Golfing and Exploring Wales: Beautiful Castles and Courses
By Kent E. St. John
GoNOMAD Senior Travel Editor
Nigel the van driver summed up Wales pretty much the way many Welsh did, “God apprenticed making England, but he perfected building Wales.” There is a great sense of Welsh pride on the rise and with great reason.
Wales is the original homeland of the King Arthur and Merlin legends. Don’t tell them that in Cornwall St. Patrick was Welsh, even though they don’t tell you that in Ireland.
There are also more castles per capita in Wales than anywhere else in Western Europe. I, however, am invited to Wales for a different reason, hitting the links. While Wale’s Celtic cousin Scotland is better know for golf, Wales has some glorious places to torture a duffer like me.
With assurances that I would have time to sneak away (sights are my thing) I packed my gear and boarded my Virgin Air flight.
Please Play with Me
There is something intimidating about meeting up with six of the golf world’s best writers and editors. Especially when their scores are equal to mine on eighteen holes to my nine.
A sure sign of their dedication to the game was the fact that we were slated to play eighteen holes within hours of meeting at Heathrow Airport. I am thinking, “Let’s chill out.” The golfers are thinking about the difficult 6th hole at the Vale Hotel.
Rational thinking is not in a golf addict’s mind. Not when they know they are going to play some of the best courses in the world. The National Course at Vale is challenging to them; to me it is a chance to hear the call of lambs and gaze at picturesque hillsides.
With the marketing director being busy and my partner, I get to do nine and sneak to the spa. Of course it’s all for the sake of research. As I sit in the misty steam room it occurs to me that some great golfers are going to be stuck with a duffer. I do my best to think of excuses like, “Damn that moped accident in Greece last week”.
Aim for the Castle
The next morning we headed to Pennard Golf Club, one of the oldest in Wales . Since 1896 this course designed by James Braid has challenged some of the world’s best golfers.
After hearing about its great challenge I snuck into the pro shop to buy several sleeves of balls. I had a feeling I was going to need them. The course is on dramatic seaside cliffs, some 200 feet with mesmerizing views.
The remains of a 12th century Norman castle made Pennard picture perfect. If only my swing was. A links course is basically in the rough except for the tees and greens. That makes every shot important to place—try to miss the wild horses. While harder golf, it is actually a more natural way, like a hike in the country with your clubs. In any case I was grateful to have purchased extra balls.
Build it and They Will Come
The next morning I was excused from making a fool of myself and went into Cardiff . Cardiff is striking and its ambitious rebuilding is wondrous. A man named John Wake wales-tours.com knows more about it than any other breathing soul.
John was at one time a CID senior detective and has worked with Tom Jones, Anthony Hopkins and even Tony Blair. He should be best known as one of the funniest and entertaining reasons for visiting
Wales . (No wonder he won Millennium Wales 2000 Tourism Personality Award.)
Fortunately I would again have John show me more of his country. John took me into Cardiff at Tiger Bay , one of the best-redeveloped areas in all of Europe . It is multi-racial and filled with bayside eateries, shopping and great people watching places.
One of the area’s best places is the Norwegian Church: a small white clapboard chapel overlooking the bay. It is a venue for concerts and plays (John has had some of his original plays performed there) and the best open-faced sandwiches this side of Oslo .
Cardiff Castle on St. Mary street is also a must-see. Its past history is topped by the work done to it by the coal-rich 3rd Marquees of Bute. One of the best places for Welsh crafts is Castle Welsh Crafts. 1-3 Castle Street (opposite Cardiff Castle ‘s main gate). While I yearned to stay longer, I had another tee time.
This was the course my traveling companions spoke of with reverence, Royal Porthcawl Golf Club. In 1891 a group of Cardiff businessmen involved in shipping and coal exporting decided to form a golf club. In 1909 King Edward VII bestowed the honor of Royal status on the club. Since then it has been described as one of the twelve finest courses in the world by Tom Scott, former editor of Golf Illustrated.
To us Yanks it is known as the site of the 1995 Walker Cup victory over us by Great Britain and Ireland . As we approached the club, phrases such as, “need every club in your bag” and “ huge deep bunkers” bounced around the van. I needn’t have worried, with every hole having an ocean view and a soft wind blowing through the gorse and bracken, I just enjoyed.
Again those extra balls I purchased came in handy, but it didn’t matter. Golfing in Wales is just a great way to explore nature. As we headed on to Swansea I noticed that everybody but me knew their score. I mentioned that I couldn’t count that high. “That’s okay, you’re still on tour,” they said. They were right!
