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Top 50 Valleys Essentials

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There's more to the Valley's than meets the eye ......

Spanning from Pontypool in the east to Kidwelly in the west, The South Wales Valleys has always been renowned for its industrial landscapes shaped by mining communities of decades past.

 

Top 50 Valleys Essentials

 

 
  • Sidoli’s ice cream parlour, Ebbw Vale and Cresci’s Café and ice cream parlour, Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen: many of the Valleys Italian cafes included home-made ice cream on their menus, and some have continued solely as ice cream parlours. These are two of the best.
  • Ruperra Castle, near Machen: an unexpected delight, Ruperra is a medieval castle that was heavily Victorianized, and now lies in gaunt, ivy-clad ruin. Extensive outhouses and the remains of formal and kitchen gardens can also be made out: this was one massive estate. You can't get into the ruin, though a public footpath goes alongside and gives some great views and a good sense of the size of the estate.
  • Guardian, Six Bells, Abertillery: Sebastien Boyesen’s memorial to a 1960 pit disaster which killed 45 men and boys is utterly breathtaking. A twenty metre high sculpture of a sinewy miner, it towers over the spectator and provides a moving memorial to all miners, in this region and beyond.
  • South Wales Miners Museum, Afan Forest Park. No whistles and bells here; just sober, sometimes quite detailed and utterly fascinating exhibits about the story of coal in south Wales, and the men who mined it. Proud, moving and inspiring too.
  • Sarn Helen, Banwen. On the cusp of the Valleys and the Brecon Beacons National Park, Banwen is a trim, proud little place, intersected by the great Roman highway that connected north and south Wales. It’s a fine basis for some good walks, either north onto the wide slopes of Fforest Fawr or south into the woods of Hirfynydd, the ‘long mountain’.
  • Pontypool Museum & Park (Shell Grotto & Folly Tower). The often turbulent history of this eastern Valleys town includes the surprisingly delicate trade of japanning. Continuing the surprises, the adjacent parkland contains a folly and the quite bizarre shell grotto.
  • Mountain Biking in Afan Forest Park or Cwmcarn Forest. The Valleys’ topography is ideal for the growth sport of mountain biking, and two of the finest courses anywhere can be found either side of the area. Prepare to get very muddy indeed!
  • Cyfartha Castle Museum, Merthyr Tydfil: this gaudy mock-Gothic castle was built in 1825 for William Crawshay, one of the town’s most notorious ironmasters, and enabled him to look down – in every sense – on his workers in the seething town below. It’s now home to a fabulous museum about this most gutsy of towns, together with a delightful art collection.
  • Winding House, New Tredegar. What the locals say: Fantastic museum with excellent interactive exhibitions of Caerphilly’s history. Current collections include objects on loan from the local community. Great calendar of free events and on site research facilities. The café’s coffee and cupcakes are well worth a visit alone!
  • Cynon Valley Museum, Aberdare: one of the most interesting and diverse museums in Wales, a treasure trove of ‘ooh, I never knew that’, whether about the local coal industry, the 1984-5 miners’ strike or the area’s proud part in Welsh publishing history.
  • Caerphilly Castle needs almost no introduction, for it dominates the town in a way that both unique and quite jaw-dropping. The thirty acre fortress – second largest in Britain, it’s said, after Windsor – sits within its moat, the jaunty angle of its leaning tower the thing that keeps drawing the eye.
  • Ebbw Vale Festival Park: What the locals say: A great place to entertain the kids and do some guilt-free shopping! Children’s adventure castle, garden centre and owl sanctuary all on one site! The amazing 100 meter super tubing slope, the longest in the UK, that opened in 2010 is already a huge hit.
  • Bryngarw House and Country Park, Garw Valley. What the locals say: A wonderful day out for the whole family. Walking trails, wild woodlands, wildflowers and mossy wetlands teeming with life. The gardens are beautiful with children’s adventure area and the House offers a first class restaurant. Great family events on offer throughout the year.
  • Llancaiach Fawr, nr Nelson: a magnificent Tudor manor house that’s been turned into a superb hands-on history experience to give visitors a glimpse into life at the time of the Civil War. The guides in period dress are phenomenal. Fascinating, and great fun too.
  • Greenmeadow Community Farm, Cwmbran: What the locals say: A great place to take children of all ages for a fun and educational day out where you interact with animals, most of which are rare breeds, in a natural and relaxed environment. Helpful staff, nature, education, history and fun, it's got the lot! Big play area and an onsite café complete the brilliant offer.
  • Brynffynon Hotel, Llanwonno. A real gem of a pub – great beer, good food and a cracking set of regulars, and all the better for its location, another one of the tiny ridge-top hamlets between the Valleys, in this case between the Cynon and Rhondda.
  • Kidwelly Castle. Dazzling medieval fortress in a commanding position above the River Gwendraeth and the sleepy little town of Kidwelly. More than most Welsh castles, this is the one that makes you feel like a fourteenth century knight as you scamper around the battlements and up the towers.
  • Rhondda Heritage Park: The old Lewis Merthyr colliery gives visitors the chance to sample many of the sights, sounds and smells of the pit, but it is the thoughtful presentation of the social effects of mining that really stimulates, none more so than the stirring section about the women of the Valleys.
  • Big Pit and World Heritage Site, Blaenavon. Just a fascinating town, definitely Valleys but, unusually, in a lofty upland position. Iron made Blaenavon: see the ironworks, but also the iron graves and font in the parish church. Big Pit, the National Mining Museum, is an authentic deep mine underground experience and is brilliantly done throughout.
  • Taff Trail: best known as the Cardiff to Brecon bike track, most of which runs along the route of old railways and canal towpaths, any section of the Taff Trail makes for a good walk as well. My favourite section is from Merthyr north to Pontsticill Reservoir, especially for the crossings of Pontsarn and Cefn Coed viaducts.
  • Bunch of Grapes, Pontypridd. Every town should have a pub like this: warm, cheerful and serving the kind of beer, cider and food that you’ll never get from a supermarket. The food has a firm emphasis on local and seasonal produce, and it is always superb.
  • Nos Galan race, Mountain Ash: an annual New Year’s Eve event inspired by the legendary Guto Nyth Bran (buried at Llanwonno, see above), who, in 1737, ran a twelve mile race in 53 minutes, before dying from an over-hearty slap on the back in congratulation. The commemorative race, held over 5km around Mountain Ash, has hundreds of participants and, every year, an athletic superstar is revealed as the mystery guest runner.
  • Nye Bevan Trail, Tredegar. A terrifically interesting, and handsome, town in itself, a great way to see Tredegar is to do the walking tour based on some of the many places associated with local MP Aneurin (Nye) Bevan, the architect of the NHS. Neil Kinnock also came from here, and Michael Foot lived in the town for the many years that he was Bevan’s replacement as Ebbw Vale MP.
  • Merthyr to Brecon Mountain Railway: The ever-popular Brecon Mountain Railway is a slight misnomer for one of Merthyr's favourite days out, on board steam trains along the lovely valley of the Taf Fechan and the Pontsticill reservoirs. Don't miss a pint and a bowl of cawl in the Red Cow inn at Pontsticill village".
 
