Sightseeing in Southern Wales

With its mining heritage, natural beauty and the cosmopolitan city of Cardiff, Southern Wales has established itself as a popular short break destination for groups. Carrie Drage discovers more.

Tintern Abbey, Near Chepstow

Tintern Abbey, Near Chepstow

Not only does Southern Wales have some of the most spectacular scenery in the country, it also has an important industrial heritage since the region was one of the largest producers of coal and iron ore during the Industrial Revolution. Many towns in the valleys offer remnants from these industrial days, which can be explored on a visit to the area. Away from the valleys, Southern Wales is a great choice for a city break with Cardiff being the most obvious option and nearby Newport also offering enough attractions to sustain a short visit.

Most attractions offer discounted admission prices and guided tours for groups; however, for those with a specialist interest, Southern Wales Tourism can supply a list of venues that offer group dining and talks on topics specific to the region. Alternatively, instructors can be booked to assist your group in all manner of outdoor activities, from casual walks to caving.

The great outdoors

In the late 19th century, many towns in Southern Wales became heavily industrialised as the valleys began being mined for coal and iron ore. In spite of this, many landscapes in the region remain untouched including the Vale of Glamorgan and the valleys of the River Usk and River Wye. The Glamorgan Heritage Coast is also a beauty spot with its sandy beaches and dramatic cliffs, stretching between Llantwit Major and Porthcawl.

In addition to rural valleys and a heritage coastline, Southern Wales offers an abundance of attractions. Set in the Wye Valley, Chepstow Racecourse holds 30 race meets annually. A ‘Classic Race Day’ package can be arranged that includes a behind the scenes tour, £5 off a tote bet and afternoon tea for each group member.

In nearby Caerwent, visitors can explore Dewstow Gardens; after being covered in topsoil in the 1940s, the gardens remained ‘lost’ until 2000 when a large-scale restoration project began.

Dyffryn Gardens, meanwhile, which can be found two miles west of Cardiff, comprises a series of themed ‘rooms’ and was recently restored to its Edwardian splendour with the help of a £6 million grant.

Not far from here, groups can discover Llanerch Vineyard, producer of the Cariad brand of wines. Guided tours of the vineyard are available by appointment and end with a tutored tasting.

North of the Welsh capital, Green Meadow Community Farm is a working farm that operates daily milking demonstrations and 15-minute tractor and trailer rides for the enjoyment of its visitors.

Castles, culture and heritage

Wales is considered to be the ‘castle capital of the world’, with more than 400 examples scattered across the country. Many of these can be found in Southern Wales, along with numerous other historic buildings.

Situated a short distance from Chepstow, Tintern Abbey was founded in 1131 and, apart from its lack of a roof and windows, has been preserved exactly as it would have looked in the 13th century.

Lying between Chepstow and Newport, Caldicot Castle dates back to Norman times and its original 13th century Keep can still be viewed here.

Aside from its connections to King Arthur, nearby Caerleon has great archaeological importance. In AD 75, the Romans built a fortress that guarded the region for over 200 years; the remains of this have now been preserved as the National Roman Legion Museum. Just outside the ruins of the fortress stands a Roman Amphitheatre, believed to be one of the best preserved examples in Britain.

Groups visiting Cosmeston Lakes Country Park and Medieval Village, just south of Cardiff, will be able to take a tour of the site with one of the costumed villagers. The attraction came into being after a medieval settlement was unearthed here in the 1980s and many of the 14th century buildings have now been recreated.

Just north of Cardiff, Caerphilly Castle has a dominating presence over the town; its most striking feature is the south-east tower that leans out at a greater angle than the Tower of Pisa, in Italy.

Meanwhile, in Nelson, a paranormal experience is offered by Llancaiach Fawr Manor, which is reputed to be one of the most haunted properties in Wales. Ghost tours operate between October and March (excluding December), whilst costumed tours can also be arranged that give you an insight into what it was really like to live and work here.

Although many of the valleys in Southern Wales have been returned to their former glory, it is hard to ignore the region’s industrial past. Many of the towns that were once mined for coal and iron ore retain the old mines, a number of which have been converted into visitor attractions.

