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South Wales - A Round Trip
Villages & Resorts in Wales in general
Member Name: derek-a
Villages & Resorts in Wales in general
Advantages: Shops, Castles, History, Moors, Beaches - Not to mention the shopping.
Disadvantages: British Weather..
South Wales, within easy reach of from most parts of the country, has tended to be associated with coal mining and heavy industry. But now, steeped in history and legend, it is a most fascinating place for the visitor.
In this review I intend to take you on a "trip" around my land of my fathers, South Wales. We will explore Cardiff City, the move up around Brecon to the North, travel around to see a little of West Wales, around the Gower Peninsular and back again to Cardiff. Let's go...
In it's history Cardiff, the capital, has been the foremost centre for the exportation of coal in the world. That may give the impression of a dirty coal-mining town, but on the contrary, Cardiff is a very attractive city to the visitor. It is an under-statement to say the architecture is very eye-catching, with it's Norman Castle and Edwardian civic centre, surrounded by flowering trees and ornate flower beds.
The history of Cardiff Castle goes back to the eleventh century. It was built on the site of a derelict Roman fort and many non-Welsh people settled there. This brought about many attacks from the surrounding villages of the native Welsh. In 1158, Lord Ifor ap Meurig, of Sengenydd (near Caerphilly), the Norman Lord of Glamorgan, together with his Countess, was kidnapped from the castle and held for ransom, for certain 'wrongs' he had inflicted on the natives.
In 1865, the castle underwent an amazing transformation by an architect named William Burges. He was doing the work for the third Marquis of Bute. The work can still marvelled at to this day.
The building looks like a fairy-tale creation, that could well grace the pages of the book, Sleeping Beauty. There are guided tours around the castle, and it is full of medieval and ornate decoration, that includes: the 'Chaucer Room', based on Chaucer's works; the richly decorated Arab room; the Summer Smoking Rooms decorated with emblems of the universe, to name but a few. Peacocks inhabit the grounds and screech-like calls can be frequently heard.
It is obvious that money was no object to the Marquis of Bute. Cardiff Castle is a magnificent place to visit.
Cardiff shopping centre is a mixture of the modern with the old. Modern shopping malls sit alongside Victorian Arcades, with the new St. David's centre at the heart of the city. Adjacent to the centre is St. David's Hall. Here, we find a variety of entertainment all the year round, from singing stars like Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones to famous comedians, orchestras and opera stars. A few streets away, one can find Cardiff Ice Rink. Here you can try your hand at ice skating or just settle back and watch others collect a few bruises. Very often there is a professional exhibition of skating like Torval and Dean.
Other attractions in Cardiff are the National Museum of Wales, with it's fine artefacts of Welsh history and other collections and, about five miles to the West of the City, St. Fagan's Folk museum.
St. Fagan's is an open-air museum and has various historical Welsh farm houses erected in the grounds. Here, one can really see how the Welsh peasants used to live. Some of these cottages have only two rooms, one on the ground floor with beaten earth under foot, and a crude ladder leading to cramped sleeping quarters in the attic of a thatched roof.
These buildings have been brought to the museum stone by stone from all over. Wales. Originally these types of cottages were erected very quickly, because the builder would probably be staking a claim on the land that surrounded it. It was his as far as he could throw an axe. He could keep the land providing he could build it over-night and have smoke pouring out of the chimney by daybreak. In the larger cottages, animals often lived inside with the occupants. These were usually built on a slope, so that the animal's waste products could drain away from the living quarters. [For further information on St Fagan’s see my other review]
About three miles to the west of Cardiff, lies the City of Llandaff. The unusual thing about Llandaff is its size. It only has one main road containing about a dozen shops. Then suddenly there's this huge semi-medieval Cathedral towering above a small village green surrounded by quaint 'olde-worlde' cottages.
To the North of Llandaff, through Whitchurch lies the small village of Tongwynlais. Here stands another fairy-tale castle, Castell Coch.
Looking at the rounded shape of this building, it is easy to imagine a medieval knight in shining armour on a quest to rescue the 'damsel in distress' from its tall tower protruding out of the thickly wooded hillside. In late spring there is a strong smell of wild garlic. Castell Coch, is open to the public all the year round.
A little further North brings us to Caerphilly. A market town, famous for it white-coloured cheese, which surrounds yet another castle. One of its towers leans precariously away from the rest. Apparently this was the aftermath of Cromwell's attack during the civil war in the seventeenth century. Apart from Windsor, Caerphilly has the biggest castle in Britain. Surrounding the castle are moats full of water-foul.
About twenty miles up the A470, lies Merthyr Tydfil which is not renowned for it's beauty. It has been ravaged by every type of industry since it's development in the eighteenth century. But for those who are interested in history...
Merthyr was the most populous town in Wales. It was here that the first steam locomotive in the world conveyed five wagons, full of steal, to Abercynon; about nine miles to the south. The engine was built by 32-yr-old Richard Trevithick, a native of Cornwall, and had a brick chimney stack that was knocked off by a bridge and rebuilt during that first journey. Alals, after a few journeys the whole engine collapsed.
