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Gay kings, coal miners, whisky, waterfalls and bike riding in the valleys of South Wales

GSN jumps on a bike to tour mining country and discovers an unexpected world of adventure
Sgwd yr Eira (‘Fall of Snow’) waterfalls in the Brecon Beacons in Wales.
Photo by Gareth Johnson.

I love holidays that start with a train journey, and the train from London Paddington to Cardiff is a breeze at just over two hours. However I wasn’t stopping there, I picked up a hire car and drove a further 30 minutes to Afan Forest Park deep in the middle of the Afan valley.

I’m not a huge mountain bike enthusiast, but there was something about cycling around forest trails that really appealed to me. I collected a hire bike from the Afan Valley Bike Shed, pulled on all my wet weather gear (I’d come prepared - Wales can be a bit rainy) and hit the trails.

If you’re remotely into mountain bike riding then this area is totally worth a visit – there’s over 100km of single-track trails in the Afan Forest Park and they’ve put a lot of effort into making this a mountain biker’s paradise. The signage is good – you can not only tell which direction you should be heading in, but also what degree of difficulty each trail is; plus they’ve thoughtfully created a network of trails that cater for all abilities – challenging trails for elite riders right through to family friendly trails for kids (and relative novices like me).

The owner of the Bike Shed is Ben Threlfall and he’d given me a pretty top-drawer bike to ride, very different from London’s heavy blue ‘Boris Bikes’ that I’m used to. It took me a little bit to get comfortable with the speed and the handling of the bike (I only fell off once) but I was soon whizzing around the trails feeling challenged, exhausted, and totally exhilarated.

From the Afan Valley it was about a 30 minute drive to Neath where I was staying the night the Bluebird Hotel. The hotel blends seamlessly with its surroundings but it’s actually a new-build hotel and inside it’s fresh and modern.

After having a shower and changing out of my bike gear, I asked manager Jacquie Sturgess for some tips about what to see in town.

‘There’s not a lot to see,’ she replied honestly, ‘but the castle is just down the road and then around the corner they do good coffee at the NRJ cafe.’ Both good recommendations.

Neath had two castles but all that is left is some impressive ruins of the one that stood in the centre of the town. This one was established by the Earl of Gloucester, some time between 1114 and 1130 but, as is normal with castles, various bits were added in the subsequent centuries.

The castle was virtually demolished in 1321, after the war between 'gay king' Edward II’s lover Thomas le Despenser and the rebellious English lords. It was subsequently rebuilt and Edward II himself took refuge here before his capture and gruesome death in 1327. A fascinating piece of history.

The next day I drove into the Brecon Beacons for some walking. I met up with local tourism officer Ceri Lloyd who’d arranged with parks ranger Kevin Oates to guide me on a walk in to the national park to see the waterfalls known as Sgwd yr Eira (‘Fall of Snow’).

We really fluked it with the weather – clear and sunny for the entire day, and the views across the Brecon Beacons were stunning. With the amount of rain that had fallen during the preceding week, the path into the falls was wet and muddy but relatively easy to navigate. Ceri was quite excited as the rain also meant that the volume of water flowing over the waterfall would be at its peak.

This is spectacular countryside. Buzzards wheeling around overhead, air so fresh it feels restorative, and vast open space where you can quickly lose yourself in your thoughts. If you’re into walking there a multitude of routes you can take depending on how long you’ve got or how challenging you want to make your adventure. Plus there’s a few pubs dotted around that are worth factoring in to your itinerary. Kevin and Ceri also organise an annual walking festival through this area – definitely something I’d be keen to check out.

With a map it would be quite simple to find the Sgwd yr Eira waterfalls, but I’m not much chop with maps so I was glad to have gruff and knowledgable Kevin leading the way, pointing out geological and botanical points of interest.

As we drew closer you could hear the increasingly loud thunder of the waterfall. With a final scramble down a rocky embankment and we were there. Spectacular. I kind of put waterfalls in the same category as fireworks – there’s something magical and exciting about them, the uncontrolled power and beauty that somehow makes you feel a little bit more alive.

One of the great things about these falls is that you can easily walk behind the flowing curtain of water. I emerged wet and revitalized, and squelched my way back along the path to where I’d parked the car.

It was just a short drive on to Penderyn Distillery, producing some really interesting single malt whisky, this is the only distillery in Wales. After a brief tour of the operation, I tasted my way through the range and then stocked up in the shop.

Luckily it was only a short drive to my hotel for the night, the Ty Newydd. This is an old-school country hotel. Large, comfortable rooms, open fires, and good solid food for dinner.

Day three of my South Wales adventure and it was time to really challenge myself. I don’t cook much. One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2013 was to try and cook dinner at home at least once a week and I’m failing miserably. In a tough-love attempt to try and get excited about cooking I’d booked into a cooking class at the Chef’s School – which was a short drive away at Blaenavon.

The school is run by Lindy Wildsmith and I’d booked in for an Italian cooking class with Chef Franco Taruschio OBE. Originally from the Marche region in Italy, Franco established the renowned Walnut Tree restaurant in Monmouthshire.

There were eight of us enthusiastically gathered around Franco’s bench, sipping our caffè corretto (an espresso with grappa) before getting hands on and learning how to make pasta, potato gnocchi, risotto, and a range of sauces. Franco was superbly entertaining and the food was amazing, although I’m not entirely convinced that I’ll be able to replicate it at home. Franco didn’t seem too keen on my suggestion that he move in with me back in London, as a fall-back I may have to start looking for an Italian boyfriend.

Just around the corner from the Chef’s School is ‘The Big Pit’ which is the national coal museum of Wales. The identity and character of Wales is, in many ways, defined by coal mining.

The South Wales coalfield was developed from around 1850 through until the outbreak of World War I. This massive industrialization created huge employment opportunities and a population boom, transforming the valleys of Wales from a sparsely populated rural idyll to close-knit communities whose lives and fortunes revolved around the mines and the coal they produced.

Post-World War II, coal-mining in Wales suffered a steep decline, and finally in the mid-80s the UK government closed down the last remnants of the industry – leaving the valleys with huge unemployment, low educational attainment and all the associated social problems.

The Big Pit is a unique opportunity to get a small glimpse into what life was like for the coal miners of Wales. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve read about it all in books or learnt the history, to actually be able to go down into a coal mine, to experience the absolute pitch black dark, to see the conditions where people worked (men, women, and children) – it’s an incredibly bleak yet moving experience. I would definitely recommend making the effort to do this.

Still in Blaenavon I called into the Rhymney Brewery which boasts an impressive new visitors center and tasting bar. A pint of Rhymney bitter is probably the best way to mull over and get your head around what you have seen at The Big Pitt.

After an amazing couple of days exploring the valleys of South Wales, I called in to spend the night with my Aunt and Uncle in Lisvane (a village on the edge of Cardiff). They were pretty pleased with the samples of whisky and beer that I’d collected en route, and I regaled them with the stories of my adventures and how much I had loved exploring what the valleys of South Wales had to offer: ‘We know!’ they said, rolling their eyes - ‘we live here!’

It’s easy to see why. A great part of the world.   

For more information regarding the valleys of South Wales visit www.thevalleys.co.uk

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It doesn’t matter how much you’ve read about it all in books or learnt the history, to actually be able to go down into a coal mine, to experience the absolute pitch black dark, to see the conditions where people worked (men, women, and children) – it’s an incredibly bleak yet moving experience.