JIM’S WALES UK DRIVING TOUR JUNE 2009
A few years before I launched WheelchairJimmy, we took one of our most memorable trips: 9 days driving around most of Wales UK. For many years my wife and I wanted to explore Wales, and at the last minute our 21-year-old son, who was home from college for the summer, decided to join us. Planning the logistics of accessible accommodations and transportation presented a few challenges, but it turned into a fabulously memorable trip!
Just so you know, when traveling internationally we like to experience the local culture wherever possibly so we attempt to avoid chain hotels. And we love driving trips! It doesn’t always work perfectly but it’s always an adventure. I’ve been asked many times how we did a driving trip to Wales, so I finally re-created most of the road map. We had a terrific time and you will too. Here’s our crazy story.
Google Map Click: https://goo.gl/A06rAV
Note: Wales is often called the “Land of the Castles” as it is home to some 600 castle and some of Europe’s finest surviving examples of medieval castle construction. Many were built under King Edward I in the 13th century. I’ve included a couple below but will let you explore them on your own. If you’re a history fan like we are, you will especially enjoy Wales.
Day 1: Drive from London to Salisbury, England – Oops Wrong Vehicle
Our international driving trips usually start with finding a wheelchair accessible vehicle, and fortunately my research brought me in contact with Trevor Pollitt who operates Wheelchair Travel UK located about 20 miles from London’s Heathrow Airport. Initially my wife and son agreed to drive this trip so we simply rented a large van, more of a minibus, with a hydraulic lift for the wheelchair at the rear (oops- big mistake). Trevor delivered it to Heathrow and off we went headed first for a visit to Stonehenge, one of the wonders of the world and the best-known prehistoric monument in Europe. It’s located about 70 miles west of the airport. It only took an hour but my wife seriously disliked driving a minibus, especially on the wrong side of the road.
Stonehenge is listed in our book of “1,000 Places To See Before You Die” so we had to visit. We spent some time looking at the odd stone formations and wondering how this all occurred, then drove another 8 miles into the small city of Salisbury. Narrow roads, one-way roads, driving on the wrong side and a near accident convinced my wife she was done driving the minibus. My son drove another few blocks and parked the bus in the hotel parking lot.
Hotel: Best Western Red Lion Salisbury. We spent the night at what was considered to be perhaps the best 3 Star property in town. It was not. Thankfully it wasn’t built when Salisbury was founded in the 13th century but you could have fooled me. It was old and small with lousy beds and no air conditioning (and we needed air conditioning in June). The hallways getting to the room were uneven. It was wheelchair accessible but a WJAR 2 on the WheelchairJimmy index.
Things-To-Do: We wanted to explore this 13th century city, the magnificent Anglican Salisbury Cathedral, its Gothic architecture and its copy (one of the few remaining copies) of the well-known 1215 Magna Carta, the Great Charter signed by King John of England (the English “Bill of Rights”). We had a wonderful visit and the Cathedral tour was very wheelchair accessible. The history related to Salisbury, building the Cathedral and the writing of the Magna Carta is fascinating!
Day 2 Salisbury to Cardiff, Wales
We traveled west through Bath, England with my son driving the huge minibus and driving on the left side of the road for the first time. After a couple “clipped side-view windows” in Bath and narrower, curvy roads toward Cardiff, a few screams of near collisions ensued. We arrived safely in Cardiff but concluded the road trip was over. At least with the bus. A call to Trevor while in transit saved the road trip and probably the vehicle and our lives. Trevor agreed to deliver a Peugeot station wagon equipped with hand-controls to our Cardiff hotel and to exchange vehicles. I loved the new wheels and I drove the remainder of the journey. We would see the Peugeot again 2 years later. Thank you Trevor!
Hotel: Novotel Cardiff Centre Cardiff, Wales. Failing to find an accessible historic hotel accommodation or B&B in either nearby Newport or Cardiff, we booked the Novotel Cardiff, which was comfortable, modern and stylish. Seemed more like a busy business hotel but the location was good, the rooms were very nice and wheelchair accessible, and there was plenty of handicapped parking spaces. A WJAR 4 on the WheelchairJimmy index. When we awoke the new Peugeot station wagon was waiting.
Things-To-Do: We spent a couple hours exploring the medieval Cardiff Castle near city center. It provided good background for many of the other castles and abbeys we would tour in Wales. The Castle was partially accessible but like most castle there are steps and staircases throughout.
