From gentle rolling hills to mysterious mountains, this frequently underrated country really takes your breath away. Just 160 miles long and 60 wide, Wales boasts some of the most spectacular beaches, rugged mountain ranges and oldest monuments in the world. Much of the country remains untouched and free of people; which means there’s mile upon glorious mile of natural countryside and plenty of wildlife to enjoy. What’s more, Wales is home to three national parks, four areas of outstanding beauty and 746 miles of magnificent coastline. Often seen as the poor relation to its larger English neighbour, Welsh identity has flourished over the last few decades and with it, the restoration and preservation of its numerous historical sites. Wales is a bilingual country, home to what is believed to be the oldest surviving language in Europe. Nearly a quarter of the population speak Welsh, rising to 90 per cent in some northern communities where it is the first language. Road signs are written in both Welsh and English which testify to the pride the Welsh have in preserving their mother tongue.
The three biggest cities, Cardiff, Newport and Swansea, are located on the industrial south coast and, during the height of coal production, were the busiest ports in the world. Likewise Wrexham, considered the capital of the north, prospered during the industrial revolution. Interestingly, Wales didn’t have a capital city for four hundred years until Cardiff won the title in 1955. Since then it has grown into a thriving, vibrant city with world-class hotels, restaurants and events. While the big towns are largely to be found by the sea, central Wales is full of pretty historic market towns such as Rhyader, Newtown and Brecon – all of which provide hearty meals and cosy places to stay. Stunning scenery abounds in the majestic valleys that crown south Wales and in the flat and remote Llyn Peninsula that stretches out towards the Irish Sea. But whatever you’re looking for, be it a night in an ancient inn, a spot of adventure sports or even a hill guarded by a dragon, Wales has them all.
Wales and the environment
Wales shares many of the same environmental problems as its European neighbours such as pesticide use in farming, water and air pollution, and continued dependency on oil and coal. Although good for the Welsh bank balance, the industrial revolution wasn’t kind to its environment and the legacy of its coal and slate mining history is still visible in the slagheaps that loom over the old mining communities of the north and south. Many of them have been levelled or landscaped and those left standing undergo regular safety checks to avoid another disaster such as the one at Aberfan when a coal tip collapsed killing 144 people in the village below. Wales is also home to the notorious Brofiscin quarry, one of the most contaminated places in Britain, which was used as dumping ground for industrial and chemical waste during the 60s and 70s resulting in a long battle over who will clean it up.
On a cheerier note, the Welsh Assembly are committed to a making Wales a greener country and in 2009 announced a new waste strategy entitled Towards Zero Waste, which plans for Wales to divert all rubbish from landfill by 2050 and recycle 70 per cent of all waste by 2025. Wales was also the first country in the world to be classed as Fairtrade, as were its cities. It also has more than its fair share of eco-centres such as the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth, Down to Earth in the Gower and the Eco Centre Wales in Pembrokeshire, all of which offer information, courses and demonstrations on all things sustainable. Like England and Scotland, Wales benefits from the National Parks scheme, set up in the 1950s to protect areas of beauty and natural heritage. 20 per cent of the country is now classed as a National Park, including the Brecon Beacons, Snowdonia and the Pembrokeshire Coast.
The history of Wales is a fantastical one populated by heroes, kings, dragons and wizards. The land itself has been inhabited for 250,000 years but it wasn’t until 9000 BC that its people started to leave their mark, decorating the countryside with mysterious monolithic standing stones and burial chambers. Its history is mainly one of invasion, beginning in the Iron Age when the Celtic peoples arrived from Europe bringing with them superior metalwork, slavery, and a warlike culture. They settled into a number of distinct tribes, the largest of which were the Demetae in the west, the Ordovices in the north and the Silures in the south. They also brought their petty squabbling with them and upon arrival each tribe proceeded to build numerous hill-forts to defend themselves from each other. However, in 50AD they united to battle a much more menacing enemy – Rome. The Roman Empire had steadily been expanding across Europe and had set its sights on the rich, fertile lands of Britain. Their interest in Wales lay mainly in Anglesey and the Druids who lived there. The Druids held enormous power and influence among the ancient Britons being responsible for both the judicial and spiritual duties of all levels of the community. Both noblemen and common folk heeded their words so to destroy them would weaken the resistance to Roman rule. And destroy them they did but not before the Druid priests had stood on the shoreline summoning dark forces while their womenfolk ran naked and screaming amongst the battle crazed warriors.