Poor old Merthyr Tydfil was never much loved. A novel written by Anthony Trollope describes how a young curate faints when he learns he is to be sent there to work. Also In the eighteenth century, it was described by Thomas Carlyle as "a vision of hell", when he witnessed men toiling and sweating in the furnaces and coal pits.
Through the centuries, Merthyr has had it's fair share of riots and in the 1930's it was suggested that the town be abandoned and it's citizens be rehoused elsewhere! Fortunately, the town is a much more attractive place to be these days.
To the north of Merthyr is an astonishing contrast with the natural beauty of the Brecon Beacons National Park.
The idea of National Parks came to the UK from America which boasted the first ever -Yellowstone Park in 1872. However, Britain did not catch on to the idea until 1938 when the Standard Committee for National Parks (SNCP) was founded. The Brecon Beacons park was 'born' in April 1957. A national park is not land that anybody can have access to just as they wish. Much of it may be owned by farmers and other landowners. Much of the Beacons is owned by the National Trust.
For the railway enthusiast, the Brecon Mountain Railway has been opened since 1980 and runs throughout the summer months and at Easter. This is the lazier way to view these remarkable hillsides.
The Beacons cover 1,344 sq. km, and is mostly sparsely populated moorland grazed by ponies and sheep. The park is visited by huge numbers of tourists during the summer with pony trekking and hill walking a common sight. At one time, pony trekking became such a popular pastime with tourists and the locals, that many farms devoted most of their resources to it and suspended all their other activities.
The Beacons is abundant in wild life, inhabited by foxes, badgers, polecats, squirrel and a variety of birds. On a walk through the wooded parts of the Beacons, if you are fortunate, you will see wild birds such as woodpecker, tree creeper, stock dove and, on the moors, buzzard and kites may be seen hovering over their prey. There are many fresh-water lakes with Llangorse Lake being the largest in South Wales where many waterfowl breed. Many birds like, great crested grebe, mute swan, sedge warblers and reed buntings can be viewed here in the respective seasons. Occasionally one may see herds of ponies. However, these animals are not wild, but privately owned, registered Welsh mountain ponies, that are bred for their hardiness and abilities to fend for themselves on the bleak Welsh hills. Because they are cheap and easy to keep they are generally broken and sold as children's riding ponies.
If you enjoy camping, there are many sites across the Beacons. If you like rambling or hill walking, you can walk for miles without seeing another human being. Better take a map and compass though, because the only paths available are those etched out by the sheep, and they are not interested in going anywhere in particular, especially to areas populated by humans!
On the north of the park lies the town of Brecon, the capital of the Beacons. It is an attractive market town, surrounded by the mountains. People settled here long before the Norman times. But in 1091, Bernard of Newmarch built a castle and declared himself to be Lord of Brecon. (Bernard was actually the half brother of William the Conqueror). The Norman ruins are now scattered between the Castle Hotel and the residence of the Bishop of Brecon.
There has always been a military presence in Brecon and there is a military museum, of the South Wales Borderers, that displays, amongst other regimental artefacts, sixteen Victoria Crosses, which the regiment displays with pride, because only twenty-three have been won; which means that the South Wales Borderers have attained the highest number by any line regiment in the British Army.
Something that may be considered odd, is the Bronze statue of the Duke of Wellington. This was erected by Evan Thomas in 1856. Thomas, born in Brecon in 1810, created the statue as a mark of respect after the Duke's death in 1852. The Duke had nothing whatsoever to do with the town but was much loved by the whole nation.
Other claims to fame in Brecon are…
It's the birth place of Mrs. Sarah Siddons, a famous actress, whose statue is currently in Westminster Abbey. She was born in an inn called The Shoulder of Mutton which was later renamed The Sarah Siddons in her honour. However, according to the sign the back door, the inn is still called The Shoulder of Mutton. Which may get some people a little confused after drinking a few ales.
Here in 1895, Hugh Price was born. Born of humble parents, he became a doctor of law and founded Jesus College, Oxford in 1671. It is said he is buried in Brecon Cathedral, but the grave is unmarked.
Other attractive features in Brecon are the cobbled foreground of Buckingham Place; a seventeenth century town mansion, which can be seen from Glamorgan Street; the Catholic church where Adelina Patti got married and the over-exaggerated name of King Street which is nothing but a steep, cobbled walk-way.
Just to the south of the town of Brecon is Pen-y-Fan. This is the highest peak in South Wales at 2,906 ft. (886m). There is a col between the twin peaks of Pen-y-Fan and Corn-Du just to the south, and this is known as Cadair Arthur (King Arthur's chair). Legend has it that in underground caves, King Arthur and his knights are sleeping awaiting for a summons from Britain in future times of crisis.
