From Cardiff to the Great Orme; take the back roads down the mountainous spine of Wales. Timeless simple out of the way chapels and picturesque town churches with a warm welcome, travel to the oldest unaltered non conformist place of worship in Wales, admire medieval glass and angel roofs, and be wowed by Arts & Crafts splendour and bold modern art.
Unmissable churches and chapels along the North Wales Way
The majestic north coast of Wales transports you to some of the finest sacred places in Wales.
Impressive medieval churches with rich art and architecture abound. From the holy well of St Winifride, which draws visitors from all over the world, to the soaring cathedral like St Giles Wrexham and the stunning 15th century survivals of All Saints Gresford and Mold.
But, north Wales isn’t all about the grand churches. In fact, in some of the remotest spots you’ll be transported to another place entirely. From the mountainous wilds of Llangelynin, to a church completely cut off by the high tide at St Cywfan on Anglesey.
For keen walkers and pilgrims the North Wales Pilgrims Way, known as the ‘Welsh Camino’ is the best way in.
Scroll down to discover their stories, a map and a playlist for your trip.
Stunning landscapes and little known pilgrim churches brimming with atmosphere.
Start your north Wales pilgrimage.
Fabulous St Giles Wrexham is in the historic centre of this pretty market town. Wrexham had a church in the 13th century as both the Bishop of St Asaph and Madog ap Gruffudd, Prince of Powys gave income from the church to the monks at Valle Crucis near Llangollen. Unfortunately in 1330 the tower collapsed and tradition has it that the locals feared that God had punished them for having Sunday as their market day. They decided to have their market on Thursdays from then on!
Between 1463 and 1520 the church was rebuilt in grand medieval Catholic style. It's iconic tower, one of the Seven Wonders of Wales, incredible carvings and soaring vaulted interior to rival any cathedral. And the welcome here is among the warmest in Wales.
St Giles has set the bar high. But medieval patronage has left several other important markers on the landscape in this part of the world.
15th century All Saints Gresford is a must for art lovers; with its wonderful monuments and carvings, a green man, intricate and beautiful medieval carved screen, ancient stained glass and wooden carved ‘misericords’ (support for the choir seats) and bench ends including angels, kings, and beasts of all kinds. The famous peal of bells at All Saints is one of the Seven Wonders of Wales and the Hill three manual organ is of concert standard. We could easily lose half a day here!
St Mary Mold St Mary is another must see. Built around the same time and probably under the same patronage as Wrexham and Gresford, it is decorated with a frieze of carved figures just below roof level. Look out for a sheep, a pig, a mole and an elephant and a whale!
St Deiniol Hawarden is also known as Gladstone’s church. It's another fine gem, and fans of pre-Raphaelite art will be knocked sideways by the incredible Burne Jones glass. There has been a church on this site since the 6th century and in 1855 the Norman church was restored by Sir George Gilbert Scott. The then Prime Minister, William Gladstone of nearby Hawarden Castle, contributed to the £6,000.
In 1901 a memorial chapel was added, designed to hold Gladstone’s monument. In the Arts & Crafts style, this must surely be one of the finest in Wales; with the figures of Gladstone and his wife lying, with an angel bending over them to form a canopy. All the figures are carved from white Carrera marble, the tomb itself is Sienna marble and around the base are silvered bronze figures.
From the delights of full blooded medieval churches to the internationally famed St Wininfride Shrine Holywell.
There is so much history jam packed into this little corner of northeast Wales. The history of the holy well revolves around the 7th century story of Caradoc, a chieftain from Hawarden who, legend has it, attempted to seduce Winefride. She fled and took solace in the church. Caradoc pursued her and cut off her head and in the spot where her head fell, a spring of water appeared. St Beuno took up her head, placed it back on her body, prayed and brought her back to life; while Caradoc sank to the ground and was never seen again.
Winefride became a nun and, after her uncle’s departure from Holywell for the Monastery of Clynnog Fawr, joined a community at Gwtherin where she became the Abbess. She died there some 22 years later.
Pilgrims have flocked to this place for 1,300 years to seek healing.
A stonesthrow from Holywell, and founded in 1131 as a Cistercian settlement, atmospheric Basingwerk Abbey is the starting point for the North Wales Pilgrims Way.
Taking the form of a cruciform, or cross shaped church, this abbey was the heart of a whole complex of buildings, formed around a cloister. They included an infirmary, a hospital for pilgrims going to Holywell, and houses for guests. Spot the benches where the monks would have sat, and the parlour next door; the only place where silent monks were allowed to speak.
Come off at the nearest junction and explore, it's well worth the trip!
The glorious Marble Church of St Margaret of Antioch Bodelwyddan dates from the 1850’s and its 62 metre spire intrigues drivers on the A55.
Commissioned by Margaret Williams of Bodelwyddan Castle as a new and separate parish, and designed by John Gibson who studied under Charles Barry (of Houses of Parliament fame) this fine Victorian church is an essay to the ornate. Built in porcelain like limestone from nearby Llanddulas, Gothic carvings embellish the outside and marble from Ireland, England, France and Italy decorate the interior. It's a stunner!
The pretty walled town of Conwy is famous for its iconic castle.
But did you know the church of St Mary church is older still? An oasis of tranquillity and history in the centre of the town, St Mary’s was founded as Aberconwy Abbey church by Cistercian monks in 1172. The church became central to Welsh learning and national identity through its connections with the Princes of Gwynedd, and in particular Llewelyn Fawr, who lived in retirement as a monk in Aberconwy and was buried here. No wonder Edward I cemented his victory over the Welsh by evicting the monks in 1283 and building the magnificent castle and walled town for which Conwy is now famous.
