With craggy mountains, large areas of moorland, a deeply indented coastline, wide beaches and fast-flowing rivers, Wales makes a fabulous outdoor playground – you’re never far from a stretch of countryside where you can lose the crowds on a brief walk or cycle ride. The short day-hikes are some of the best anywhere, while keen walkers can hike a skyline ridge or tackle a long-distance path over a couple of visits or in one epic tramp. Mountain bikers whizz around the popular forest bike parks, while road options include many wonderfully scenic, little-frequented back roads. Elsewhere, the mountains and cliffs provide scope for fabulous rock climbing and thrilling coasteering trips. Along gentler coasts, watersports prevail, particularly the growing sports of kiteboarding and wakeboarding. And there are plenty of fine beaches for less structured fresh-air activities.
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There isn’t a built-up area in Wales that’s more than half an hour away from some decent walking country, but three areas are so outstanding they have been designated national parks. Most of Wales’ northwestern corner is taken up with the Snowdonia National Park, comprising a dozen of the country’s highest peaks separated by dramatic glaciated valleys and laced with hundreds of miles of ridge and moorland paths. From Snowdonia, the Cambrian Mountains stretch south to the Brecon Beacons National Park, with its striking sandstone scarp at the head of the south Wales coalfield and lush, cave-riddled limestone valleys to the south. One hundred and seventy miles of Wales’ southwestern peninsula make up the third park, the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, best explored along the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, one of Wales’ increasing number of designated long-distance paths.
Unless you’re doing your walking on out-of-season weekdays, don’t expect to have the major trails in the national parks to yourself. Many of the best one-day walks in the country are detailed in this Guide, but for more arduous mountain treks, you’ll benefit from bringing a specialist walking guidebook, which are widely available. The best are listed onfor more information, see Poetry, and you can get more information from The Ramblers’ Association (t020 7339 8500), Britain’s main countryside campaigning organization and self-appointed guardian of the nation’s footpaths and rights of way.
Rights of access
Although they are managed by committees of local and state officials, all three Welsh national parks are predominantly privately owned. Until recently it was the goodwill of landowners that gave access to much of the land, but the 2005 Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CRoW) gives open access on foot (but not generally by bike or horse) to “all land that is predominantly mountain, moor, heath or down” across Wales. Such areas (almost a fifth of the country) are marked on all new Ordnance Survey maps, and at boundaries you’ll see a brown “walking man” sign. Landowners are, however, allowed to restrict access for a number of reasons, and signs are posted locally.
Access to other land is restricted to public rights of way: footpaths (pedestrians only; yellow waymarkers), bridleways (pedestrians, horses and bicycles; blue waymarkers) and byways (open to all traffic, but generally unsurfaced; red waymarkers) that have seen continued use over the centuries. Historically, these are often over narrow mountain passes between two hamlets, or linking villages to mines or summer pastureland. Rights of way are marked on Ordnance Survey maps and are indicated from roads with signposts, and intermittently waymarked across the countryside; any stiles and gates on the path have to be maintained by the landowner. Some less scrupulous owners have been known to block rights of way by destroying stiles – and with some walkers wilfully straying from official rights of way, some resentment is perhaps understandable. Disputes are uncommon, but your surest way of avoiding trouble is to meticulously follow the right of way on an up-to-date map.
Ordnance Survey maps also indicate routes with concessionary path or courtesy path status, where access is given over private land at the goodwill of the owner; though these are usually open for public use they can be closed at any time.
Some places to stay that are particularly geared to walkers display a “Walkers Welcome” sticker in their window and on their website.
Celtic Trails walkingwales.co.uk
Contours Walking Holidays contours.co.uk
Drover Holidays droverholidays.co.uk
Footpath Holidays footpath-holidays.com
Walkabout Wales walkabout-wales.com
Walk or Bike Wales walkorbikewales.com
Rock climbing and scrambling
As well as being superb walking country, Snowdonia offers some of Britain’s best rock climbing and several challenging scrambles – ascents that fall somewhere between walks and climbs, requiring the use of your hands. One or two of the tougher walks included in the text have sections of scrambling, but for the most part this is a specialist discipline, well covered in books available locally.
