Located at the top of Wales on the edge of St. George’s Channel is Conwy, a walled market and fishing town with roots dating to the Roman Empire. Formidable stone walls with passageways and lookout towers encircle the medieval city on three land sides allowing an unobstructed view of the channel branching off the Irish Sea. The Snowdonia Mountains line the horizon to the west. The mountains, which are comprised of volcanic rock, are draped with low growing grass over its craggy rock formations that give way to valleys formed a millennia ago by ice age glaciers.
Conwy and its surrounding areas are one of the most popular places to visit in Wales because of the memorable sights and unique places to discover. Additionally, Conwy is the only place in Europe where you can visit exceptionally preserved and historically-significant castles as well as hearing Europe’s oldest living language – Welsh.
Construction of Conwy Castle began in 1283 on the site of Deganwy Castle which was built for King Henry III and near the site of an early Middle-Aged fortress that was struck by lightning and burned in 812AD. When you visit Conwy Castle, you will be treated to the best preserved medieval royal apartments in all of Britain, surpassing even the Tower of London. This castle, whose stonework is now gray with age on the outside was originally a gleaming white lime – brightly shinning, seemingly to announce its luxuriousness to visiting royals.
Today, visitors can explore by way of spiral staircases and ingenious servants’ passages that connect rooms throughout the castle. The King’s Great Chamber, also known as the ‘watching chamber’ was built above the chapel so nobility could view religious services in privacy. The chamber was beautifully decorated and equipped with its own latrine.
A Glimpse into Medieval Merchant Lives
The Aberconwy House has survived six centuries of turbulent history and is one of the oldest dateable houses in Wales. Historians performed a tree-ring analysis of the roof timbers showing that the structure was built around 1417-1420 with Kentish influence. Originally built by English merchants that settled in Conwy Wales to trade along the Welsh/English border, it was one of the first structures to be built within the great walls of Conwy.
Plas Mawr is another beautifully preserved building that displays the life of medieval merchants. Designed in the Elizabethan style of the 16th-century, it has undergone very few significant architectural changes since the time of its original construction. In 1993, the Welsh Heritage agency restored Plas Mawr from natural aging and refurbished many of the rooms to offer a better glimpse of life in 1665. The elaborate gardens were also replanted to reflect their Renaissance splendor. Plas Mawr is also the home of the Royal Cambrian Academy of Art (see below).
Plas Mawr’s original owners were wealthy merchants with high social status within the community. A visit to both the Aberconwy House and Plas Mawr will show the stark differences between the two.
The Smallest House in Britain
Overlooking the edge of St. George’s Channel and nestled onto the end of a row of houses near the walls of Conwy Castle is Britain’s smallest house. The Quay House, with a footprint measuring a mere 72” across, 122” high, and 120” deep and painted fire-engine red. Within this tiny footprint, there is a bedroom, a kitchen, and a living room.
Perhaps, the original forerunner to today’s tiny homes, the Quay House remained a residence for over 300 years, from the 16th century until 1900. Robert Jones, the last resident of the Quay House was forced to move from the home when it was deemed unfit for human habitation. Mr. Jones was a fisherman by trade, a rather tall fisherman with a height of 6’3”. Mr. Jones was nearly as tall as the house he lived in.
Trefriw Woollen Mills
Though not located in Conwy, but just outside in the neighboring town of Trefriw, is a woolen mill worth renting a car to visit. Situated on the banks of the Crafnant River is Trefriw Woollen Mills where they card, spin, dye, and weave wool on-site to manufacture tweeds, authentic Welsh tapestry bedspreads, travel blankets, and wool bags. Trefriw has been weaving tapestry bedspreads with Welsh geometric patterns for over 100 years. Take time to tour the working mill museum (check hours and open dates on their website https://www.t-w-m.co.uk/.
Plan on spending an afternoon in Trefriw. Explore the shops and have a pint or two at one of the pubs. There is also a very picturesque short hike with boardwalks and benches to Fairy Falls. A 25-foot tall waterfall that cascades over an angled rockface that was created from glaciers sliding down the valley during the last ice age.
High Street Shopping
Located in the heart of the historic downtown town within the walls of Conwy Castle is Conwy’s shopping avenue, High Street. Taking an afternoon to stroll along High Street and explore the many shops and have a pint with some bangers and mash or a shepherds pie at one of the pubs is definitely recommended.
Merchants to make note of is Bon Bons at Stilwells – they offer decadent handmade Belgian chocolates from around Europe that is absolutely incredible. Yesteryears Toy Shop has a unique selection of toys – some of which I had not seen on the average toy store shelf. The Galleon Fish and Chips is a good place to stop for fresh casual local cuisine. Just off High Street on Lancaster Square is another good place to rest your feet – the Bank of Conwy. No, this is not a bank to exchange currency, at least not anymore, but they do have good food, local brews on tap, and occasional live music. I would suggest grabbing a stool by the window to watch people meander by.
Royal Cambrian Academy of Art
Wales has been a thriving destination for artisans since the 18th century. British artists flocked to Conwy to capture the rugged mountains and crystal clear rivers on canvas. The Royal Cambrian Academy of Art (RCA) was officially recognized by Queen Victoria in 1882 when she commanded that the Academy be designated as Royal.
The RCA is open year-round in Plas Mawr to delight visitors with an ever changing exhibit of local Welsh artisans. You can discover both traditional and contemporary art in a variety of mediums from paintings to sculptures. During normal circumstances, the Academy hosts events ranging from artists’ lectures to live jazz performances to children’s art school. If RCA is on your list to visit, I would recommend a visit to their website, rcaconwy.org, to see what events will be going on during your stay in Conwy.
The Mussel scene in Conwy Wales
In the 16th century, Conwy was a freshwater pearl mecca center harvesting as much as 4 kilograms of pearls per week. The pearls were sent to jewelers in London where they were set as centerpieces. One particularly beautiful pearl harvested from Conwy was set as part of the Crown Jewels.
Fishing for mussels has been a tradition in Conwy for hundreds of years. The mussel beds located at the mouth of the Conwy estuary have been fished with the rake method for generations allowing this industry to be a natural and renewable resource for the town of Conwy. By using the traditional raking method instead of dredging, the fishermen only collect the largest mussels allowing the smaller mussels to grow to maturity.
Conwy Wales mussels are some of the largest available on the market. Because they are harvested right there in Conwy they will be incredibly fresh with a mild taste. I definitely suggest you give them a try if they are in season.
Regardless if you are a history buff, a foodie, or you like to get off-the-beaten-path to explore trails less traveled, Conwy has something for you and your traveling partner – if you have one. Go and explore Conwy Castle, check out the 15th-century merchant houses, hike along Fairy Falls, watch how Welsh tapestries have been woven for over 100 years, and when you visit the Quay House, don’t forget to duck.