It takes a little effort to get north of the Home Counties, but the experience is well worth it. The mainline trains will whisk you through to Scotland, but hop off in the less-traveled county of Cheshire and explore the North Wales coast.
People are friendly and welcoming, and overseas visitors are more than an economic engine to be tolerated. Or route on north through the midlands using the A roads, and avoid the M40 and the M5. Either way, getting there is more fun if you’re not in a hurry.
Day 1 - Across the Western Midlands
It’s a comfortable day’s drive north to Cheshire, or take the train from London Euston to Chester and watch the English midlands glide past. Tucked at the top of the Marches between industrial Greater Manchester and the coast of North Wales, Cheshire is a gateway to the Peaks, North Wales, Merseyside, and north.
The Romans recognized its strategic location and built a fort on the River Dee in the year 79 as a permanent garrison for the third Roman Legion based in Britain. They called the fortress city Deva for the river. Today, Chester’s four main roads—Eastgate, Watergate, Northgate, and Bridge—all remain largely as the Romans laid them. This City of the Legion is well accustomed to living in its history. Its medieval city walls, red sandstone cathedral, and famous black-and-white Rows have been drawing visitors for generations.
Day 2 - Chester of the Legion
The Chester Visitor Centre is a great place to start for maps, attractions, local events, and such, right across the street from the Roman amphitheater. Perhaps Chester’s biggest claim to fame is that it has the most intact medieval city walls in England. Only a small stretch in front of the County Hall is missing. Walking the top of the walls is one of the most popular visitor activities and no wonder. Built of distinctive red sandstone, ancient Chester Cathedral is not only a wonder to visit but one could perhaps return to at 5:30 for choral evensong. Chester’s famous Rows of tiered shopping blocks are perhaps the city’s most iconic feature, even if they are Victorian instead of Tudor.
Day 3 - Cheshire Panorama
If you came North by rail, today you might pick up the rental car. The Peak District National Park seems a world away, though it’s an easy half-hour drive to Congleton. Join the A54 to Buxton, “Capital of the Peaks” and Edwardian spa town. If you have landed without plans, make for Tourist Information and take a stroll through Buxton’s magnificent Winter Gardens. A day in the Peaks offers a wealth of choices. You might visit one of the legendary Blue John mines, or drive over to Bakewell for a visit to Chatsworth or to the village of Castleton, centre of outdoor adventuring in the Peaks. There are plenty of choices for entertainment and dining on a last night in Chester.
Day 4 - The West Coast Road to Conwy
Wales lies just a few miles from Chester; bilingual road signs will make the border apparent. The A55 is the main road following the coast west across North Wales to Anglesey. Or hug the water’s edge through Holywell and a visit to St. Winifred’s Well. Or stop in St. Asaph for a visit to Wales’ smallest cathedral. Conwy’s strategic existence on the broad estuary of the River Conwy made it an ideal location for one of King Edward I’s four castles built in the late 1200s. The ramparts of the massive fortress command the river crossing with magnificent views over the town and estuary. Do visit, too, Plas Mawr, the best preserved Elizabethan townhouse in Britain. And the smallest house in Wales sits on the quay just outside the old town walls. At some point in your stay, do drive across the estuary to explore Llandudno and Great Orme—North Wales’ premier seaside holiday town.
Day 5 - Panorama Vale of Conwy
To the south of Conwy a couple of miles on the A470, Bodnant Gardens is one of Britain’s most exciting gardens. In spring the pergola of laburnum drops hoops of gold, and acclaimed collections of rhododendrons and magnolias are at their finest. A few miles further down the valley, Betsy-w-Coed is a traditional base for all manner of treks into Snowdonia. Follow the A470 through the mountains to the slate town of Blaenau Ffestiniog (see May 2014, p. 53), and perhaps on to Porthmadog and the colorful Italianate fantasy village of Portmeirion (see January 2014, p. 30). Or chart a route through Llanbaris Pass past the base of Mount Snowdon. In season (and with good weather), take the Snowdon Mountain Railway to its 3300-foot summit.
Day 6 - Snowdonia and Anglesey
Today’s excursion might lead west on the A55 to the Isle of Anglesey. Just across the Menai Bridge over the Menai Straits, Plas Newydd makes a spectacular destination with great views of Snowdonia and the straits. The 18th-century house contains a museum of Battle of Waterloo militaria and the largest Rex Whistler painting. Just up the road a few miles, moated Beaumaris Castle was the last of King Edward’s fortresses—the most “perfect” medieval castle in Britain and never completed. Or follow the scenic A5025 coastal road to Holyhead for an unexpected adventure. On a return to Conwy, you might stop in Bangor to visit Penryn, a castle of a different sort. This Victorian fantasy was built by a sugar baron and is jammed with eccentric furniture and collections. Bangor Cathedral seems a little bare in comparison.
Day 7 - Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow
The road always leads somewhere over the next hill. Heading toward London today, that would start with the M5. The train would be faster, of course. If time permits, by road or rail, take the scenic route south, following Offa’s Dyke and the Severn Valley south along the Marches on the A49 through Shropshire and Herefordshire.
* Originally published in 2014.