The Romans stayed in Wales for the next 400 years, establishing the biggest amphitheatre outside of Rome in Caerleon but battles elsewhere in Europe eventually called them away. No sooner had they left then the next wave of invaders had arrived. Like their predecessors, the Saxons were a warlike people but unlike the Romans, had limited success in conquering Wales whose borders remained largely protected from this new threat. One warlord, King Offa of Mercia, whose attempts to take parts of Wales had met with little success, decided instead to cut the country off from the rest of Britain by building a 130-mile long wall. Constructed around 760AD, Offa’s Dyke stretched from coast to coast, effectively forming the first Welsh-English border. It was during the Saxon invasion that a certain King Arthur was said to have been born whose destiny it was to lead Wales in victory against the warlords. This, it’s worth bearing in mind, is the same King Arthur claimed by the English, whose birthplace was said to have been at Tintagel in the English county of Cornwall. While the Arthurian tales are believed to be at least partly mythological, they have left a deep imprint in the Welsh (and English) psyche and on the many British kings who would go on to adopt Arthurian characteristics.
Smaller invasions from the Vikings and Normans followed between 800 and 1200 AD but the biggest threat to the Welsh identity came in 1276 from the English throne when King Edward I invaded Wales. He was met by the fierce armies of Llewellyn ap Gruffydd, the last Welsh Prince of Wales, who defended their lands for eight years. Llewellyn met his death in battle and his head was taken to London as a trophy, signalling the end of the campaign. Edward quickly established a mighty network of castles across the land to remind the locals who was now in control. Things went quiet for 100 years or so while the Welsh licked their wounds and adjusted to life under English rule, but one young scholar and firebrand named Owain Glyndwr had inherited the fighting spirit of his ancestors. In 1400, he led a rebellion against the foreign rule, which lasted for 13 years and successfully recaptured parts of Wales from English hands. However, his successes were brief and his rebellion was eventually crushed. His final years are shrouded in mystery and while most believe he went into hiding, spending his final years in peace with his family, his spirit and legend lived on. The Renaissance saw Wales embrace Christianity in all its forms although it was Methodism that really ignited religious fervour because it offered an alternative to the Church of England, which the Welsh had long distrusted.
The industrial revolution saw more settlers arriving in Wales, this time to find work in one of the many coal, slate or copper mines that dominated the landscape of the north and south. Wales became a prosperous country at that time, although most of the newfound wealth ended up in the pockets of industrialists and mine owners. Finally in 1988, Wales was given its own parliament and even though it only has limited powers of law making, the Welsh Assembly has been governing itself in matters of health, social welfare and the environment ever since.
When to go
Like the rest of the home nations that make up the UK, Wales isn’t blessed by the weather. Although the high rainfall can put paid to outdoor activities from time to time, if it wasn’t for the odd deluge, Wales’ wonderfully green hills wouldn’t be so verdant or the lakes so full. Late spring (April to June) is particularly pleasant while summers can see glorious cloud free days and temperatures in the mid 20s. September and October are generally mild temperatures and have plenty of dry days. Winter months are cold and damp, especially in high places, which can see a lot of snow. Coastal areas are relatively snow free and usually a few degrees warmer.
The Wales Tourist Board and Welsh Assembly are trying to promote greener ways of travelling around the country and have introduced the Explore Wales Pass (0844 3751 546; www.arrivatrainswales.co.uk) that gives you unlimited access to all of Wales’ main rail services and most bus services too. The pass also gives you discounts on major attractions and youth hostel accommodation around Wales. The Welsh rail network serves all the major towns and valleys, and where it doesn’t go, you’ll usually find that a bus does instead. Rail information can be found at National Rail Enquiries (08457 484950; www.nationalrail.co.uk), while the best place for bus information is from Traveline Cymru (0871 200 2233; www.traveline-cymru.info) who has bus routes and timetables for all the major providers as well as the small companies that service the harder to reach towns, valleys and villages. The country’s main Island, Anglesey, can be reached by car, train and bus and once on the island, getting around is easy using one of the local bus services (www.anglesey.gov.uk). For anyone wishing to see the country by bike or on foot, Traveline Cymru also has comprehensive cycling and walking maps.
