Tales of the Unexpected in Anglesey & Beaumaris
Tucked away on the Isle of Anglesey in North Wales, Beaumaris might not be an obvious choice for a weekend break. But it is a great choice for relaxing together as a family and it’s filled with surprises. We teamed up with Visit Anglesey to spend 48 hours exploring its beaches, battlements and back streets, testing out our tolerance for speed, heat and ice cream treats, and discovered some quite unexpected things to do in Anglesey…
Tales of the Unexpected
Once upon a time, in a land where fiery dragons ruled, there was a castle. And inside that castle was a castle. And inside that castle was a family. Building a castle. And because this is a fairy tale, their tower and turret creations were rewarded with every flavour of ice cream under the sun. And the sun shone on everyone. And they all lived happily ever after. Until someone made them eat one of the hottest chillis on earth.
Not every weekend in Anglesey happens like this. But ours does. Check out this video to discover some of the expected and unexpected treats we found in and around Beaumaris.
This story starts at at sunrise
This isn’t the first time we’ve been to North Wales recently. We still remember vividly last year’s underground zipline experience, our active weekend in Llandudno and our Bear Gryll’s survival adventure. But it is the first time in a long while we’ve been to Beaumaris. Our Beaumaris story begins, as many do, with the sun coming up over the Great Orme.
Sunrise on the stones
As the Menai Straits glitter and ripple in the early morning sunlight, a burst of sun hits one of the stones that resemble a Druid’s circle but are actually a nod to the Anglesey Eisteddfod, a Welsh festival of literature, song, and performance. You’d think a small Welsh seaside town might be deserted at this time. But no. Fishermen are gathering up their rods and powering up their boats. Dog walkers are pacing along the sea front pulling puffa jackets tight around their chests to insulate them from the chill in the air. And the gulls are already noisily hunting for food after being woken by a sweet dawn chorus.
As the morning gets fully into gear, the owner of the Pier House Café cheerfully hand us a polka dot blanket each, hanging a dozen others on the backs of chairs that look out towards the Blue Peter Lifeboat station, the children’s paddling pool and the pier. We sip on cappuccinos with anchors tapped out in the froth and watch the cruise salesmen get into their stride selling trips to Puffin Island. I love boat trips but don’t bite their hand off, we have a Rib Ride on the Straits planned for later.
A familiar landscape
It all seems familiar and yet unfamiliar. I know this landscape; I was a student near here and celebrated the end of my finals with a long night in The Gazelle just outside Menai Bridge – a pub that must have one of the best views in North Wales. But today Beaumaris seems like a town made for families. From mini golf and daisy chain picnics in the shadow of the rampart walls, to the childlike tantrums of the tide, and the ice cream queues stretching down the street; it’s simple, inexpensive and bling free fun. Maybe in the past I wouldn’t have appreciated it so much?
Oh did I say bling free? Almost as soon as we have sat down for coffee a hen party walks past in veils and bunny ears. Not just for families then?
Castle for keeps
Life here historically began with the castle. And what a castle. At this point in the story I have to admit that a visit to Beaumaris Castle wasn’t top of my kids ‘to do’ lists. We’ve dragged them around so many gloomy tumbledown affairs over the years that I now tend to apologise in advance of any castle visit. But although Beaumaris Castle remains unfinished to this day, it is pleasing to the eye on all levels. And there are many levels. This castle is concentric – a castle within a castle. It has been called one of the most perfectly symmetrical concentric castles in the world and its beauty is enhanced by a pale green moat, and dozens of feathered sentries, who turn out not to be guarding the keep, but their nests of warm brown eggs.
A castle brought to life
And inside, the spring flower strewn lawns (being trimmed today with a very un-medieval sit-on-top lawn mower) lead to a network of atmospheric walk-able walls, winding towers and princess-friendly turrets. Perhaps it is the late spring sunshine that gives it all a glow. I have to remind myself that life in a castle in Medieval times was harsh – it wouldn’t exactly have had all the mod cons, and the murder holes and violent accessories of life under the rule of King Edward l are all still on show today.
Designers of the tourist experience have channelled some of the old world castle life into interactive experiences for kids and families.
Castle fun for kids
We all enjoy rebuilding the castle on the lawn out of giant sponge bricks. Hannah loves playing percussion with the blacksmith’s tools and then picking out a tune on the kind of harp that might have entertained the King in the minstrels’ gallery. And then Cameron pirouettes from its ramparts.