A visit to the Beacons would not be complete without seeing Dan-yr-Ogof show caves which are situated to the south, just off the A4067. The caves which are very popular in the tourist season, are amongst the largest in the country, with enormous underground lakes and impressive stalactites and stalagmites and cathedral-like caverns. Exploration is constantly going on by caving clubs, who are constantly expanding the network of caverns and passageways. [For further information please see my review on Dan-yr-Ogof Show Caves]
Just a little way south of the caves, on the opposite side of the road, is Craig-y-Nors. Built in 1842, it was purchased by aforementioned Adelina Patti, in 1878. Madam Patti was a wealthy soprano, who built a winter gardens there, which, after her death in 1919, was dismantled and reconstructed in Victoria Park, Swansea. Now known as the Patti Pavilion, you may have seen this building being completely refurbished on Anneka Rice's television program, Challenge Anneka –if you remember that long ago.
Also, in this area of the Park are the Porth yr Ogof and Mellte water falls. Access to these places are really only suitable for ramblers and, on entering the walk, there are sign posts to advise of the correct footwear, as there is a little bit of scrambling over rocks to be done. However, once you have conquered the terrain for about a mile, the spectacular view of the falls make it well worth it. The water cascades down a drop of about 50ft (15m). At the base of the falls you can actually get behind a curtain of water.
West from Brecon along the A40 lies Llandovery, another very attractive market town that has not changed much since the eighteenth century. It's name means 'church among the waters' because it is situated where the Bran, Gwydderig and Towy rivers meet. There is the remains of an old Norman castle and an 'olde-worlde' square occupied by a town hall.
To the south of Llandovery, staying on the A40 we reach another market town of character, Llandeilo. If you visit the tea-shops and pubs, you will notice that the majority of inhabitants are Welsh speaking, which is surprisingly not so common in the Brecon area. Like nearly every other small town in South Wales, Llandeilo has a long history.
Dynevor Estate, a beautiful parkland, can be found at the top end of town. Within the grounds there is the ruins of a ninth century castle, once the main residence of the Princes of Wales; a nineteenth century mansion; and the church of llandyfeisant, rumoured to have been built on the sight of a Roman temple.
Leaving Llandeilo, take the A483 through Ammanford. There is nothing much for the tourist here, unless you are interested in the history of open cast coal mining. The scars of the anthracite coal industry in the late nineteenth century, can bee seen to this day. To the south of Ammanford, is the M4 motorway that leads to Swansea (the town of my birth).
Here is another town (now city) that was severely ravaged by industry in the nineteenth century. Beautiful wooded hills were completely destroyed by the sulphurous acid that was pumped into the atmosphere from the copper works which left much of the Swansea Valley looking like a wasteland. However much of the land has been reclaimed in recent decades and now it is a very attractive city – well I’m bound to say that!
The city centre consists of the new Quandrant Centre intermingled with long shopping streets that were rebuilt after extensive World War II bombing.
Abutting the eastern edge of the Gower Peninsula, the city has grown more and more as a tourist attraction. Running along the south of the city, is the Mumbles road, that follows the contour of Swansea Bay to Mumbles head with it's pier, which was built in 1898.
Swansea beach, stretches from the south of the city down to the mumbles head, about five miles of golden sands, and, because of it's size, is rarely overcrowded. However, if you like surfing or water sports, being part of the Bristol channel the sea is usually very calm but when the tide's out, you will have to walk about three-quarters of a mile, through mud and sand, to get waist-deep in the sea The beaches of Gower are much more suited to surfing.
If you follow the coastal road past the Mumbles Head, you will enter the Gower Peninsular, and the first resort you come to is Langland Bay. The bay nestles at the base of some steep rocky cliffs. It is typically Victorian with its chalets that border the beach. Here, and at practically every beach along the coastline, surfers ride the waves all year round. Because now, being on the very edge of the Bristol channel you are looking at the blueygreen breakers rolling in from the Atlantic Ocean.
Right next to Langland is Caswell Bay. Slightly bigger. Again surrounded by beach chalets with the Caswell Bay Hotel overlooking the coastline.
Further along the Gower coast are some truly remarkable beaches. Small intimate coves (where I spent many an hour in my courting days), followed by the larger Oxwich Bay, Port Eynon Bay and, as you round the western-most point, you find Rhosilli bay.
But it is not just beautiful beaches and coastline that Gower has to offer..
On the northern side of the peninsular, along quiet country lanes, situated between Llanrhidian and Cheriton is Weobley Castle built in the late thirteenth century. There are variety of towers and old other nooks and crannies to explore. Another point of interest on Llanrhidian village green is an ancient stone circle.
Coming back on the north road you'll pass through Penclawdd, famous for it Cockles. As you look across the marsh, on your left you may see the cockle pickers busy at work picking cockles that can be bought fresh on Swansea Market. In the distance, across the estuary, lies the sprawling town of Llanelli
You can now follow the road through Gowerton, take the signposts for the M4 west, through Port Talbot making back towards Cardiff.
Take the A48, after passing over Port Talbot (Intersection 38) off the M4. This road, once the busy Swansea to London trunk road, is now very quiet, and you can just amble along, rounding off your trip admiring the countryside and attractive villages of Bonvilston and St. Nicholas as you re-enter Cardiff from the West.
I hope you have enjoyed this round trip of my homeland.
Thanks for reading and rating.
Summary: South Wales is steeped in history and legend, and is a most fascinating place for the visitor.
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