 
  • Ynysangharad War Memorial Park. What the locals say: A beautiful park and fantastic venue for music events. The bandstand is a favourite spot for people to relax and listen to live bands. The sporting facilities are fantastic - bowling greens, football pitches and an 18-hole pitch and putt course. There is even a seasonal paddling pool and refreshment outlets. A great day out for all the family!
  • Pontypridd RFC, Pontypridd:What the locals say: Visit the hallowed turf and watch top class Valleys rugby at its best, played with heart, followed with passion and pride. Come and experience the chants of ole, ole, ole, supporters’ banter and a proper sporting welcome. Nothing gives a better insight into the wit and wisdom (and ability to absorb disappointment and beer) of Valleys people than a Saturday afternoon at Sardis Road.
  • Penderyn Whisky Distillery. Welsh whisky was thought to be a bit of a joke, until it starting winning awards galore over its more established Scottish and Irish cousins. Penderyn is a wonderful drink, and the tours of the distillery show the love and care that is put into its creation. Iechyd da!
  • Parc Penallta, Ystrad Mynach: there have been many new landscapes in the Valleys over recent years, as old mines have been filled in and greened. Perhaps the most spectacular is Parc Penallta, where a 200m long earth sculpture of a horse – Sultan the pit pony is his name – is the stunning centrepiece. Walks and wildlife ponds add to the appeal.
  • Blaengarw Workmen’s Hall: we have heard much about community regeneration over the past quarter century, but see it in action at this splendid old miners’ institute at the top of the dead-end Garw Valley. The murals and decorations indicate that you’re in for something special, and you’re not disappointed.
  • Parc Bryn Bach, Ebbw Vale: What the locals say: A closed circuit cycling track for adrenaline junkies, an abundance of wildlife and beautiful walks for nature enthusiasts and lovely lakeside spots for picnic lovers. It’s the perfect place to unwind with the family, or get active on the weekend.
  • Brynmawr Museum and town trail. Wales’ highest town (at around 1200 feet) has some amazing stories to tell, including pioneering its own self-government and as the refuge for Jewish people during the anti-Semitic riots of the 1920s. The small local museum has some memorabilia, the rest is discovered en route around a town trail.
  • Waterfalls walk, Pontneddfechan: the band of limestone between the coalfields of the Valleys and the sandstone of the Beacons is one of my favourite parts of Wales, especially for its many waterfalls. This wooded walk takes you past some of the best, all the way to everyone’s favourite, Sgwd yr Eira, the ‘fall of snow’, that you can walk behind.
  • Walk up to Pen Pych from Blaenrhondda: more than perhaps anywhere, the Rhondda is the name associated with the Valleys, and this splendid walk takes you up to the very head of the Rhondda Fach at the hugely impressive ‘table’ mountain of Pen Pych.
  • Gateway to the Beacons: What the locals say: This is such a fantastic walk, taking you through woodland, moorland and meadow and alongside rivers and reservoir into the Brecon Beacons. You’ll pass a ruined castle on the way to the Beacons before returning partly along the well-known Taff Trail.
  • Vaynor old and new churches, nr Merthyr: the ‘new’ Victorian church was built by the Crawshay ironmasters of Merthyr: famously, Robert Thompson Crawshay’s massive, ten-ton grave in the churchyard includes the sombre inscription ‘God Forgive Me’. Genuine remorse or a hollow gesture? A short walk away are the gloomy ruins of the medieval church deep in a wood.
  • The Pontypool and Blaenavon Railway. What the locals say: The highest standard railway gauge in Wales has been run by volunteers for more than 25 years. It’s the ideal way journey through the landscape of the Blaenavon World Site, sit back and enjoy the spectacular views. Garn Lakes provides an ideal spot for picnics and walking after a ride on the train.
  • A4061 Bwlch pass from Rhondda to Cwm Ogwr or Cwm Afan (with an ice cream at the top!). During the Depression of the 1920s and 30s, one relief scheme was to build hairpin roads out of the hitherto dead-end Valleys, both to bring some work to the area and open the various valleys out. Ever since, this roller-coaster of a road out of the Rhondda has been a popular excursion, for views, fresh air and an ice cream at the top. The same family have been selling them there since the thirties.