The scale may not be huge (the highest route only takes you up 800ft) but the quality is excellent, and there’s an astonishing variety of routes in a small area. In fact, the term “cragging” comes from craig, Welsh for cliff. Llanberis, at the foot of Snowdon, is the home of Welsh climbing, with routes ranging from easy hands-on scrambles up mountain ridges to impossibly difficult climbs only achievable by a few dozen people in the world.
In the south of the country, the pick of the crags are the limestone sea cliffs along the Pembrokeshire coast. The bulk of the action happens near Bosherston. The military ordnance testing areas of Range East and Range West here mean that parts of the coast are off limits (permits for some places require climbers to attend a bomb recognition course), but there are plenty of areas with much freer access. Further east, the Gower peninsula is also ringed by tempting sea cliffs.
Beginners should contact Plas y Brenin: The National Mountain Centre, or the British Mountaineering Council (thebmc.co.uk), which can put you in touch with climbing guides and people running courses.
Over the last decade or so, Wales has positioned itself as one of Britain’s premier cycling destinations, with a complex web of traffic-free bike paths, off-road tracks and low-traffic cycle routes, plus some excellent mountain bike parks. Backroad routes along river valleys and over mountain passes have a sufficient density of pubs and B&Bs to keep the days manageable, and while steep gradients can be a problem, ascents are never long, with Wales’ highest pass barely reaching 1500ft. The picture isn’t so rosy in most towns and cities, where cyclists are still treated with notorious disrespect by many motorized road users and by the people who plan the country’s traffic systems. If you plan to ride in built-up areas, get a helmet and a secure lock – cycle theft is an organized racket.
Transporting your bike by train is a good way of getting to the interesting parts of Wales without a lot of stressful pedalling. Bikes are generally carried free on suburban trains outside the weekday rush hours of 7.30 to 9.30am and 4 to 6pm. On most routes in Wales there is only space for two bikes and you are expected to make a reservation (free), though they’ll accept unreserved bikes if there is space. On inter-city routes, say from England into Wales, space is still very limited but free reservations are accepted. Arriva’s free Cycling by Train brochure (downloadable from warrivatrainswales.co.uk), and the National Rail Cycling by Train (from nationalrail.co.uk) are both useful resources.
Bike rental is available at bike shops in some large towns (outlined throughout the Guide) and many resorts, but the specimens are seldom top-quality machines – alright for a brief spin, but not for any serious touring. Expect to pay in the region of £25 per day, more for specialist off-road machines with suspension.
Places to stay that are particularly geared to cyclists often have a “Cyclists Welcome” sticker in their window and on their website.
Cycle touring routes
The best of Wales’ narrow lanes, disused railway lines and forest paths have been linked together to form cycle routes as part of the National Cycle Network created by Sustrans (t0845 113 0065, sustrans.org.uk). Set up in 1977, this charity promotes sustainable transport, principally by developing cycling routes – over 10,000 miles have been created, 1200 of them in Wales, of which a quarter are traffic-free. The entire network is covered in the official Cycling in the UK handbook (£20).
Three major cycling routes cross Wales. The main north–south Lôn Las Cymru (the Welsh National Route; Route 8) was opened in 1996 and covers 250 hilly miles from Anglesey, through Snowdonia, the Brecon Beacons and the industrial valleys of the south, to the Severn Bridge. Sustrans publishes two maps of the route (£7 each), one covering Holyhead to Builth Wells and the other from Builth Wells to Chepstow and Cardiff. Lôn Geltaidd (Celtic Trail East; Route 4; map £7) traverses 186 miles across the south of the country (70 percent of it traffic-free) from Fishguard to the Severn Bridge. Along the north coast the busy roads are avoided on the North Wales Coast Route (Route 5). In addition there are numerous other local routes, sometimes on dedicated traffic-free paths but often directed along quiet lanes: free leaflets available locally are easy to follow. Areas worth considering are the Gower peninsula, Pembrokeshire, Anglesey, the Llŷn and the supremely unspoilt and fairly challenging, three-day Radnor Ring, near Llandrindod Wells.
