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Bala, (Y Bala), is a thriving market town at the north east tip of Bala Lake (Llyn Tegid), in the Dee Valley, alongside the A494, a town often overlooked by the visitor en-route to the Cambrian coastline. The town itself is little more than a pleasant, wide, tree lined high street, with all the facilities necessary for everyday requisites, however, those that do stay-a-while are pleasantly surprised by the area and the country pursuits the area affords.
The town’s biggest attraction is the largest natural body of water in Wales, Bala Lake or Llyn Tegid, meaning lake of serenity, an apt description for possibly Wales’s most beautiful lake. Formed by ice age glacial action and gouged up to 150 ft deep and 4 miles long, the lake is an irresistible draw for windsurfers and yachters and is renowned for its fishing. A legacy of its icy origins are the unique alpine fish Gwiniad, found within the deepest reaches of the lake and now a protected species. The lake has numerous lay-bys, car-parks and picnic sites from which to take a lakeside ramble.
The other attraction of the lake is the scenic narrow gauge railway, Bala Lake Railway, one of The Great Little Trains of Wales, which runs regular return journeys, the length of Bala Lake, between Bala and Llanuwchllyn, often aboard steam locomotives. The railway is a fun way to enjoy the scenery and perhaps look out for Teggie a mysterious monster akin to Nessie the Loch Ness Monster. Teggie is perhaps a plesiosaur, previously thought extinct for 65m years, so keep those eyes peeled! Another legend tells of a sunken village whose towers and buildings are sometimes visible through the water and whose bells are occasionally heard ringing, again keep looking!
White water fans should head for the other nearby man-made lake, Llyn Celyn, whose regular releases of water, from the dam, feed The National Whitewater Centre, Canolfan Tryweryn, from where white water rafting, canoeing and kayaking can all be tried. The lake was created as a reservoir, in 1965, to supply Liverpool and Chester with water, a contentious issue at the time, because it involved the drowning of several communities and land being compulsory purchased.
Whilst in Bala, a worthwhile excursion 11 miles south is the drive over the mountain pass Bwlch Y Groes, the Pass of the Cross, along a narrow road to the open mountainside. This is the highest road in Wales and at its summit offers magnificent views of the Aran Mountains and surrounding countryside.
Y Bala means the outlet, describing the exit of the River Dee from Bala Lake, before its journey through the Dee Valley. The valley itself is situated in a natural geological fault, which, through the ages, has made passage through the mountains relatively easy and as such has been beneficial to successive settlers in the region. There is evidence of Roman occupation throughout the valley, with forts near Bala at Llanfor and Llanuwchllyn. There are also earthwork castles throughout the area, thought to date around 11th or 12th centuries, possibly Norman and probably later fortified by the Gwynedd princes. Tomen Y Bala castle is the largest of these earthwork castles and can be found in Bala itself, at 30 feet high it offers panoramic views across the town. Llywelyn the Great is believed to have commandeered Tomen Y Bala in the early 13th century before building the spectacularly situated stone castle Carndochan, not far from Llanuwchllyn. Carndochan Castle is now in ruins, but a climb to the ridge is well rewarded with magnificent views.
Around 1310, in a move intended to quell the rebellious local community, Bala was given its Royal Charter by Roger De Mortimer of Chirk Castle and the current street plan dates back to this time.
Perhaps the true heyday of Bala was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when Bala was renowned for the manufacture of woollen garments, particularly stockings and socks. In this pre industrial revolution time, virtually the whole population was involved in this trade and their goods were transported wide and far. One of their most illustrious customers was King George 3rd, who wore Bala woollen stockings to alleviate his rheumatism.
Around this time, Bala became a hotbed of religious fervour particularly non-conformist and especially Methodism. One of the leading lights of the Methodist Church, Thomas Charles 1755-1814, settled in Bala. He is best known for his role as one of the founders of the British and Foreign Bible Society and was responsible for editing the society’s first Welsh bible. He also founded the Welsh Sunday School Movement, helping a whole generation to learn reading and writing. There is also a tale about a young lady, Mary Jones, who walked a 50mile return journey barefoot to collect her bible from Thomas Charles.
A statue standing outside the Methodist chapel was erected in 1872 to commemorate his life and works.
Standing as it does in a valley, surrounded by mountains, Bala is a great destination for visitors that enjoy the great outdoors. All the attractions of Snowdonia and the Cambrian coastline are within easy reach. It has all the amenities of a modern town including a sports centre and swimming pool, restaurants, cinema and shops to cater for every need. It is certainly worth stopping awhile, perhaps walking the Historical Town Trail and taking a closer look at Bala.