vehicles on the way to an encounter with a mile long zip wire, the longest and fastest in the world. At £60 a head it isn’t cheap, but for the majestic adrenaline fuelled feeling of flying and the beautiful views of north west Wales, it is certainly worth the price for this once in a lifetime experience.
Bethesda may not be on the usual tourists itinerary and at first glance you might consider that this old, working class community has very little to offer the budding the traveller but underneath the town has as much warmth and charm as the popular tourist traps of Llandudno or Betwys Y Coed. Indeed, whilst the town may not throw its arms open to welcome visitors, it is still worth taking a closer look. Yes, like its fictional counterpart Bethesda’s glory days may be long past but there is still enough here to explore for a few hours, enough for the traveller who wants to stop and look around instead of passing by. There is enough to warrant a visit and enough to make your short time here worthwhile.