Go to gaol
The castle isn’t the only historic relic in Beaumaris. There’s a courthouse you can visit where you can marvel at the punishment handed out to those who stole chickens and the like in times gone by. And Beaumaris Gaol is fascinating to explore. Built in 1829, it only stopped being a police station in the 1950’s and it is a dark and uncomfortable experience, even for a visitor. We read about the harsh conditions prisoners were subject to, like the tread wheel; the last remaining one in the UK. A particularly devilish form of punishment where prisoners sentenced to a life of hard labour walked up steps that continually disappeared underneath their feet. Their efforts powered a relatively advanced Victorian water system for the prison. Time must have passed very slowly if you were an inmate.
Pillars and posts
If you want to see the results of time passing on a geological level, you need to head down to Red Wharf Bay (Traeth Coch). Walk out about a kilometre to the north along the sand and you’ll notice impressive overhanging limestone cliffs with caravans perched on top on the grass. Just below the campsite are a dozen or more sandstone pillars. These pillars were made by sink holes filling over time with sand. If you have kids they will love playing a giant version of stepping stones (there’s also a geocache to find) and when you’re done on the beach there are some lovely cafes on the bay to refuel everyone up again for the rest of the day.
Many of the treats in Beaumaris are more modern and revolve around a network of little lanes. I only spotted two high street chains; and the little independent shops are interesting, bordering on eccentric. Like the shop that stocks furniture and home accessories made out of recycled and discarded objects. Everything from wine bottles filled with fairy lights to pencil mirrors that can sketch out who is the fairest of them all in seconds. Echo Beach’s main draw is the large furniture made out of recycled aircraft parts. It’s the only shop in Wales that offers this. Perhaps unsurprisingly.
Equally unique is The Little Chilli Shop on Church Street, run by the catchily named Chilli Sue and her husband Tim. The couple grow chillis, make award winning sauces and jams and stock everything from jalapeno jewellery to T-shirts with endurance slogans.
“The bad boy is a very hot salsa. The beast is hotter still, I’ve just made some fresh this morning,” says Sue welcoming us into her shop. And then there’s the WTF, that is handed out in minute quantities on a wooden stick. If you are prepared to try it, you qualify to be on Sue’s Wall of Flame. “People come from all over to dare each other to give it a go,” she tells me.
Tasting time is a testing time
The kids bravely have a tasting session of just about every sauce except that one and finish off with a pudding of chilli sweets. The shop, which has been open for two years, provided a mango and sweet chilli sauce to The Queen after being requested to make a sauce for the Queen’s Jubilee by The Prince’s Trust, and is now a tourist attraction in its own right with customers from as far as America.
“At the beginning everyone said we must be mad but then we started to get busy and supply the local restaurants. We’ve now teamed up with Medwyns of Anglesey who grow our chillis and they’re looking to grow one that’s even hotter to get us into the Guinness Book of Records.”
“Do you like chilli? I ask Sue. “I didn’t used to but I do now!” she replies wholeheartedly. And I believe her. Here’s how we got on with our own bid to be on her Wall of Flame.
Time to cool down
Luckily over the road there’s the perfect place to cool down. The queue outside Red Boat Ice Cream Parlour is constantly forming and dissolving as people appear from the shop with everything frozen from yoghurts to sorbets. Pride of place is a whole cabinet filled with unusual flavours of home made gelato.
Hannah has jelly bean, I have pistachio with Himalayan pink salt and Stuart has caramel shortbread. Owner Tony Green tells me the first unusual flavour they ever made was strawberry, mascarpone and balsamic vinegar and since then they’ve tried all manner of innovative flavour combinations.
“People used to say ‘You can’t have vinegar in ice cream’ and then they’d taste it and invariably buy a cone of it,” explains Tony. For the Olympic torch arrival he came up with a waffle, maple syrup and crispy bacon combination. “I put it on Facebook and people said ‘No you’ve gone past the mark now.’ But within two hours we’d sold out and now it’s one of our regulars. We also did a Christmas dinner one once. Turkey and sprouts and everything.”
A taste of Italy in North Wales
This is not the kind of mass produced ice cream you buy in the supermarket where high fat content acts as a preservative allowing it to be stored into frozen eternity. This is fresh, Italian inspired gelato. “You need to eat it straight away to get the freshness and the fullness,” says Tony.
