What to Do in the Valleys of South East Wales
Visiting the Eastern Valleys of South Wales
When most people think about travelling in Wales, they are likely to think of Snowdonia or perhaps the capital, Cardiff. However, one area that has great beauty and is well worth visiting is the eastern part of the Welsh Valleys, from Newport up to Abergavenny. We have just returned from a holiday in the region, as my father in law is originally from the town of Pontypool, and this article outlines a few things you must do if visiting the region.
If you have already been to this region, I'd love to hear your suggestions as well so please drop a note at the end!
Stay at a Farmhouse
When going away it is always easier to find a nice hotel. You know that your breakfasts will be made for you and you can take advantage of the amenities. There are a lot of very good hotels in South Wales and you can check them out at most top hotel websites. The one downside of getting a hotel is that a) they are mostly in the towns of the region and b) you will need to eat out. For this reason, I would wholeheartedly suggest that if visiting this region of the world, hire a self-catering property, the best being converted farmhouses and barns.
By staying in a property like this you are likely to be out in the countryside, giving you the chance to do some beautiful walks. You don't have the inconvenience of being woken up in the middle of the night by people walking down the corridor outside your room. You can cook your own meals, taking advantage of some wonderful local ingredients and most importantly, you will have a refuse when (not if!) you have a washout day. i.e. It rains all day which it has a tendency to do here!
On this latest trip, we stayed at Apple Orchard Barn In the village of Gilwern (see map). As we were travelling with all of my in-laws we needed the space for 8 adults, 2 young kids and 3 dogs and this property was perfect. A barn converted to a very high level, we had a great time. The barn doesn't have wifi which is a blessing or a curse depending on your point of view!
Climb a Mountain
Where there are valleys there have to be mountains (or at the least big hills!) and this region is no exception! You don't need to be an expert climber or walker to attempt many of these peaks and it is well worth it to get away from everything, and if the weather is good, you can get some great views.
Around the Abergavenny area there are three peaks that are more prominent than the others: Blorenge, Sugar Loaf and Skirrid, each with it's own merits. We decided to conquer the Blorenge (or as we ended up calling it, the Blancmange), walking to the peak on the morning of Easter Monday, before the larger crowds of people started traipsing up.
If you want, you could start the walk right from the bottom but to be honest, we were a bit lazy and started at the Keeper's Pond car park which is already a fare way up the height of the hill. From here it was a nice gentle walk along well defined paths to the 1,841ft summit. As I said previously you don't need to be an expert walker. We walked up with 3 dogs and my 60yr old father in law wearing a pair of wellies but obviously you should try to be well prepared so no stilettos!!
There was a bit of a morning haze when we got to the top so unfortunately the views were a little limited but you could tell that on a good day you would be able to see for miles in all directions. Unfortunately we didn't have time the rest of the week to attempt the Sugar Loaf or Skirrid but as my wife says; "We have unfinished business" so I am sure that we will head back to this part of the world soon and I will be looking to climb the other prominent peaks, and possibly do them properly (i.e. all the way from the bottom!)
These mountains aren't as awesome as those in Snowdonia but with the views across to the Black Mountains, they are still worth walking!
Sebastopol - Isn't that in Crimea?
Imagine my surprise when driving to see the town of Sebastopol that I had heard so much in recent Crimea troubles. It turns out the town is named in honour of this port!
Visit a Castle
The British Isles are littered with the remains of old castles and Wales is no exception! In fact it has previously been described by some as the "Castle Capital of the World" with up-to 500 different castles standing at various times in history.
With this knowledge it would seem wrong to head to this part of Wales and not go to see at least one old Castle. Near to where we were staying were a set of Castles known locally simply as: The Three Castles. My Father in Law remembered visiting these as a kid so we headed off to find them. The three castles in this group are Grosmont, Skenfrith and White Castle.
We first headed to Skenfrith which is shown in the photo here. The walls are still quite well formed but have obviously collapsed in areas over the years. My toddler son loved running around the ruined castle, going up and down all the stairs with his Grandad. There are a couple of information boards telling you about the castle and it is a great place for a picnic. We probably stayed a little longer than planned as my son was having so much fun but you wouldn't spend that much time here before moving on to the next in the Three Castles group.
We next visited Grosmont. This is accessed via a bridge across an old moat and you are able to climb some of the walls which is great (unless you don't have a head for heights!!). Again there were information boards and plenty of room for my son to run around in. After a slightly shorted visit, we stopped off for an ice cream and then headed home as my son was shattered so we didn't tick off the third castle unfortunately.
My father in law and sister in law are both medieval history buffs so really appreciate the history of the castles. However, even though my historical interests are much more recent, I really enjoyed visiting the castles and would say they are a key part of any South East Wales trip.
Watch a Rugby Match
Like most of the UK, this sport is a big part of life in the South East of Wales. However, whilst it was home to the 2010 Ryder Cup and there is now an English Football League team (Newport County who we actually watched on this latest trip), when talking about Sport in the Welsh Valleys there is one that is leaps and bounds above the rest, Rugby!
Professional Rugby in Wales is spread across four provincial teams with this area being covered by the Newport and Gwent Dragons. However, for many locals (especially those of my Father in Laws generation) they will still flock to watch their local teams play in regional leagues with crowds in the 1000s not unheard of for what is now a semi-pro level. As my Father in Law is from Pontypool we headed to watch them play against local rivals Newbridge when we were last down there and at just £7 to enter it was great value for money. You can find out more about the club leagues in Wales at the WRU Website, and if there is a game on near you when you are in the region, make like a local and head to watch a match.
Two Essential Tips:
Go by Car
There is plenty of public transport in this region of Wales but if you want to make the most of your trip, in my opinion, you will be best placed having your own transport. That way you can visit everywhere at your own pace. If you are based in the UK then it is a simple journey to get to this region. If coming from London or the South, come in on the M4 across the Severn Bridge (make sure you have money for the toll). If from the North then it's best to take the A465 from Hereford. If you are coming in from overseas then you might need to hire a car so I'd suggest checking out someone like Europcar. There is an airport in Cardiff but you are more likely to come in via London or Bristol so I would just drive from there.