Cyfartha Castle was once the home of William Crawshay, the owner of Cyfarthfa Ironworks in Merthyr Tydfil and, as such, it overlooks the former ironworks site. Nowadays, the building houses an art gallery and museum tracing the town’s former industry.

In nearby Tredegar, Sirhowy Ironworks dates back to 1778 and the remains of the first coke-fired furnace can still be seen here. A guided tour of the site can be pre-booked that explains the iron-making process.

In the not too distant future, groups will be able to visit Bedwellty House and Park, a former ironmaster’s mansion, also in the town. Recent plans reveal that £5 million will be spent upgrading the house, built in 1818 for the owner of Tredegar Iron Company. By 2010, the house will be re-developed into a museum dedicated to local heroes.

Recently re-opened following a £2.5 million redevelopment project, The Winding House is a landmark building in New Tredegar as it is the last remaining building of the town’s colliery. Groups can discover more about the local coal industry and watch the steam engine in action on a tour of the building, which is also home to the town’s museum.

The entrance to the World Heritage Centre in Blaenavon.

The entrance to the World Heritage Centre in Blaenavon.

Another of Southern Wales’ major mining towns was Blaenavon, which was deemed a World Heritage Site in 2000. Here, groups can visit the World Heritage Centre where you can learn about the history of the area.

Another popular free-entry attraction in the town is Big Pit: National Coal Museum, which opened in 1983, shortly after closing as a working coal mine. Lead by ex-miners, visitors descend 300 feet underground for an authentic experience of colliery working conditions.

Blaenavon’s second major industry was mining iron ore and preserved in the town is Blaenavon Ironworks, which traces the production process from the input of raw materials to the casting of the molten metal.

During the Industrial Revolution, when coal and iron production in Southern Wales was at its peak, these commodities were transported from the valleys to the ports of Newport and Cardiff via the canal system. Fourteen Locks Canal Centre, in Rogerstone, is worth a visit for its interpretative displays on this important era.

Southern Wales is also renowned for its spectacular scenery and, for those of you wanting to take some time out from coach travel, there are a number of other ways you can explore the beauty of the region.

After putting aside some time to explore the stock steam and diesel engines and workshops at the Railway Heritage Centre, on Barry Island, groups can take a train ride from the Island to the mainland.

Similarly, the Brecon Mountain Railway offers a steam locomotive experience from Pant, near Merthyr Tydfil. The track runs alongside the Taf Fechan Reservoir to Dol y Gaer offering splendid views over the Brecon Beacons National Park.

City breaks

The Welsh capital, Cardiff, is a good place to base yourself on a visit to Southern Wales. This lively, cosmopolitan city has much to offer the group traveller with many historic attractions, such as the austere Cardiff Castle standing in close proximity to modern masterpieces such as the 74,000-seater Millennium Stadium, which can be explored on a tour.

A group enjoys a guided tour of Cardiff Castle.

A group enjoys a guided tour of Cardiff Castle.

Cardiff Castle opened its new Interpretation Centre in June, which features a cafe, shop and film presentation. From here, groups can also collect a free audio tour recalling the Castle’s 2,000 year history or embark on a guided tour of the Castle Apartments. Additionally, GTOs can organise a Welsh banquet in the Castle’s 15th century undercroft.

Cardiff’s city centre is a big draw for visitors with its shopping malls and Victorian arcades and, next year, 200 more shops will open as part of a development known as St David’s 2. Art and culture can also be found in abundance at the city centre’s three main entertainment venues – the New Theatre, St Davids Hall and Cardiff International Arena.

Close to Cardiff Castle, the free-entry National Museum charts the history of Wales, from the Big Bang to the present day. It forms part of the civic complex of Cathays Park, notable for the elegance of the Edwardian architecture. The Museum also provides the starting point for Creepy Cardiff Ghost Tours.

A little outside the city centre, Llandaff Cathedral has a 1,400-year history, which can be traced in the buildings various architectural styles.