Eight unmissable sights
St David’s Cathedral
Born to a saintly mother, St David is the only British saint native to his patron country. Born around 500 AD, he entered the church early in life and became famous for his miracles all over Wales. Built upon the original monastery founded by St David, the cathedral itself has a colourful and often gruesome history including the murder of two of its bishops by Viking raiders, St David’s shrine being flattened and most of the building being destroyed by Parliamentary soldiers during the Civil War. It has had many famous visitors grace its nave, including the Queen, who in 1995 bestowed city status upon the area, making it Britain’s smallest city.
Find out more: www.stdavidscathedral.org.uk
Dylan Thomas’ Boat House
Overlooking the Taf estuary, it’s easy to see why author Dylan Thomas chose this quiet little corner for reflection and inspiration. He spent the last four years of his life here with wife Caitlin and their three children and it was here he wrote his best known work, Under Milkwood, inspired it’s believed, by the village residents. He instantly fell in with the place love writing: ‘And some, like myself, just came, one day, for the day, and never left; got off the bus and forgot to get on again.’ Fans of the great Anglo-Welsh poet will be able to see his poetry and short stories come alive in the surrounding views. The boathouse is now a heritage centre that preserves and promotes Dylan Thomas’ work.
Find out more: www.dylanthomasboathouse.com
The Gower Penninsula
The Gower may only be short drive from the city of Swansea but feels a million miles away. Designated an area of outstanding natural beauty, the peninsula is only 16 miles long and seven wide but has more than 50 unspoilt beaches and coves, many of which have blue flag status. The area has been inhabited since 12000 BC and is dotted with ancient burial chambers, standing stones, churches and castles. There’s no shortage of excellent places to eat and you are spoilt for choice for accommodation. It‘s also a surfing hotspot, with some of the best waves in Britain.
Find out more: www.enjoygower.com
Wales has a long history of castle building and there are no fewer than 400 dotted around the country. Romanticised as sumptuous royal dwellings, Welsh castles were largely built for an altogether different purpose: war. The earliest forts were built to repel Celtic, Roman, Saxon and Viking invasions but it was King Edward I who put castle building firmly on the Welsh map; establishing a network of castles to consolidate his grip on the country. Most impressive are Carreg Cennan, Caernarfon, Conway and Caerphilly, but there are also a couple of follies to enjoy including the impressive neo-gothic Cardiff Castle, built by the Marquis of Bute.
Find out more: www.visitwales.co.uk
Made famous by Patrick McGoohan in kitsch 70s series The Prisoner, visiting Portmeirion is like stepping into another world. The result of Sir William Clough Ellis’ colourful imagination, Portmeiron’s architecture was inspired the sun-soaked villages of the Mediterranean. It took 50 years to design and build and is part constructed from recycled stone and brick from demolished buildings. The orange, pink and blue edifices are surrounded by beautifully landscaped gardens featuring mushroom-shaped yew trees and specially designed woodlands displaying native and exotic plants. The village has a spa as well as numerous restaurants and places to stay.
Find out more: www.portmeirion-village.com
Set in the heart of Snowdonia, Dinas Emrys is the site of the mystical fortress of the ruler Vortigern who was battling the Saxon invasion. He would come every morning to find his towers in ruins and so enlisted the help of a young visionary named Merlin to find out why. Merlin told him of the two dragons fighting beneath and warned that the white, which symbolised the Saxons, would win but that a hero named Arthur would come to lead the red one (the Welsh) to victory. The remains of a fortress are still visible, and according to local legend, if you spend a night upon the hill you will either come down mad or blessed with magical powers.
Find out more: www.castlewales.com
One of Wales’ three National Parks; the Brecon Beacons stretch across the whole of South Wales from Offa’s Dyke on the English border to the Preselli hills in the west (where the legendary bluestones of Stonehenge come from). The park boasts an outstanding diversity of habitat and is home to curlews, peregrine falcons, the dormouse, otter and White Clawed Crayfish, all of which are protected species. There is a range of hiking trails in the park, which range from easy to ultra difficult, including one 95-mile path that takes you across the whole area over eight days.
Find out more: www.breconbeacons.org
Forming the southernmost part of the Brecon Beacons National Park, ‘Waterfall Country’ as it is also known, is a stunning collection of woods, caves, rivers and waterfalls that tumble along the floor of the Neath Valley. There are 10 different falls ranging from the small and gentle Sgwd Y Pannwr (Falls of the Fuller) to the torrential flow of the Sgwd Gwladus (Lady Falls) is which is 40-feet high and can be enjoyed from above, below or from behind.
