The recent opening of a £2m, state-of-the-art mountain bike centre has cemented the Welsh Valleys’ burgeoning reputation as an adventure sports hub. Rough Guides writer Shafik Meghji went downhill fast as he braved the Welsh mountain bike trails.
As I approached Melted Welly, a winding trail down the 491-metre-high Gethin Mountain, my biggest concern was not my own safety, but that of my bike, hired for the day and worth a cool £2,400. Although only an intermediate trail, Melted Welly’s sharp turns, precipitous descents and loose, uneven surfaces looked certain to provide ample opportunities for broken frames, dislocated handlebars and bruised saddles, particularly for a novice mountain biker like myself.
Yet as soon as I set off any lingering concerns swiftly vanished in the sheer exhilaration – and occasional moments of terror – of the ride, which snaked through forests, rocky sections and even a tunnel. There are also stunning views across the countryside of South Wales, though it was only when I reached the end of the trail unscathed that I was really able to appreciate them.
Located just outside Merthyr Tydfil in the Welsh Valleys, a 30-minute drive from Cardiff, BikePark Wales (one-day pass £5, one-day pass with uplift £30) is the UK’s first full-scale mountain biking centre. It is best thought of as ski resort, but for mountain bikes: instead of snow-covered pistes there are 23 downhill trails – each with idiosyncratic names like Melted Welly, Coal not Dole and Pork Belly – tailored for everyone from beginners to pros. They were designed by Welsh downhill mountain bike champion Rowan Sorrell and are maintained by the UK’s only full-time mountain bike trail crew.
A fleet of minibuses provide uplift, transporting you and your bike up to the top of Gethin Mountain where the trails begin – though some hardcore bikers prefer to reach the summit under their own steam.
BikePark Wales, which opened in late August, adds to the Welsh Valleys’ burgeoning reputation as an adventure sport and outdoor activity hub, something that is providing a much-needed boost to the region after years of economic decline. There are several other top class mountain bike trails in the Welsh Valleys, including Afan Forest Park and Cwmcarn Forest.
The region is also a hotspot for climbing and caving, and the Rock Summit Centre, built on the site of the former Trelewis drift mine near the town of Treharris, is a great place to get a taste of both activities. Home to the largest climbing wall in Wales and a world class man-made caving facility, the centre also offers kayaking and canoeing on the nearby Taff Bargoed lakes, an area that when the mines closed in the late 1980s was deemed too polluted for the public to enter.
Since then a major regeneration project has taken place, and the Taff Bargoed Valley is something of an idyll: as well as canoeists and kayakers, the two crystal-clear lakes here are popular with anglers hoping to catch rainbow or brown trout, and all manner of birdlife (77 different species have been spotted in the valley).
The Welsh Valleys are not just for adrenalin junkies, however, and Bryngarw House and Country Park, just outside the town of Bridgend, is the perfect place to indulge your inner Ray Mears, with fascinating bushcraft courses that teach you everything from making a fire to building a shelter.
The aim of the sessions, says ranger Dan Lock, is less about learning survival skills – “If you get lost in the wild these days, you just pull out your mobile phone” – and more about gaining a deeper understanding of the natural world. Although it’s not as adrenaline-pumping as speeding down Gethin Mountain or scaling a climbing wall, learning to light your own fire using nothing more than a knife, a flint and some freshly cut sticks is an equally satisfying experience.
For more information on the Valleys, visit http://www.thevalleys.co.uk or follow @LoveTheValleys on Twitter. Shafik Meghji blogs at http://www.unmappedroutes.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @ShafikMeghji.
Explore more of Wales with the Rough Guide to Wales.