Betws-y-Coed is a long established gateway into Snowdonia National Park since it became popular in the Victorian era of mass tourism. It is usually reached via the popular route through the Vale of Conwy which lines the north eastern boundary of Snowdonia National Park. The Victorian tourist trade resulted in the small town flourishing as a tourist magnet with its variety of holiday accommodation, cafes, pubs and shops that cater for tourists needs and still provides this purpose today. This is the main northern centre of Snowdonia National Park with a railway station, tourist information and plenty of parking so you can explore the shops and river walks.
Between Betws-y-Coed and Llanwrst is the Gwydyr Forest which is now more renowned for its mountain biking trails than its wildlife interest. Bikers of the motorcycle variety flock here at weekends too and there are motorbike-friendly B&Bs for longer breaks. There are a lot of tourist attractions close to the town including The Ugly House, Swallow Falls, St Michael’s Church, Conwy Valley Railway Museum and the Motor Museum.
Until the 19th century Betws-y-Coed had little history to boast about apart from evidence of lead mining and the founding of a monastic cell in the fifth century. The 19th century brought an improvement in the roads that brought the full brunt of industrial improvement with it. In 1815 Telford completed the graceful cast-iron Waterloo Bridge as part of the A5 construction, embellished with all four national emblems, of what was then, the newly formed United Kingdom.
The new road brought an influx of visitors including landscape painters David Cox and JMW Turner. Once their stunning paintings of the area got out the area became popular with the travelling classes. The arrival of the train in 1868 really opened the town up to mass tourism which has unfortunately waned from its Victorian peak.
Betws-y-Coed is still a popular destination for day, weekend or longer visits as it s easy to reach from the A5 in North Wales attracting people from all over the North West in particular. It acts as a good base for exploring the northern mountain ranges – the Carneddau and Glyders. It’s an attractive town dominated by the River Conwy where it meets its three tributaries flowing from the west, the Llugwy, the Lledr and the Machno.
The town has lately specialised in catering for the outdoor market which has spawned plenty of outdoor clothing shops competing for your custom – often with sales or selling-off end-of-season lines. Betws is also the main accommodation centre for hotel and bed & breakfast accommodation concentrated along the main street and up into the hills.
Many are characteristically faced in local chunky stone and slate giving Betws-y-Coed a characteristic look that can at first appear gloomy in the rain, but actually gives the buildings quite a grand appearance. There are cafes and restaurants lining the main road through the town offering anything from fish and chips through to traditional welsh tearooms and hotel restaurants.
Around the town is fantastic motorbiking country – windy roads and scenic views – groups of bikers often park-up here at weekends and there are biker friendly B&Bs within Betws-y-Coed. As this is a main centre for Snowdonia National Park it can get very busy in peak season making it advisable to book accommodation and restaurants in advance.
The Gwydyr Forest
The Gwydyr Forest that towers above Betws-y-Coed offers panoramic views of the Glyderau, Carneddau and Snowdon mountain ranges. Although the forest is now dominated by conifer plantations which are a common wildlife unfriendly habitat in Snowdonia, there are some remnants of the native woodlands and other sites within the forest that are very important for their wildlife and geological interest.
Rare bats, ferns, flowering plants and a diverse range of lichens and mosses all occur here. Many of these special sites are associated with the old copper mining that once took place in the area. Today Gwydyr is far more renowned for its range of mountain bike trails for all skill levels from forest roads and tracks to steep downhills and rocky terrain.
Gwydyr Forest is another of the Forestry Commission’s formerly pretty useless conifer plantations that is now providing a recreational purpose. The Marin trail – (named after a co-sponsor) has been constructed as the principal mountain biking trail through the forest. It’s 25 kilometres long and incorporates "long challenging climbs up to miles of technical single-track weaving through trees and boulders, across streams and down snaking ridge lines to get your heart and brakes pumping".
There are also nine graded walks which are pinpointed in the map-brochure produced by the Forestry Commission available from the Tourist Information Centre. One in particular that’s worth the steep climb is the 2.5 mile walk up to Llyn Elsi passing behind St Mary’s Church. Betws-y-Coed is an ideal base from which to explore Gwydyr and there are bike hire shops in the town if you didn’t bring your own.
The Ugly House & Swallow Falls
As you head west on the A5 from Betws-y-Coed there are the popular attractions The Ugly House and Swallow Falls. The Ugly House (Ty Hyll) was rescued from dereliction and is now maintained by the Snowdonia Society. It is the eye-catching house on the corner of the A5 as you head towards Capel Curig. It is actually far from ugly and although its origin is still a mystery, legend has it that it was built as a "Ty Un Nos" or a house built overnight in the 15th century by two outlaw brothers. The motive appears to be that ancient law stated that if a house could be built from sunrise to sunset with walls, a roof and chimney those who built it could claim the freehold. It is apparently built with no mortar!
Getting out and around Betws y Coed reveals some lovely walks along the River Conwy, with picturesque gorges and waterfalls. The final gorge section of the River Conwy a few miles above Betws is a fantastic sight. The river here plunges fifty feet over the Conwy Falls into a deep pool. Access is via a turnstile gate where you pay your entrance fee by the Conwy Falls Cafe.
Carrying on alongside some of the toughest white water for kayaking, the river drops down a Victorian fish ladder into Fairy Glen. This is a secluded and photogenic gorge that has often been captured on canvas and celluloid. It is a protected wildlife site and is particularly rich in ferns and lichens, some of which are very rare these days. Some exciting flowering plants occur here like globeflower and early purple orchid and there is a variety of breeding birds associated with the river and woods including dipper, pied flycatcher, redstart, wood warbler and buzzard. Otters have also been seen here. Fairy Glen is not far from Beaver Bridge on the outskirts of Betws y Coed.
Motor & Railway Museums
The Motor Museum, in the main car and coach park in the centre of town, originates from a private collection of the Houghton family. It contains vintage and rare cars, motorbikes and motoring memorabilia that tends to change from time to time but include a 1934 Bugatti Straight 8 and a Model T Ford.
Once again in the Welsh railway tradition, Betws has the small Conwy Valley Railway Museum & Shop. This contains steam train memorabilia, engines and a model of a Welsh slate quarry. Children can take a short ride on a miniature train. You can then have your lunch on an old railway carriage at the Buffet Coach Cafe Restaurant on the other side of the working railway track.