St Mary’s is Edward’s garrison church but includes the remains of the Abbey and many fine additions from the 14th to 20th centuries. Don’t miss the stunning Tudor rood screen and choir stalls; built to celebrate the engagement of Arthur Prince of Wales to Catherine of Aragon and swarm with intricate symbolic carvings. There are also beautiful stained glass windows in Welsh and English, unusual memorials and some rare 17th century lace.
Around 3 miles walk from St Mary’s, in an incredible setting with an atmosphere to match, is 12th century Old Church Llangelynnin. A magnet for photographers, walkers, nature lovers and pilgrims alike. Perched high above the Conwy Valley, its rugged simplicity and sweeping views make it a favourite stop on the Pilgrim’s Way to Bardsey Island and part of many other local walks.
The Capel Dynion (Men’s Chapel) to one side provided for Drovers: Welsh cowboys moving herds of black cattle and geese past Llangelynnin as they crossed the mountains on the way to markets as far away as London. Visitors can see the remains of a medieval rood screen and panelled ceiling. On the wall is a wooden bier, used to carry coffins by hand across the hills for funerals. Notice the Ten Commandments and Lord’s Prayer in Welsh painted on the east wall.
In the 19th century a less remote parish church was built in Rowen. However, that closed in the 1980s (and the stone font from it was carried up the hill to here). Llangelynnin Old Church carried on regardless, is still used for regular worship, and open daily.
From here your pilgrimage takes you to Anglesey, fabled sacred isle and home to oh so many ancient churches and sacred spots.
Just over the bridge and turn right is Church Island. The 15th century St Tysilio Menai Bridge is the first of our Anglesey island churches, reached by a causeway with gorgeous views of the mainland as its backdrop. Its churchyard is jam packed with monuments, flora and fauna, including the Welsh bard Cynnan.
From here, a picturesque detour could be made around to the north of the island.
Stop off at St Mary & St Nicholas Beaumaris, a grand 14th century church with carved misericords and in the porch the coffin and effigy of Joan (Siwan), wife of Prince Llywelyn Fawr.
Then continue to remote and unique churches you shouldn't miss!
Love it or hate it, Our Lady Star of the Sea Amlwch is a true ‘marmite’ church. This iconic avant garde structure was designed by by Giuseppe Rinvolucri, an Italian from Piedmont who came to Britain as a prisoner of war in World War I. It dates from the 1930s and is designed to reflect the shape of an upturned hull in homage to Amlwch's maritime history, the sea and the storms that batter it. It used the then modern material of reinforced concrete. The interior has real wow factor. Do come back when it’s open in the evening if you can; when the church is lit up it positively glows!Once under threat of demolition, the church was saved by the community and grant aid including funding from us here at the National Churches Trust.
When was the last time you came across a Christian church with an Islamic themed interior?
On the remotest edge of Anglesey?
The second of two gems on the north side of the island is St Patrick Llanbadrig. Its an incredibly welcoming place, with an interior to surprise and delight. St Patrick himself was said to have been shipwrecked on the island opposite, and to give thanks for his survival he founded a church here in 440AD. But the art you see here is Victorian. In 1884 Henry Stanley, the 3rd Baron of Alderley, funded a major restoration. Following his conversion to Islam (and becoming the first Muslim Member of the House of Lords) he decorated the church with Islamic designs; stunning deep blue patterns and designs in the tiles and the stained glass fills the church with an atmosphere and beauty it is hard to beat.
Medieval St Peulan Llanbeulan stands in isolation at the end of its raised, grassed, causeway, which turns off the road signposted to Dolbaen.
Said to have been founded by St Peulan himself in the 6th century, the church boasts an incredible survival. The remarkable font here dates from the first half of the 11th century and is unique in Wales, if not in Britain, with its bee ‘skeps’ (domed basket) and ornate carved decoration. It is almost certainly the product of the same workshop as the fonts at Heneglwys and Llaniestyn and one of the great Celtic crosses now in Penmon Priory. St Peulan’s is in the care of the Friends of Friendless Churches.
Just a mile and a half away as the crow flies is another gem in their care.
Set in a field, on a pre historic mound, in its ancient circular ‘llan’, is sweet St Mary Tal y Llyn.
Its massive undulating walls shelter an evocative interior with backless benches and 15th century timber roof. This is a place to connect with history and atmosphere, to contemplate and be still. Tal y Llyn, like so many Friends churches is the only marker of a village long disappeared, 22 houses surrounded the church before the Black Death took its toll.
And finally, where else would the north wales pilgrim end their journey but at St Cwyfan Llangwyfan, the Church in the Sea?
Set on an island, out to sea, you have to wait for the tide to go out before crossing over a rugged causeway. It's not always open, but even when closed, the wait and the walk are worth it. Climb a few steep steps to the tiny raised island, and be surrounded by the might that is the north Wales weather!
Take a moment on the bench or picnic on the island but mind the steep drop; this 14th century church has seen it all and lived to tell the tale.
This might be one of our favourite places on earth!
Wales road trip
Oceanside tunes and laidback beats from the best Welsh artists around.
A 60 minute playlist by The Lonely Planet.
The breath taking coastal landscape of Wales has held allure for pilgrims, poets and travellers for millennia. Hundreds of ancient atmospheric Welsh churches are sited within a stones throw from, and even occasionally on, the beach, promontory or headland. Your journey will lead you through some of the most awe inspiring landscapes in the world.