Since the 1990s, the forests of Wales have gained an enviable reputation for top-class mountain biking. Every weekend mud-bespattered bikers weave along miles of single-track at the thirteen dedicated bike parks dotted along the mountainous spine of the country – from the Gŵydyr Forest just outside Betws-y-Coed to Cwm Carn in the Valleys northwest of Newport. There’s something to suit everyone, from beginners to hardened speed freaks. There’s no charge for using them (though there may be a small parking fee), but bike-rental facilities are rare and you are usually better off bringing your own machine or renting one from a nearby town.
Elsewhere, off-road cycling is allowed along designated bridleways (waymarked with blue arrows), including the Snowdon Ranger, Rhyd Ddu and Llanberis paths up Snowdon, but conflict between hikers and bikers has led to the creation of the Snowdon Voluntary Cycling Agreement, which limits the hours riders can use them. Anytime in winter (Oct–April) is OK and you can ride before 10am and after 5pm throughout the summer: slog up in the pre-dawn cool for that summit sunrise, or head up for sunset and a nerve-wracking dusk descent.
If you really fancy a challenge, make for Sarn Helen, an epic route across the country through Snowdonia and the Brecon Beacons loosely following an old Roman route. At 270 miles long – running from Conwy to Gower – it’s reckoned to be the most ambitious off-road ride in Britain and is likely to take over a week.
Footpaths, unless otherwise marked, are for pedestrian use only, and even on bridleways you should as a cyclist always pass walkers at a considerate speed and with a courteous warning of your presence.
For more information check out: mbwales.com, a Visit Wales site concentrating on the main bike parks, or mtbwales.co.uk, which has excellent articles on routes along with groups where you can hook up with other riders. Local bookshops and bike stores stock relevant guides, but some of the best trails the country has to offer are covered by Bikefax: The best mountain bike trails in Snowdonia (£17) and The Good Mountain Biking Guide (£20).
The CTC and holidays
Britain’s biggest cycling organization, the Cyclists’ Touring Club (CTC:
t0844 736 8450, ctc.org.uk), supplies members with touring and technical advice as well as insurance. Its website is a wealth of information, including dozens of routes through Wales.
If you want a guaranteed hassle-free cycling holiday, various companies offer easy-going tours where you ride from hotel to hotel, and a van carries your bags. Some give you an arranged itinerary, while others guide you.
Bicycle Beano t01981 560471, bicycle-beano.co.uk. Book well ahead to join Bicycle Beano on week-long cycling holidays (£540–720) through the Wye Valley, the Cambrian coast and Snowdonia. They pedal along with you and rides include accommodation and all meals (except lunch). They’re a lot of fun, good value for money and the cooking is vegetarian (and often organic).
Crwydro Môn angleseywalkingholidays.com/cycling.html. Tailored, week-long, self-guided packages around Anglesey with bike, B&B and luggage transfer included.
Drover Holidays droverholidays.co.uk. Over a dozen guided and self-guided bike tours all over Wales with everything organized and even the option of an electrically assisted bike to help with the nastier hills.
PedalAway t01989 770357, pedalaway.co.uk. Based over the border in Ross-on-Wye, PedalAway offer bike rental along with two-, four- and six-day self-guide touring itineraries into the Black Mountains, and along the Wye Valley, plus off-road tours.
Wheely Wonderful Cycling wheelywonderfulcycling.co.uk. Several self-guided tours around wonderfully rural sections of mid-Wales and the borders from a weekend to a week.