Find out more: www.breconbeacons.org
Eight brilliant things to do
Go dolphin spotting
The west coast of Wales is home to a wide array of marine wildlife including bottlenose dolphins, minke whale and porpoises. You don’t have to haunt the beaches to spot them either, with plenty of boat companies offering tours to visitors eager to see these wonderful animals in their natural environment. If you suffer from seasickness; dolphins can be seen from land at Cardigan Bay, Mwnt beach or Llangrannog, which are also home to colonies of puffins and grey seals.
Find out more: www.ramseyisland.co.uk
Hike up Mount Snowdon
No Welsh tour is complete without setting foot on Wales’ highest peak. According to local legend, Yr Wyddfa as it’s known in Welsh, is the tomb of the ogre Rhita Gawr who would kill kings and make cloaks from their beards. The information centre at the bottom offers maps and guides to the 350,000 visitors that scale it every year and caters for both experienced and amateur mountain climbers. There is also a train (0844 493 8120; www.snowdonrailway.co.uk) if you can’t manage the 3.560 feet hike. The best time to go is between April and October as the winter months can be treacherous with temperatures plummeting to minus 20°C.
Find out more: www.visitsnowdonia.info
Big Pit National Coal Museum
Follow in the footsteps of generations of miners who made the descent into darkness each day to dig for ‘black gold’. The tour begins with the 90-metre drop into the damp heat of the tunnels followed by an introduction to the realities of life underground. Big Pit is a real coalmine and all tour guides are miners, which means you get an accurate depiction of life at the coalface. While the mining of fossil fuels is a contentious issue today, the museum remembers an important part of the industrial history and development of Wales.
Find out more: www.museumwales.ac.uk
Discover more about sustainable inventions at the Centre for Alternative Technology
The Centre for Alternative Technology near Machynlleth in Mid Wales was established 35 years ago and has become a green mecca for anyone interested in ecology and sustainable living. The aim of the centre is to offer practical solutions for reducing our impact on the planet and has working examples of organic gardening, composting, solar panels, wind energy, green heating systems and eco-friendly buildings. There is also an excellent cafe and bookshop selling practically every book ever written about how to be green.
Find out more: www.cat.org.uk
Watch Wales play rugby in the Millennium Stadium
Wales has been an official rugby nation since 1881 and although the last few decades have been a bit rocky, Wales have recently enjoyed a return to form. The Millennium Stadium is home to high profile events such as the Six Nations and the Heineken Cup and no trip to Wales is complete without experiencing the atmosphere in the 75,000-seater stadium. For post-match festivities, join the thousands of revellers as they spill into the city centre pubs to sing rugby songs and old Welsh hymns in harmony. It’s just like having your very own male voice choir.
Find out more: www.millenniumstadium.com
Climb to the summit of Dinas Bran
Set atop a hill overlooking Llangollen and the Dee Valley, Dinas Bran (City of the Crow) has been a fortified encampment for over 3,000 years. Who built the castle has been the subject of much debate but what is known is that the last owners were the Princes of Powys who lost it to the English crown during the reign of Edward I. It fell into ruin but won the heart of Owain Glyndwr who tried, unsuccessfully, to recapture it in 1402. The steep walk up is a challenge but you are richly rewarded by the staggering views from the top.
Find out more: www.llangollen.org.uk
Have a pint in the Skirrid Mountain Inn
Just a short drive from the picturesque market town of Abergavenny is Wales’ oldest pub. A courthouse for 500 years, the pub is said to be haunted by the souls of the hanged. It’s also rumoured Owain Glyndwr gave his infamous rally speech here before leading his troops in battle against the English Marcher lords. Also in the area is Llanthony Priory and the legendary Skirrid Mountain, which reputedly split in two during a lightning storm.
Find out more: www.skirridmountaininn.co.uk
Visit the National History Museum of Wales
Located on the outskirts of Cardiff, St Fagans as it is also known, is an open-air museum that charts the history, customs and traditions of Wales. It currently includes a mill, tannery, schoolhouse, chapel and a Workmen’s Institute as well as countless cottages and farm buildings from all over Wales. All the buildings are original, having been taken down piece-by-piece and re-erected on the museum site. Try to plan your visit around one of the old Welsh festivals when you’ll be treated to displays of ancient craftsmanship and folk traditions.