Swansea shouldn’t be known just as the birth place of Catherine Zeta Jones, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Jones or Richard Burton. That wouldn’t be fair to Dylan Thomas. Could it be something in the water?
Perhaps it is that Swansea is Wales ‘s Golden city. welshwales.co.uk. Like Cardiff , Swansea is revitalizing and doing a great job. The Maritime Quarter is a complex of marinas, museums, theater and interstellar observatory. It is also the place where Catherine’s home is when back home — the Morgan Hotel .
I hope I am not letting any secrets out, but she and Michael like the Henry Belle suite. As a matter of fact the word is that Danny and Rita, among others, were headed to the Morgan soon. Is it possible that they too know a great hotel value? Any of the twenty rooms in what was once the Port Authority building have been done wonderfully — visit before T&L catches on and it’s not affordable.
Time Out at Tenby
I finally get into the golfer’s rhythm and cannot wait to tackle another course; they are great nature walks. I figured the best place to keep score for me would be at Wales ‘s oldest established course, Tenby.
Tenby course was my favorite even if my scorecard proved abysmal and even with pelting rain; the wild peninsular setting combined with views of rugged beaches is wondrous. It also has to have the friendliest club members in Wales . There might also be some smugness in noting that this course provides difficulties for the diehards. But it likewise may be that I am leaving the links for a hiatus, a chance to explore the town of Tenby .
Tenby’s roots date back to the time of the Norman Conquest and much of the medieval castle walls remain. It is a town with cobbled streets and reminders of bygone eras. Amidst the jumble lies centuries of habitation. The ancient walls still form part of the center.
Harbour Beach is a short walk from town and very picturesque. There are three other beaches in the area. For hiking the Coastal Path runs nearby through Pembrokeshire’s National Park, one of the 14 premier National Trails in England and Wales.
Every fifteen minutes boats run to and from Caldey Island just off the coast. The Island is owned and run by the Reformed Order of Cistercian monks who still have a monastery in operation. They produce a number of famous homegrown items. Best known are the perfume and lotions derived from wildflowers that grow on the island.
While I missed my golfing buddies who headed north, I was awfully glad to meet up again with the aforementioned John Wake. But first I had to contend with one more course to challenge: the Celtic Manor, home of the 2010 Ryder Cup. Just nine so my dignity stayed intact.
Wales outbid the Scots for the rights and they are pumped about hosting this major league sporting event. Enough to change a few holes at a staggering cost. The hotel does have three championship golf courses and has spread from what was a Victorian manor house to maternity hospital to a 400-room ultra modern facility. It has also won the Egon Ronay award for best hotel in Wales for five consecutive years.
After my last nine slated for Wales I again met up with the John Wake for a trip through the Wye River Valley
The Wye Around
We started our exploration in the town of Monmouth , with large green and stately buildings. Monmouth began as an alien Norman Castle in Celtic Territory in 1068. Henry V of Shakespeare fame was born here in the Great Tower . Soon a Benedictine Priory was built and a town developed into what is today, a Welsh Market town.
Monmouth’s position on the English and Welsh border has left many historical sites to see. For a guide of a historical walk in Monmouth click to This town is the quintessential South Wales town, and sheer pleasure to wander around.
The first thing I thought as we passed through the valley was that there isn’t a single ugly town on its course. I felt truly lucky to spend a glorious autumn day traveling with an authority through such beauty.
If the Cotswalds are cute the Wye is wonderful!
A few miles from Monmouth is the castle of Raglan built by the first Earl of Pembroke. Near that is the village of Staunton with its Druid stone. Around it all is the Forest of Dean, where the old castle of St. Briavels is located — much used as a base by Henry II and King John (Plantagenet) for hunting in the forests. Today the Castle is a youth hostel. Imagine crossing a moat to spend the night in an 800-year-old royal castle!
It fascinated William Wordsworth in the late 18th century and still has the power. The remains still are mystifying and tranquil, likely as they were when built by the Cistercian monks in 1131. It is only the second Cistercian abbey foundation in Britain and the first in Wales.
Kent St. John was GoNOMAD’s Senior Travel Editor since the website was founded in 2000. During that time he circled the globe many times, visiting more than 80 countries. Sadly, he passed away on Thanksgiving Day in 2012. He had an appreciation of subtleties, always finding a way to capture the nuances and essences of a destination, whether he was whale-watching in Nova Scotia, riding the rails in Australia, bungee jumping in China or worshipping the sun on a beach in Brazil.