  • Aberdulais Falls, Neath Valley: after admiring the sheer powerful beauty of the area’s waterfalls, it’s good to see them harnessed for action, as they once were up and down the valley. Here, the National Trust explain the umbilical connection between water power and industry and demonstrate its contemporary use for sustainable electricity generation. Worth a walk down to the canal basin below too.
  • Mari Lwyd, Llangynwyd, nr Maesteg: the ancient Welsh new year custom of parading the skull of a horse around the parish to bring luck for the year ahead has been revived in many places. Here, it survives intact, and is enthusiastically pursued at pubs in the area, where the Mari’s party try to gain access by singing, and those inside barter back, also in song.
  • Dare Valley Country Park: the prototype of turning the coal-black Valleys green, the Dare Valley country park was opened in the early 1970s and has thrived since. A good visitor centre, café and heritage exhibition give you a flavour of the place, but it’s when you get out into the wide skies and lush slopes that you really begin to appreciate how well this place has been brought back from the brink.
  • Gelligaer Common: Capel Gwladys, Maen Cattwg and walks: wild ponies and sheep are the only real inhabitants high up on Gelligaer Common, making it an ideal walk for some windblown solitude. The remains of Capel Gwladys, although fifth century, are far from the oldest things here: there’s a Roman road, a Bronze Age burial mound and the mysterious Maen Cattwg standing stone.
  • Carpanini’s Café, Treorchy: the Italian cafes of the Valleys are legendary. Sadly, many have closed, but this is one of the finest of the survivors, run with the same love and flair by the grandchildren of the couple who first opened it in 1947. Open all day, and for take-aways through the evening, the food is wonderful and the service a delight.
  • Gnoll Estate Country Park: Neath might not seem like the most obvious place to witness the phenomenon of the Picturesque, but the Gnoll, centred on a long-vanished mansion, is just that. The parkland was laid out to the fashionable Picturesque principles of the day, and included two dazzling water cascades which have now been restored.
  • The Big Cheese, Caerphilly: this annual summer festival, right in the middle of town, is a tremendous mix of old-fashioned fair, modern music festy and a welcome touch of local eccentricity, in the shape of the Big Cheese Race. Now well into its second decade, the Big Cheese has a large, loyal and growing following.
  • Cwm Clydach nature reserve, Llanelly Hill, near Brynmawr: not to be confused with the identically-named reserve near Swansea, this is a hugely atmospheric limestone gorge, whose beech-clad sides descend to the rushing waters of the Clydach. Amongst the greenery, there is some spectacular industrial archaeology to poke around too, the highlight being the lovely old 1824 iron bridge and the neighbouring kilns. The new cycle path follows the impressive route of an old railway line.
  • Nantyglo Roundhouses: semi-derelict, but all the more atmospheric for that, these solid military-looking towers were built in 1816 by ironmaster Joseph Bailey, whose treatment of his workers was so poor that he rightly feared insurrection. These towers, with four-foot thick walls, iron plate doors and musket holes, were where he planned to hole up if it all kicked off.
  • Call of the Wild activities, Seven Sisters: there are a few outdoor activity specialist companies out there, but these are one of the best. They offer climbing, caving, biking (mountain or quad), gorge walking, canoeing, kayaking and more, all locally. It just shows how blessed the Valleys are, for they are one of the finest natural places to let off a bit of steam.
  • Blaenafon Cheddar Company: is there really any better cheese than a good Cheddar?. They don’t think so here either, and produce a selection of delicious cheddars, in a variety of flavours from hearty to delicate. Their goat’s cheese is gorgeous too.
  • Drive (or cycle/walk) across Mynydd y Gwair from Clydach to Ammanford. One of the finest roads in south Wales, this is a magnificent stretch over a sombre moor. It feels miles from anywhere, but you can see the dirty coat-tails of Swansea just on the horizon.

     

 

 

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