We meet Italian ice cream chef Alessio, who has now taken over chef duties from Tony, (favourite flavour gorgonzola, walnut and pear) and watch him for a while, making his salted caramel gelato in the tiny ‘lab.’
“We try and use the best ingredients and love playing around with flavours and ripples,” says Tony. “People suggest a flavour. You might have a favourite cocktail or a cake and we can get Alessio to reproduce it,” says Tony, who learnt the craft of gelato making by attending ice cream University in Bologna. Yes kids you can do this if you study hard!
“I’ve quite often been called Willie Wonka,” he chuckles. Was there ever a flavour that bombed? Tony thinks for moment. “Seafood, commissioned for a festival,” he tells me. Hmm, I can see why that didn’t work! Tony and his wife have just moved out of the flat above the parlour and opened an affordable cafe up there. It’s worth stopping for lunch, if you can be tempted to eat anything but ice cream.
Onto The Swellies
After our lunch, it’s time to liven things up with a ride on the Menai Straits. I have been itching to get onto this picturesque stretch of water since we arrived. Rib Ride is an established company based in Menai Bridge and offers a selection of marine adventures around the Anglesey coast. These include the Bear Grylls adventure from Holyhead; a rare chance to do a two hour open sea crossing to the Skerries to see Arctic Terns.
“Just incredible. Such an awesome place but it is rough. No one ever ran commercial trips out there before we managed to pull it off. We’ve put our own fuel station up there,” explains our skipper and Rib Ride co owner Tom Ashwell.
Lots of rib ride possibilities
A more accessible, one hour nature trip takes you out to Puffin Island (Ynys Seirol in Welsh,) an uninhabited island that’s home to the largest nesting population of cormorants in the UK. Or you can head off on a ‘Castles and Islands’ tour to take in the sights of Caernarfon Castle, the Napoleonic Fort Belan and beautiful Newborough beach, clocking harbour porpoises and seals along the way. “There’s lots of nature but there’s also a lot of Welsh history on this tour.” Tom explains.
Or you can do as we did and take a ‘Bridges and Swellies’ tour that’s a mix of history and fun. Watch the video and see what we got up to..
A Strait’s eye view of Anglesey
We pootle under Thomas Telford’s Menai Suspension Bridge, and roar our engine at the Lions of Britannia Bridge. We salute Lord Nelson’s Statue and head towards the incredibly beautiful Plas Newydd, a National Trust property with a lime green lawn, where even the boathouse is a palatial size. We check out Millionaires row, and hear the stories of some of the houses, hotels and owners. Then we speed past the spindly and elegant Garth Pier (the second longest in Wales) before blasting back along the Straits, dipping and turning, hair flowing and eyes watering in the wind. Back towards the Anglesey town that still has a few surprises up its sleeve.
Getting there and around
Beaumaris is about 2 hrs drive from Manchester and Liverpool, just under half an hour’s drive from Conwy, and ten minutes drive from Menai Bridge. There are regular rail services to Bangor and a bus service connects Bangor and Beaumaris stopping at Menai Bridge. Accommodation wise there are lots of beds at all prices, but book early in peak times. There is also a camp site just outside the town.
You can get around by bike, available for hire in the town at Canolfan Beaumaris, and there are five fully signposted circular routes. Pick up a free leaflet from Tourist Information. It also includes information on electric bike hire.
Things to do in Anglesey
Beaumaris Castle opens at 9.30 daily. Closing hours depend on season. Check the website for details. Admission: Adults £6.00, Reduced rate £4.20, Family Ticket £16.20 (2 adults & up to 3 children under 16). Three or seven day explorer passes are available to give you free admission to the historic sites in the care of Cadw.
Beaumaris Gaol is open 10.30am – 5pm Saturday to Thursday from March to September and weekends and half terms only in the winter. Gym bunnies are prohibited from using the tread wheel.
Rib Ride offers several adventure boat rides. These include:
• Castle and Islands,
• Bridges and Swellies,
• Cliffs, Seabirds and Caves, and
• Islands, South Stack and Sea
Prices vary according to which trip you book onto. Check out their website for prices. If you have a group of eight or less then you can hire Tom and one of his boats for the day and design your own Anglesey adventure.
For more information
Disclosure Note: This feature was produced in collaboration with the Visit Anglesey Press team but as ever the experience, opinion, appetite for ice cream, tolerance for chilli, photography and videography was all our own.