A Lovesong for South East Wales

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south east wales The Ferris wheel and Pierhead building at Cardiff bay with the Millennium Centre in the background
The Ferris wheel and Pierhead building at Cardiff Bay with the Millennium Centre in the background. Jude Williams photos.

South East Wales Pulls at the Author’s Heartstrings

By Jude Williams

Hireath – this is a Welsh word full of meaning that is hard to convey, it signifies a deep longing or sense of homesickness.  A yearning for the place you belong.

Morgan Arcade, Cardiff city centre south east wales
Morgan Arcade, Cardiff city center.

This is a guide to South East Wales, the place I belong. A landscape of mountains and valleys, castles, coal mines, and rivers, with a song at its heart.

Cardiff City and her bay

Cardiff is one of the newest and smallest capitals in Europe.  It is a city built on coal, in fact, the world’s first £1 million transactions took place in the coal exchange here in Cardiff bay in 1907.

The old docks area has seen tremendous regeneration in the last two decades.  In the early 1900s, the docklands was home to a community of seafarers from all over the world.

After the coal industry had taken its toll the bay became a neglected wasteland.

Today it is transformed, with restaurants, art centers, shops, boat tours, the Welsh Assembly building, and the stunning Millenium Center where you can watch world-class performing arts.

For great shopping head into the city center, here you will find Victorian arcades housing niche boutiques, and the oldest vinyl record store in the world (Spillers Records). There are also plenty of famous designer brands to peruse.

Head to the Millenium Stadium (now known as Principality stadium) to be overwhelmed by Welsh passion.  This is the home of Welsh rugby, immerse yourself in the roar of an anthem by attending a match.

Little Ivor’s Club

If you are looking for a cool, live music venue then head to Clwb Ifor Bach (meaning Little Ivor’s Club) on Womanby street (check out the street art while you are there). This is the location to find emerging local and international bands. It has also been a launching pad for some big names in music. Coldplay, The Manic Street Preachers, and the Stereophonics have all played here.

Cardiff Castle1
The entrance to Cardiff Castle, city centre

Cardiff castle dominates the city center, but her smaller, prettier sister stands on a hillside just outside the city. Castell Coch or the red castle, named after the color of sandstone, that it is made from is a  turreted, fairy castle located in the small village of Tongwynlais just outside Cardiff and can clearly be seen from the surrounding area.

Castell Coch wales
Castell Coch

It was designed and built by architect William Burgess (who also worked on Cardiff Castle) in the late 1870s for the extremely wealthy third Marquis of Bute as a summer retreat.

It stands on the footprint of a 13th-century castle, but the medieval cellar is the only remaining structure from this time. Behind the turreted exterior are lavish, over-the-top, high Victorian Gothic Revival style furnishings and ornate ceilings.

The octagonal drawing room is a highlight with scenes depicting Aesop’s Fables on the walls, and exotic birds and gold stars on the domed ceiling.

Caerphilly, Wales

Heading further north from Cardiff you will find Caerphilly with its impressive medieval castle, massive walls and towers combined with its sprawling moat make it quite the sight to behold.

However, Caerphilly is most famous for being the birthplace of Caerphilly cheese. A crumbly cow’s milk cheese with a mild, creamy flavor and a hint of lemon. It is the only native cheese of Wales and has a fresh aroma and flaky texture.

It has protected status and is only produced with milk from Welsh farms. It has been made in Wales using traditional skills since the early 19th century.

The texture of Caerphilly lends itself perfectly to the traditional Welsh Rarebit, which you can try at the International Welsh Rarebit Centre.  (Defynnog, Brecon LD3 8SL)

Merthyr Tydfil

Merthyr Tydfil is my hometown; at the head of the Taff valley, it is ideally placed to explore the Brecon Beacons but also has some delights of its own.  It is a town that still bears the scars of its industrial past when it was the top producer of iron and steel in the world, but also has

A boat passing through the barrage at Cardiff bay
A boat passing through the barrage at Cardiff bay

beautiful green spaces to enjoy.

It is a well-located town with easy road access in the form of the A470 and A465.  Cardiff, 23 miles south has the nearest international airport.  Trains up the valley run twice an hour.

However, there is the promise of faster, more frequent connections with the building of the new South Wales Metro with electric tram-trains, which is due for completion in 2023.

Visit Cyfarthfa Castle and park – the park is a lovely green space, perfect for a stroll.  The castle is grade 1 listed and is the former home of the ironmaster William Crawshay and his family.  It now houses a museum and art gallery which is open to the public.

Go mountain biking – One of the biggest draws of Merthyr Tydfil is Bikepark Wales at the top of Mynydd Gethin.  Whatever your level of ability, they have over 40 graded trails to suit novice to professional.  There is a vehicular uplift service to transport you to the top and bike hire and coaching options.

Hop on the Steam Train

Take a trip on a steam train – Brecon Mountain Railway – A passenger steam locomotive runs from Pant, just north of Merthyr to Torpantau, through the Brecon Beacons alongside the reservoir.

As you make your way up from Merthyr north towards Brecon, the scenery changes and you find yourself surrounded by fields and mountains, in the spring the air is full of the fragrance of wild garlic that carpets the ground.

Info The Brecon Mountain Railway steam train
The Brecon Mountain Railway steam train
The twin peaks of Corn Du and Pen Y fan mountains
The twin peaks of Corn Du and Pen Y fan mountains

For the best views climb Pen-y-fan – the tallest peak in the Brecon beacons.  The easiest route up is from the Pont ar Daf carpark.

It is affectionately known as the motorway by the locals, and if you see it on a sunny bank holiday you will see why.

There are various routes taking in the other peaks of Corn Du, Cribyn and Fan y Big which have varying levels of difficulty.  For more outdoor activities, the Storey Arms center at the foot of Pen-y-fan is a good place to start

Visit one of the beautiful local reservoirs – The reservoir at Ponsticill covers the ruins of an old chapel which was submerged when the reservoir was created, the ruins can be seen at rare times of drought.  Watching the water flow over the bell-mouth spillway here is quite mesmerizing.

Brecon

After a day of climbing mountains and walking around reservoirs, head into Brecon to sample some amazing ice cream.  Llanfaes Dairy makes amazing artisan ice cream, hand-mixed in small batches using the finest ingredients, you will be spoilt for a choice of flavors, from coconut to lemon meringue or salted caramel and will definitely need to return to sample another.

Where to sleep 

At the end of a busy day full of Welsh weather and scenery find a resting place at the Nant Ddu Hotel, a comfortable, country house hotel just north of Merthyr.  It has an excellent bar and bistro serving local seasonal dishes such as a slow-cooked shoulder of Welsh lamb with parsnip purée.

If you still have energy for more adventure then wrap up warm and go stargazing.  The Brecon Beacons National Park is an international dark sky reserve. Gaze up at the Milky Way, bright nebulas, or even a meteor shower.

If you do visit beautiful Wales I hope that you take a piece of it home with you, as Tom Jones said “…I carry Wales around inside me..”

Judith Williams