Beaches, surfing, kiteboarding and coasteering
Wales is ringed by fine beaches and bays, many of which are readily accessible by public transport – though some tend to get very busy in high summer. With most of the Welsh coast influenced by the currents of the North Atlantic Drift, water temperatures are higher than you might expect for this latitude, but only the truly hardy should consider swimming outside summer. For swimming and sunbathing, the best areas to head for are the Gower peninsula, the Pembrokeshire coast, the Llŷn and the southwest coast of Anglesey. Though it has more resorts than any other section of Wales’ coastline, the north coast certainly hasn’t got the most attractive beaches, nor is it a particularly alluring place to swim.
Wales’ southwest-facing beaches offer the best conditions for surfing, windsurfing and kiteboarding. The water may not be that warm, but great sweeping beaches lashed by strong, steady winds off the Atlantic make for some excellent spots. Key centres are Rhosneigr on Anglesey, Aberdyfi along the Cambrian coast, Whitesands Bay (Porth-mawr) near St Davids, and Rhossili on the Gower peninsula near Swansea. All these places have shops selling gear and offering lessons. Kiteboarding isn’t exactly an easy sport to learn, but a class can get you body-dragging (more fun than it sounds) inside a day, and actually riding a board in a couple of days.
For surfing information, contact the Welsh Surfing Federation Surf School (t01792 386426, wsfsurfschool.co.uk) on the Gower peninsula.
If you’d rather surf indoors, the waterpark at Swansea’s new state-of-the-art LC leisure complex (t01792 466500, thelcswansea.com) features the “Board Rider”, the UK’s only standing surfing wave machine, with beginner, intermediate and advanced surfing lessons available.
Wales may not be at the cutting edge of adventure sports, but it led the way with coasteering, an exhilarating combination of hiking, coastal scrambling, swimming and cliff-jumping. Clad in a wetsuit, helmet and buoyancy aid, you aim to make your way as a group along the rugged, wave-lashed coastline. It was pioneered by St Davids-based TYF Adventure, who run a range of trips, from the relatively tame to full-on blasts along the coast and even eco-trips suited to families.
Kayaking and rafting
Board riders constantly have to compete for waves with the surf ski riders and kayakers who frequent the same beaches. Paddlers, however, have the additional run of miles of superb coastline, particularly around Anglesey, the Llŷn and the Pembrokeshire coast. The best general guide is the encyclopaedic Welsh Sea Kayaking (£20) by Jim Krawiecki and Andy Biggs.
Inland, short, steep bedrock rivers come alive after rain. As equipment improves, paddlers have become more daring, and Victorian tourist attractions such as Swallow and Conwy falls, both near Betws-y-Coed, are now fair game for a descent. Most of the kayaking is non-competitive, but on summer weekends you might catch a slalom or freestyle kayaking event at the National Whitewater Centre, outside Bala, or at the artificial Cardiff International White Water. In both places you can ride the rapids in rafts. The best whitewater resource is canoewales.com.
Wales’ scattered population and large tracts of open land are ideal for pony trekking. Don’t expect too much cantering over unfenced land: rides tend to be geared towards unhurried appreciation of the scenery from horseback, and are often combined with accommodation on farms. Rates are typically around £20 for the first hour and £10–15 for each subsequent hour.
Mid-Wales has the greatest concentration of stables, but there are places all over the country, amply detailed in the brochures supplied by the Wales Trekking and Riding Association (t01497 847464, ridingwales.com).
Rugby (the “Union” variety) is a passion with the Welsh, and their national game. Support is strongest in the working-class valleys of south Wales, where the fanaticism has traditionally been fuelled by the national side’s success. Welsh rugby saw its glory days in the 1970s, when Wales turned out some of the best sides ever seen. The scarlet jerseys struck fear into their opponents in the Five Nations Championship – an annual tournament where Wales, England, Scotland, Ireland and France all played each other (now superseded by the Six Nations Championship, with the addition of Italy). That 1970s side won six out of the ten championships – three of them Grand Slams, where all the opponents were beaten. The players that made Wales so formidable included fearless fullback J.P.R. Williams, the elusive and magical outside-halves Barry John and Phil Bennett, and the dynamic scrum-half Gareth Edwards.