Day 3 Cardiff to Tintern Abbey and Ruthin Castle, Wales
Things-To-Do: Driving from the very south of Wales, we first traveled north and stopped at the unforgettable 12th century Tintern Abbey. Falling into ruin after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century, it remains very well preserved and is listed in our book of “1,000 Places To See Before You Die”. There was naturally a stream of tour buses. The Abbey is an historical marvel, very wheelchair accessible and a must see. We continued traveling north through beautiful countryside and mountains, visited more castles and made scenic stops along the way, and eventually arrived at the Ruthin Castle in the Northeast corner of Wales.
Hotel: Ruthin Castle Hotel & Spa Ruthin, Wales. The perfect Castle hotel! From very modern to very old in a couple hours, and this time we hit the jackpot! What a memory! Ruthin Castle is a medieval castle fortification in Wales, which was constructed during the late 13th century on a red sandstone ridge overlooking the valley. Part of the ancient walls still remain and now form part of the Ruthin Castle Hotel. Since the 1960s the castle remains have been incorporated into a hotel. A notable guest was Prince Charles, who stayed here for the night before his investiture as Prince of Wales at Caernafon Castle in 1969. The hotel, the guestrooms, bathroom and dining areas are all spacious and very wheelchair friendly. A WJAR 4 on the WheelchairJimmy index. We experienced one of our most memorable dinners here. Wow, what history and a magnificent property!
Days 4 Ruthin to Conwy, Wales – Oldest Pub in Wales
Things-To-Do: We explored North Wales, the villages along the northern coast and the seaside village of Llandudno located on the Creuddyn peninsula, which protrudes into the Irish Sea. It’s the largest seaside resort in Wales. We then headed over to Conwy with picturesque views, stunning mountainous backdrop, and beautiful surrounding countryside.
Hotel: The Groes Inn Conwy, Wales. Jackpot Number 2 the perfect B&B! The Groes Inn was originally a small two-story house of 15th century construction and more recently was named Britain’s Inn of the Year. It overlooks the sweeping Conwy Estuary, with stunning views, and provides award-winning dining, a very fun, old bar and 14 individually designed bedrooms and suites. One guestroom has been specially designed to be wheelchair friendly and we booked it! It was terrific, cozy and very accessible. We also enjoyed a fabulous dinner, a little time in the historic pub (said to be the oldest in Wales) and a wonderful home cooked breakfast. With the castles and walled cities nearby, I felt like we had been transported back 500 years (but retained the designer sheets and gourmet food). A WJAR 3 on the WheelchairJimmy index and one of our favorite B&Bs in the world. A real memory! (If we had a WJAR rating index for B&Bs, The Groes Inn would receive a 5, our top rating).
Day 6: Conwy to Caernarfon Castle and Portmeirion Village
Things-To-Do: We headed over to Caernafon Castle, which was just 40 minutes west. Also listed in our book of “1,000 Places to See Before you Die”, Caernarfon Castle was the most expensive castle ever built by a King of England. It’s not just a great military building, it’s also a great piece of art. Edward built Caernarfon Castle in the 1280s, at roughly the same time as two of his other castle blockbusters, Harlech and Conwy. The cost of this show of might was colossal – a good 90 per cent of his nation’s annual income. The Castle, which is really a walled city, is fully accessible for able-bodied persons and reasonably wheelchair accessible. Naturally there are many steps throughout the fortress, but there are great tours and much to explore. As far as castles go, this is a Must See!
Hotel: Portmeirion Hotel Portmeirion Village, Gwynedd North Wales. An hour south just past Snowdonia National Park is Portmeirion Village. This is a unique coastal luxury resort with hotels, cafes, shops, and holiday cottages. It was designed and built between 1925 and 1975 in the style of an Italian village, and is now listed in our book of “1,000 Places To See… “. So we came to visit. Artists, writers and royalty have stayed here not to mention various politicians, tycoons and others. This is a true one-off, architecturally dazzling resort and it is reasonably wheelchair accessible. We toured the property, shopped and had a marvelous dinner. Frankly I kind of enjoyed this very unique setting, and the guestroom and bathroom was quite wheelchair accessible. They have accessible parking and walkways, but I must say, there was a bad smell. Who knows? A WJAR 3 on the WheelchairJimmy index. I’d recommend taking the fascinating tour but find other accommodations.
Day 7: Portmeirion to St. David’s & Tenby, Wales
Things-To-Do: We traveled south about 3 hours to St. David’s Peninsula and toured the 17th century St. David’s Cathedral which is open for tours and quite wheelchair accessible. As I recall, however, there’s a long, well maintained, steep but accessible sidewalk down to the Cathedral. (It’s in my background picture). It’s a beautiful drive along the peninsula coastline, and it’s certainly in a remote location. There’s a ton of history here dating back to St. David in the 6th century, a long history of construction and destruction, visits from William the Conqueror and King Henry II, and present day church services.
