The new Wales Way is a trio of action-packed routes that snake their way through the glorious Welsh landscape. Tackled on a cycling, driving or trekking adventure, they encompass everything from historic sites and wildlife centres to a submerged forest. Norm Longley reports on some of their highlights.
A superb nexus of mountain biking, walking and running trails, Coed-y-Brenin seemed a fitting place to kick-start my journey.
With names like Dragons Back and Beast, the biking trails speak for themselves, but as a runner – and this being the UK’s first bespoke running trail centre – I had to give one of these trails a go.
I don my barefoots and head out into the woods along the third longest of the five trails, which range in distance from 1 mile to 13.5 miles.
It’s an exhilarating run, through thick oak woods, along river valleys and past medieval ironworks, with stunning views of the Snowdonia mountains to boot.
Following this mild bout of exertion, I’m in need of some refreshment. I’m in luck. There’s a new gin distillery close by.
South of here is Corris, home to the fabulous Dyfi distillery. Brothers Danny and Peter Cameron produce three premium gins here – ‘Original’, ‘Pollination’ and ‘Hibernation’ – using botanicals such as bog myrtle, gorse flowers and conifer tips, foraged in the local UNESCO-designated biosphere.
The results are exquisite. And the many recent plaudits and awards are testament to that; Pollination was voted best gin in the Great British Food Awards last year.
Meandering across the open moorland of the Cambrian mountains – the spine of Wales – I pause in Rhayader to visit the Gigrin Red Kite Feeding Centre. Owner Chris Powell, who has been running the centre since 1992, advises me to take a position in one of the hides a good forty-five minutes before feeding time.
Happily ensconced, my patience is eventually rewarded by the mesmerizing spectacle of some three or four hundred birds (Kites are shy creatures so a cluster of crows and buzzards lead the initial charge) squabbling over several kilos of raw meat. Witnessing this remarkable scrap-off, it’s difficult to believe that the Red Kite was almost an endangered species little more than forty years ago.
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Next, I dip down towards the Brecon Beacons, a forbidding but captivating landscape. At 886m, Pen-y-Fan is the star climb here. However, I choose to save my energies and go for the less strenuous hike up the enticingly named Sugar Loaf, whose broad, cone-like peak affords superlative views of the brooding mountains beyond.
In nearby Abergavenny – Wales’ self-proclaimed foodie capital – I reward myself with a pint in the Angel hotel’s warming Foxhunter bar.
South of the Beacons lie the Valleys, one of the most distinctive, and undoubtedly one of my favourite, parts of Wales.
The old slag heaps have long since been replaced by lush green hills, but it’s still possible to revisit the region’s rich industrial past with the colliery tours at the Rhondda, in Trehafod, and the evocative Big Pit in Blaenafon.
It’s possible also to visit one or two of the Valleys’ many dignified mining memorials, such as the superb Guardian monument in Abertillery.
The Memorial Garden in Senghenydd, where 439 miners perished in a single incident in 1913, is also worth visiting.
It’s a sobering end to this most compelling of road trips.
Inspired? From an inland surfing lagoon to one of the UK’s most spectacular festivals, here are five more highlights along the Wales Way:
1. Mwnt (Coastal Way) and Llandudno (North Wales Way)
Two contrasting, but equally charming, seaside destinations. The former (pronounced “Munt”) is a diminutive, National Trust-owned beach, above which stands a gorgeous little whitewashed church in windswept solitude. Llandudno, meanwhile, is a proper pier and prom resort whose superb Victorian seafront architecture harks back to its 19th-century heyday.
2. Submerged Forest, Borth (Coastal Way)
Intermittently located along a 2-mile stretch of coast between Ynyslas and Borth, this surreal, prehistoric forest – last alive some 4500 years ago and since preserved under a layer of peat – only reveals itself during very low tides.
3. Caernarfon Castle (North Wales Way)
No trip to Wales is complete without a visit to a castle, and few come better – or indeed bigger – than Caernarfon. This hulking, muscle-bound structure was conceived as part of Edward I’s Iron Ring, a formidable chain of Norman castles that pockmark the north Wales coast.
4. Portmeirion and Festival No.6 (Coastal Way)
Clough William-Ellis’ extraordinary fantasy village – an Italianate-inspired affair built in the 1920s – is the setting for the superb Festival No.6. This spectacular event combines music, art and culture to magical effect. You’ll probably get a Welsh male voice choir too. If you choose just one festival to attend in 2018, make it this one.
5. Surf Snowdonia (Cambrian Way)
The latest addition to Wales’ burgeoning roster of groundbreaking adventure pursuits, Surf Snowdonia is the world’s first inland surfing lagoon; whether you’re a mere beginner or an expert – 2m-high waves can be generated here – this is seriously innovative stuff.
Image credits top to bottom (left–right): antb/Shutterstock; Neil Wigmore/Shutterstock; Carol Blaker/Shutterstock; Mel Manser Photography/Shutterstock; andreac77/Shutterstock; Ian_Sherriffs/Shutterstock; Billy Stock/Shutterstock; Billy Stock/Shutterstock; S-F/Shutterstock; Gail Johnson/Shutterstock; EddieCloud/Shutterstock.