Victories were harder to come by in the 1980s, and by 1991, the national side reached its nadir with its worst-ever international loss of 63–6 at the hands of Australia. When rugby turned professional in 1995 it was able to coax back players who had defected to the rival code, rugby league, but Wales generally struggled to keep up with the standards of arch adversary England throughout the 1990s, let alone match the power and attacking panache of the all-conquering southern hemisphere sides. Recognizing this dominance of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, the Welsh Rugby Union (wru.co.uk) enlisted the coaching help of New Zealander, Graham Henry, in 1998. He oversaw an astonishing string of victories including one over South Africa in the first game to be played at the brand-new 72,500-seater Millennium Stadium, built on the site of the legendary Cardiff Arms Park. All this raised hopes of success in the 1999 Rugby World Cup, hosted by Wales. They stumbled at the quarter-final stage, but in the process, Neil Jenkins overtook Australian Michael Lynagh’s record for the greatest number of international points scored. An embarrassing loss to Argentina and a drubbing by Ireland put an end to Henry’s reign. Wales only managed to get to the quarter-finals of the 2003 Rugby World Cup in Australia, but in 2005 Wales saw a massive turnaround and the national team lifted the Six Nations trophy with a Grand Slam. The next couple of years saw poor results culminating in an abominable 2007 Rugby World Cup when the national team failed to progress to the quarter-finals. Under another Kiwi coach, Warren Gatland, the national side rebounded in 2008 with a massive Grand Slam, conceding just two tries in the process. Results have been poorer since, until Wales pulled one out of the bag during the 2011 Rugby World Cup being robbed of a place in the final after a dubious sending off of captain Sam Worthington against France.
To see an international game, you’ll have to be affiliated to one of the Rugby Union clubs or be prepared to pay well over the odds at one of the ticket agencies. Most tickets are allocated months before a match, and touts will often be found selling tickets for hundreds of pounds outside the gates on the day. Away from the international arena, a thriving rugby scene exists at club level, with upwards of a hundred clubs and 40,000 players taking to the field most Saturdays throughout the season (from September to just after Easter). The upper tier is known as the Magners League, with four Welsh teams – Cardiff Blues, Scarlets (formerly the Llanelli Scarlets), Newport Gwent Dragons and (Swansea) Ospreys – playing against the top teams from Ireland, Scotland and (from 2010–11) Italy. Welsh teams have won the competition four of the ten years it has run.
It’s often worth going to a match purely for the light-hearted crowd banter – if you can understand the accents. Check with individual clubs for fixtures and ticket prices, which start at under £15 (though £20–25 is typical).
Though Welsh football (soccer) is seen as a minority sport, it has just as many participants as rugby. The three top sides in the country – Cardiff City, Swansea City and Wrexham – all play within the English Football League system, though Wrexham were relegated from the fourth division in 2008. At the end of the 2010/11 season both Cardiff and Swansea made the playoffs for promotion from the second tier Championship, with Swansea achieving promotion to the Premier League. Three years earlier, Cardiff reached the final of the FA Cup for the first time since 1927.
The rest of the clubs play in the lacklustre (but improving) Welsh Premier League (welshpremier.com). For more on the Welsh game, check the website of the Football Association of Wales (faw.org.uk).
Under the stewardship of former player Mark Hughes, the national side experienced a brief spell of success between 2002 and 2004. Wales remained unbeaten during Hughes’ first eight games in charge, often thanks to the mercurial brilliance of Ryan Giggs, with a morale-boosting win over Finland in Helsinki followed by a shock 2–1 victory over Italy.
In the end, Wales narrowly missed out on reaching the finals of Euro 2004, which would have been their first major finals since the 1958 World Cup, when they lost to eventual winners Brazil in the quarter-finals.
Recent results haven’t been great, with few wins in the team’s unsuccessful campaigns to reach any of the major competitions, including Euro 2012. They are currently ranked around 100th in the world. Maybe Gareth Bale, the Professional Footballers’ Association’s 2011 Player of the Year, can help galvanize national performances.