Monmouthshire, Wales’s easternmost county, abuts the English border and contains the bucolic charms of the River Wye and Tintern Abbey. To the west and north, although the coal mines no longer operate, the world-famous Valleys retain their tight-knit towns and a rich working-class heritage, and some excellent museums and colliery tours, including Big Pit at Blaenafon and the Rhondda Heritage Park in Trehafod.
The Valleys course down to the great ports of the coast, which once shipped Wales’s products all over the world. The greatest of them all was Cardiff, now Wales’s upbeat capital and an essential stop. Further west is Wales’s second city, Swansea – rougher, tougher and less anglicized than Cardiff, it sits on an impressive arc of coast that shelves round to the delightful Gower Peninsula, replete with grand beaches, rocky headlands, bracken heaths and ruined castles.
Carmarthenshire, often missed out, is well worth visiting: of all the routes radiating from the county town of Carmarthen, the most glorious is the winding road to Llandeilo along the Tywi Valley, past ruined hilltop forts and two of the country’s finest gardens. Immediately east sits Wales’s most impressively sited castle at Carreg Cennen, high on a dizzy rock-plug on the edge of the Black Mountain. The wide sands fringing Carmarthen Bay stretch towards the popular seaside resort of Tenby, a major stop on the 186-mile Pembrokeshire Coast Path. The rutted coastline of St Bride’s Bay is the most glorious part of the coastal walk, which leads north to brush past the impeccable mini-city of St Davids, whose exquisite cathedral shelters in a protective hollow. Nearby are plenty of opportunities for spectacular coast and hill walks, boat crossings to nearby islands, wildlife-watching and numerous outdoor activities.
Dylan Thomas called SWANSEA (Abertawe) – his birthplace – an “ugly, lovely town”, which fellow poet Paul Durcan updated to “pretty, shitty city”. Both ring true. Sprawling and boisterous, with around 200,000 people, Swansea may be only the second city of Wales, but it’s the undoubted Welsh capital of attitude, coated in a layer of chunky bling. The city centre was massively rebuilt after devastating bomb attacks in World War II, and a jumble of tower blocks now dot the horizon. But closer inspection reveals Swansea’s multifarious charms: some intact old corners of the city centre, the spacious and graceful suburb of Uplands, a wide seafront overlooking Swansea Bay and a bold marina development around the old docks. Spread throughout are some of the best-funded museums in the country, including the stunning National Waterfront Museum.
Swansea’s Welsh name, Abertawe, refers to the mouth of the River Tawe, a grimy ditch that is slowly recovering after centuries of abuse by heavy industry. The city itself dates back to 1099 when William the Conqueror’s troops built a castle here. A settlement grew around this, later exploiting its location between the coalfields and the sea to become a shipbuilding centre, and then, by 1700, the largest coal port in Wales. Copper smelting took over as the area’s dominant industry in the eighteenth century, and this attracted other metal trades, developing the region into one of the world’s most prolific metal-bashing centres.
The spit of land between Oystermouth Road, the sea and the Tawe estuary has been christened the Maritime Quarter – tourist-board-speak for the old docks – with legions of modern flats surrounding a vast marina.
On the marina, Swansea’s sublime National Waterfront Museum was carved out of the shell of the old Industrial and Maritime Museum, which has been stunningly extended to house a breathtakingly varied set of exhibitions dealing with Wales’s history of innovation and industry. The museum is divided into fifteen zones, looking at topics such as energy, landscape, coal, genealogy, networks and money, and each section is bursting with interactive technology. Within the complex, there are shops, a café and a lovely waterfront balcony.
The Wye Valley, along with the rest of Monmouthshire, was finally recognized as part of Wales in the local government reorganization of 1974. Before then, the county was officially included as part of neither England nor Wales, so that maps were frequently headlined “Wales and Monmouthshire”. Most of the rest of Monmouthshire is undoubtedly Welsh, but the woodlands and hills by the meandering River Wye have more in common with the landscape over the border. The two main centres are Chepstow, with its massive castle, and the spruce, old-fashioned town of Monmouth, sixteen miles upstream. Six miles north of Chepstow lie the atmospheric ruins of the Cistercian Tintern Abbey.
The fertile, low-lying land between the Monnow and Usk rivers was important for easy access into the agricultural lands of South Wales, and in the eleventh century the Norman invaders built a trio of strongholds here to protect their interests. In 1201, Skenfrith, Grosmont and White castles were presented by King John to Hubert de Burgh, who employed sophisticated new ideas on castle design to replace the earlier, square-keeped structures. In 1260, the advancing army of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd began to threaten the king’s supremacy in South Wales, and the three castles were refortified in readiness. Gradually, the castles were adapted as living quarters and royal administration centres, and the only return to military usage came in 1404–05, when Owain Glyndŵr’s army pressed down to Grosmont, only to be defeated by the future King Henry V. The castles slipped into disrepair and were finally sold separately in 1902, the first time since 1138 that the three had fallen out of single ownership.
has inspired writers and painters for more than two centuries – Wordsworth and Turner among them. Such is its popularity, however, that it’s best to go out of season or at either end of the day to avoid the crowds. The abbey was founded in 1131 by Cistercian monks from Normandy, though most of the remaining buildings date from the massive rebuilding and expansion of the fourteenth century, when Tintern was at its mightiest. Its survival after the Dissolution is largely due to its remoteness, as there were no nearby villages ready to use the abbey stone for rebuilding.
The centrepiece of the complex is the magnificent Gothic church, whose remarkable tracery and intricate stonework remain intact. Around the church are the less substantial ruins of the monks’ domestic quarters and cloister, mostly reduced to one-storey rubble. The course of the abbey’s waste-disposal system can be seen in the Great Drain, an irregular channel that links kitchens, toilets and the infirmary with the nearby Wye. The Novices’ Hall lies handily close to the Warming House, which together with the kitchen and infirmary would have been the abbey’s only heated areas, suggesting that novices might have gained a falsely favourable impression of monastic life before taking their final vows.