Hotel: Penally Abbey Tenby, Wales. Jackpot Number 3 the perfect B&B yet again! Penally Abbey is an old rectory, now converted to a stunning Victorian country house on beautiful grounds, about 1.5 miles from Tenby. And it’s one of the finest B&B’s we’ve ever visited and very wheelchair accessible. We had a fabulous stay! Little remains of the original monastic site except a ruined 12th century chapel on the grounds. It was occupied by the famous Jameson’s Whiskey family from 1916 until 1925. There are only 11-12 rooms at Penally Abbey but the furnishings are all hand picked, coastal chic and represent the unique restful atmosphere. As I recall there was no handicapped parking in a level, slightly brick and graveled parking area near chapel ruins. Our guestroom and bathroom was very spacious, beautifully decorated and fully accessible. It was located on the 2nd floor and the large commercial elevator provided easy access. Fortunately we arrived in time to dine and had perhaps the best Welsh dinner of the trip. A WJAR 3 on the WheelchairJimmy index and one of our favorite stays anywhere in the world. A real memory! (If we had a WJAR rating index for B&Bs, Penally Abbey would also receive a 5, our top rating).
Day 8: Tenby to Cardiff, Wales
Things-To-Do: On our way back to Cardiff we spent a leisurely day in Tenby along the spectacular south Wales coast. We explored some local shops, spent a little time at the beach (Tenby may have best beaches in Wales), then drove east through the seaside towns of Mumbles and Swansea.
Things-To-Do: Just outside Tenby we also stopped and toured the Dylan Thomas Boathouse in Laugharne, Wales. The poet Dylan Thomas lived there with his family between 1949 and 1953, the last four years of his life. It was at this house that he wrote many major pieces. Much of the Boathouse was wheelchair accessible, and the long pathway to get there was reasonably accessible as well. It’s a beautiful setting. No wonder he was such a famous writer.
Hotel: Novotel Cardiff Centre Cardiff, Wales. We didn’t get very creative in Cardiff the second time around, and simply stayed at the same property we inhabited a week earlier.
Day 9: Cardiff to Windsor Castle & London, England
Things-To-Do: Although we visited many castles in Wales, before we headed home we decided to tour the grand daddy: Windsor Castle. Just 2 hr 30 minutes from Cardiff, Windsor Castle has been the family home to British kings and queens for over 1,000 years. Sitting on 13 acres, the size of the Castle is breath taking, in fact it is the largest and oldest occupied Castle in the world. And it’s where Her Majesty The Queen chooses to spend most of her private weekends.
The tour takes 2.5-3 hours and most parts are very wheelchair friendly including St George’s Chapel pictured on the left, the burial place of 10 monarchs including Henry VIII and Charles I. Visit the castles website before you visit and click on both Access and Practical Information tabs. A courteous staff and large working commercial elevators make this castle tour much better. Note: The Castle is at the top of a steep hill, and the visitor route covers long distances. Restroom facilities are available in the Courtyard at the start of your visit and on the North Terrace before the entrance to the State Apartments. But the accessible restrooms are located at the Admission Centre, on the North Terrace and in Engine Court.
Hotel: Fortunately for you readers I have misplaced my Windsor Hotel accommodation. It was located nearby and was simply horrible. The hotel floors were not level, and the guestrooms were tiny, no air-conditioning and only queen beds were offered. Sorry I lost the name and a property to avoid.
London, England to Seattle, Washington: And Car Return
Of course we had to return to rental Peugeot. I didn’t know it at the time but we were destined to rent this exact Peugeot just 2 years later on our drive around Ireland (I hope you read about and enjoy that adventure). The Peugeot was awesome! Trevor Pollitt from Wheelchair Travel UK met us at the Heathrow Airport terminal 30 minutes from Windsor Castle as scheduled. Thank you Trevor and Wheelchair Travel UK. They literally saved our trip! It worked almost perfectly once again!
Wales is one of the most beautiful places on earth! The colors are bolder than one could imagine. And the greens are greener. And the people kind, humble and proud! Another great cultural experience! The fun never ends!
Wheelchair Travel UK Visit Website
Best Western Red Lion, Salisbury England https://goo.gl/QhDnDI
Novotel Cardiff Centre, Cardiff Wales https://goo.gl/saA11t
Ruthin Castle Hotel & Spa, Ruthin Wales http://www.ruthincastle.co.uk/
The Groes Inn, Conwy Wales http://www.groesinn.com/
Portmeirion Hotel, Portmeirion Village, Gwynedd North Wales https://goo.gl/eegip9
Penally Abbey, Tenby Wales http://www.penally-abbey.com/
Windsor Castle, Windsor England https://goo.gl/KdzoYh