As the gull flies, it’s about seven miles from Dolgarrog in the Conwy Valley to the nearest part of the Welsh coastline – so there’s something weirdly wonderful in the fact that it’s where Britain’s most reliable surf break is to be found.
At Adventure Parc Snowdonia – formerly Surf Snowdonia – a giant lagoon offers man-made waves to suit the skills of every board rider. Beginners can find their balance on white water waves. For advanced surfers, the Wavegarden technology easily whisks up head-high breakers that present more of a challenge.
When the centre opened in 2015, it provided the world’s longest man-made surfable wave, prompting one national newspaper to ask: “Is inland Wales the best surf spot on the planet?” Since then, it has played a part in establishing North Wales as a prime destination for innovative adventure travel.
Adventure Parc Snowdonia occupies what was previously a post-industrial blot on the landscape – though in the heart of spectacular mountain scenery. Until 2007, aluminium had been smelted at the site for more than a century. Its transformation was made possible by local entrepreneur Martin Ainscough, who bought the land without having any settled plan for its future.
Andy Ainscough, his son, is now managing director of Adventure Parc Snowdonia. He says: “The economy was in crisis at the time of purchase, so the time wasn’t right to do anything with it. By the time we did begin to think about a future for Dolgarrog, all sorts of options were on the table. And at the time, I happened to be working summers as an outdoor instructor in Wales and the Lake District.”
What the site did have was lots of good quality water: its near-neighbour is a hydro-electric power station. Water from hills to the west flows down to RWE Energy’s plant, where it drives generator turbines, and in the past it was then discharged into the River Conwy. “We now borrow that water for a while”, says Andy.
Keen to make good use of all that pure Welsh rain, the Ainscoughs looked into developing the site as a watersports facility. They soon discovered the artificial wave technology pioneered by Wavegarden, based in the Spanish Basque Country, and the rest is history.
Visitor numbers have exceeded the estimate laid down in their initial business plan. Andy says: “In our first full season, in 2016, we expected 70,000 surfers to come to Dolgarrog. We actually had 150,000 visitors.”
He believes this success has a lot to do with the support the new venture received from both local and national government. “Both Conwy Borough and the Welsh Government were very proactive,” he says. “We were able to get access to the right people, and explain to them what we wanted to achieve, far quicker than we could have done in other parts of the UK. People were very understanding and open.”
At first, recruiting staff to “wet” roles such as lifeguards and surf instructors meant looking far afield. In the first year, 70 per cent of these staff were from outside Wales. That situation has now been reversed, with 80 per cent drawn from the local area. Across all roles, local people now make up 95 per cent of the workforce.
Andy and the team are now well into the next chapter of the centre’s story. The rebranding of Surf Snowdonia to Adventure Parc Snowdonia reflects how phase two will see a wider range of nature-inspired experiences offered at Dolgarrog.
The ultimate hope is that a season that starts in March and ends in November can be extended. “Our phase-two developments will help with our all-year-round offer, which is key for us,” says Andy.