Although it may be hard to believe now, Cardiff was once one of the smallest towns in Wales; it developed rapidly in the 1880s following the expansion of the town’s coal industry, when the docks were used to export this commodity all over the world. World War II saw the demise of the coal industry here and, for a long period after, the docks were abandoned. Since the late 1980s, the docks area has been extensively redeveloped and has now been re-named Cardiff Bay. This trendy area of the city is packed with bars, shops and restaurants, as well as a number of visitor attractions. A first stop should be the free Cardiff Bay Visitor Centre. Known locally as ‘The Tube’ for its resemblance to a telescope, it houses displays on the history of the area and its regeneration.

Two more attractions worth visiting in the Cardiff Bay area include Techniquest, an interactive science discovery centre, and the Senedd, home of the Welsh Assembly.

The Wales Millennium Centre is another distinguishing landmark of the Cardiff Bay area. Groups can sit back and take in a musical, ballet or opera performance or learn more about the venue on a backstage tour.

Just north of the city, St Fagans: National History Museum is one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions. The free museum is home to historical buildings, dating back 500 years, which have been re-erected at the site from other locations around Wales.

East of Cardiff, Newport is one of Wales’ newest cities and it’s most iconic structure is the Transporter Bridge, built in 1906. To learn more about this incredible structure, groups should schedule a stop at the Newport Museum and Art Gallery.

Stood on Stow Hill overlooking the town centre, St Woolos was given its cathedral status in 1949. Visitors enter the building through St Mary’s Chapel, which dates back to Norman times.

A thriving arts scene, meanwhile, can be found at The Riverfront, a venue that presents a mix of comedy, opera, dance, music and drama in its Riverfront Theatre and, more intimate, Riverfront Studio.

A visit to Tredegar House is also a good way to pass a few hours. To make the most of your time here, groups can combine a stroll through the walled garden and orangery with a guided tour of the 17th century house.

RSPB Newport Wetlands

RSPB Newport Wetlands

On the outskirts of the city, RSPB Newport Wetlands recently opened a visitor centre, which offers a place to watch the birds and learn about the environment. From here, you can also embark on a guided walk.

Shops, arts and crafts

Aside from Cardiff, considered to be a world-class shopping destination, Southern Wales also offers a selection of other retail options.

Beginning in the west of the region, Porthcawl’s sandy beaches attract holidaymakers of all generations; the town’s pedestrianised town centre also makes it a good place to shop.

Bridgend Designer Outlet, managed by McArthurGlen, features almost 100 stores selling brands such as French Connection and Portmeirion. It can easily be accessed by coach from Junction 36 of the M4.

The nearby Ewenny Pottery is a family-run business that has been in existence for seven generations. Groups can watch potters practising their craft in the workshop or purchase the finished product in the gift shop.

Cowbridge, meanwhile, is an attractive market town with Roman roots. Its main street is the best place to hunt for designer wares and the Old Wool Barn Art and Craft Centre at Verity Court is good for local art.

Further north, in Caerphilly, you can pick up some of the town’s famous Caerphilly cheese.

Offering heavily discounted items is Festival Park Shopping Village, in Ebbw Vale, whose 40 stores are set in 70 acres of parkland, also home to a garden centre and owl sanctuary.

In Blaenavon, groups can visit the Blaenavon Cheddar Company and learn how to hand dip a wide range of hand crafted cheeses, such as Pwll Mawr, which is matured 300 feet underground in the shaft of Big Pit Mining Museum.

Abergavenny, meanwhile, has visitors flocking to its produce market every Tuesday and Friday, whilst in Monmouth, crafts abound at the Stables Craft Centre and the regular markets held in Agincourt Square.

Lastly, Abbey Mill, in Tintern, offers relaxed surroundings for your group to watch craft demonstrations or browse its gift shops, all set within historic mill buildings.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION

Mike Evans or Huw Davies
Southern Wales Tourism

Bridgend County Borough Council Tourism Unit,
Innovation Centre, Bridgend Science Park
Bridgend, CF31 3NA
Telephone: 0845 600 2639 or 01656 672931
Fax: 0870 2407428 or 01656 768757
Email: travel@southernwales.org
Web: www.visitsouthernwales.org