Find out more: www.museumwales.ac.uk
Four great places to stay
Fronlas B&B, Llandeilo
Set in the picturesque market town of Llandelio in the Tywi Valley, this beautifully restored eco boutique hotel has four individually designed rooms. The organic mattresses and furniture are all Welsh-made, while the carefully chosen ingredients for their breakfast are also locally sourced. The B&B also boasts 100 per cent green electricity and the water is heated by solar panels. After a day spent wandering the Brecon Beacons or the picturesque market towns nearby, you can relax in front of the open log fire with a bottle of wine or two from the honesty bar.
Find out more: www.fronlas.com
Westview Guest House, Hay on Wye
With views over the Brecon Beacons and a riverside walk into Hay-on-Wye, Westview Guesthouse is an eco-friendly guesthouse that has plenty to like. Newly built, the entire house has B rated energy efficiency system, while bedrooms enjoy under-floor heating, a filter system that extracts pollen from the air and a tempting selection of natural and organic toiletries. They also make the most of the excellent array of local producers, sourcing local art to decorate the rooms and local food to serve for breakfast and evening meals. Westview is the holder of Gold Award from the Green Tourism Scheme and it’s easy to see why.
Find out more: www.westviewguesthouse.com
Cae Wennol Yurts, Conwy Valley
Nestled among gardens and wildlife ponds, Cae Wennol is a magical place where you can sit between the trees watching the comings and goings of dragonflies or listen to the owls hooting while you relax around the campfire. Their two yurts Seren (Star) and Heddwch (Peace) are ornately decorated in traditional Mongolian style and come complete with log burner for the chillier evenings. Lighting around the site is solar powered while the showers and kitchen use water from their very own spring.
Find out more: www.caewennolyurts.co.uk
Trehilyn Uchaf, Pembrokeshire
Not only is Trehilyn Uchaf authentically Welsh, it’s sustainable too. Lovingly restored by comedian Griff Rhys Jones, all the walls in the 19th century farmhouse are free from toxic paints and concrete, with breathable lime plaster and natural paints used instead. The building materials, such as the slate roof tiles and woollen insulation are locally sourced while the central heating system uses recycled wood chippings, making it virtually carbon neutral.
Find out more: www.underthethatch.co.uk
Four excellent places to eat
Tempus at Tides, St David’s Hotel, Cardiff
Situated in the exclusive St David’s waterfront hotel, Tempus at Tides is a foodie’s paradise. Ingredients are sourced locally with oysters coming from west Wales and game from the Breconshire hills. There’s at least four Welsh cheeses on the menu too. Head chef Matthew Voyle has developed his own style, and operates with a flair that has resulted in not just one but two mentions in the Michelin Guide. On warmer evenings you can dine alfresco overlooking the twinkling lights of Cardiff Bay and the English Channel.
Find out more: www.thestdavidshotel.com
Set in the heart of Aberystwyth is Treehouse - a well-loved, longstanding purveyor of organic food. A bistro café, it serves only locally sourced ingredients and never knowingly sells anything that’s been air freighted. As a result their menu changes to reflect the seasons and they also set themselves the daily challenge of creating a totally local dish made entirely from Welsh ingredients. Treehouse also has a shop, which sells organic food and eco-friendly homeware.
Find out more: www.treehousewales.co.uk
Ye Olde Bulls Head Inn, Anglesey
Located in the picturesque town of Beaumaris and overlooking the Menai Strait that separates Anglesey from the mainland, Ye Olde Bulls Head offers two distinct dining experiences. The Loft restaurant offers fine dining with chef Hefin Roberts creating his menus daily depending on the quality local produce he can get his hands on. In another corner of the 15th century inn is the less formal Brasserie, which has a traditional British menu making the most of the local seafood and meat. And while the two restaurants use different ingredients in their dishes, both only use Anglesey sea salt.
Find out more: www.bullsheadinn.co.uk
The Bell at Skenfrith
A well-loved restaurant set among the rolling hills of the Monmouth valley, The Bell is the proud owner of two AA rosettes. Its menu changes every six weeks in order to make full use of the locally sourced seasonal ingredients they use. The Bell also has its own organic kitchen garden and head chef Rupert Taylor pays close attention to what’s growing week by week. They also have a great selection of local real ales as well as cider that is brewed just down the road.
Find out more: www.skenfrith.co.uk
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