The Valleys – the sausage shaped hilly bit between the Brecon Beacons and the M4 in South Wales – is now even easier to get to thanks to the removal of the Severn Bridge toll. At just half-an-hour from Cardiff, an hour from Bristol, and an hour-and-a-half from Gloucester, it’s well within reach of much of the UK for a weekend break.
I joined a handful of other bloggers from my local area for a two-day break in the Welsh Valleys courtesy of Love the Valleys, the local tourism board. Some of our activities were as a big group, while others we’d chosen ahead of time to suit our own tastes – I was even able to get a bucket list tick out of it which was a bonus. And when I turn up somewhere (singing Cwm Rhondda to myself, naturally) and I am greeted with fresh warm Welsh cakes and the promise of all the tea I can drink, I knew I was onto a winner!
It might have been a press trip, which means I was supposed to enjoy it and want to share all about it with you, but I can honestly say that I came away from this weekend with even more love for this part of Wales. This was in part to do with the activities put on to showcase the area, but also due to discovering a very personal connection with the place. Read on to find out what I got up to…
A Weekend in the Valleys
We arrived on Saturday morning and left on Sunday afternoon, giving us a decent couple of days to find out what this part of Wales has to offer. I drove from home in Gloucestershire, which took just over an hour-and-a-half predominantly motorway drive across. I met up with the small group of bloggers and a representative from the local tourism board (who organised the trip) at the Rhondda Heritage Centre just outside Pontypridd where we had those Welsh Cakes and some tea before heading off to lean about the very thing that has shaped this area of Wales – mining.
Mining Museum at Rhondda Heritage Centre
Let’s start with a history lesson… The coal industry in Wales played an important role in the Industrial Revolution. Coal mining in the Rhondda Valley and the rest of the South Wales Coalfield expanded in the eighteenth century to provide fuel for the blast furnaces of the iron and copper industries that were expanding in the rest of the country, and then further expanded towards the end of the century to supply steam-coal for the steam vessels that were beginning to trade around the world. Mining in this area was at its peak in 1913, but it actually kept going until 2008 when the last coal mine – Tower Colliery – closed down.
Now that is all gone, it has been replaced with a large reliance on tourism, history and outdoor pursuits. We started with the Black Gold Experience underground tour at the Welsh Mining Experience at Rhondda Heritage Park. A working mind until the 1980s, this Lewis Merthyr Colliery has been preserved as a tourist attraction and museum.
Museums are made 100 times better when you have a knowledgeable guide telling you the real-life stories that go with the exhibits, and the tours here are lead by former colliery workers – we had Peter and Phil to thank for our excellent tour.
Our tour included the engine room, which our guide started up so we could see, a ride in the shaft lift, and a wander through the underground tunnels. The Black Gold Experience finished with Dram: The Cinematic Experience, which was an interesting way to end the guided tour. It’s basically a virtual ride on one of the trains that would have been seen in the mine when it was open.
All in, I thoroughly enjoyed the Rhondda Heritage Park, it provided a fascinating insight into Welsh coal mining. It would have cost £6.95 for the 1.5-hour tour we did, which I would say is definitely worth it for an interesting half-day learning some history, hearing some stories, and seeing for yourself what mining would have been like. ⠀
Lunch at Caffe Bracci
Did you know that hundreds of Italian families moved to the Welsh Valleys to work in the coal mines? There is still a strong Italian influence in the Rhondda, who predominantly came from the Bardi region, and we celebrated this twice on our first day in the area. Caffe Bracci is at the Welsh Mining Experience is such a cute place for a cup of tea and a piece of cake – I loved the décor, the homemade soup I had was really very good. Oh, and there’s a chocolate shop right opposite, too, just in case you need something to take away with you.
Climbing at Summit Centre, Rock UK
It might not have been outside, but I enjoyed my short experience at Rock UK Summit Centre, just south of Merthyr Tydfil. Climbing is not something I’ve done since I was a teenager, but I’ve wanted to try it again for a while.
My hour-long session was more give-it-a-go than a full-on lesson, just a bit of fun with no pressure to succeed. There were six of us in the group, with one instructor, and as none of us were belay qualified, we each had the chance to climb just twice. The walls are 18 metres high, with a huge variety of pegs, holds and boulders to use to reach the top – it was fun to watch other centre users make their way up the walls like pros!
I was very pleased to reach the summit on both of my climbs. It’s not difficult to understand why climbers speak of the wall being their meditation; the physical effort was certainly there, but add to that the amount of problem solving that comes with it (especially being short), and you have something that gives brain and brawn a workout. I have to admit the climbing used muscles I haven’t asked much of in a while, and the following day I was feeling it, but it was a satisfied kind of ache.
This was a short taster activity, but it certainly rekindled something in me. Since this weekend I have had a go at outdoor rock climbing at Cheddar Gorge, and those two experiences together have confirmed that I need to get back in a harness properly. Maybe a little project for this winter at my local indoor climbing centre.
A Walk at Barry Sidings Countryside Park
I couldn’t visit the Welsh Valleys and not go for a walk, could I? We had a bit of free time between climbing and dinner, and so I had a gander at my OS Maps app and took myself for a wander to and through a little country park close to our hotel. Barry Sidings Countryside Park is actually a little gem, packed with trails, bridleways and cycle tracks to explore – it sits sits on the lower slopes of Mynydd Gelliwion, accessible from the A4058 near Trehafod, north west of Pontypridd.
There is a large green area with a café and duck pond, but I bypassed those and headed up onto the hill, following the track as it wound its way up. I wanted a view! You’ll not be surprised to hear that my four mile walk was very steep in places – I was in the Welsh Valleys after all – but it was well worth the effort for the greenery, views of the hills, woodland trails, and waterfalls. I made my way back to the Heritage Park along a bridleway that took me right through the pine forest, which was simply glorious.
Dinner at Casa Mia, Caerphilly
I have always known that the food in Wales is excellent, and there are a huge number of restaurants to choose from for an evening meal in the Valleys area of South Wales. Our hosts had chosen Casa Mia for us, which is a Mediterranean restaurant overlooking the largest castle in Wales and the second largest in Europe – Caerphilly Castle.
The menu was simple Mediterranean fayre; I chose the Carbonara followed by the waffle, both of which were excellent. If I went again, which I would say is likely based on my experience this time around, I’d choose a pizza as those also looked excellent.
Bed and Breakfast at the Heritage Park Hotel
This press trip included overnight accommodation at the Heritage Park Hotel right next door to the Rhondda Heritage Centre. It’s got a conference-hotel look about it from the outside, but inside it is comfortable and cosy, with nicely decorated and large rooms, and everything you’d expect from a decent three-star hotel in the UK. The highlight for me was breakfast, which was really very good indeed – even if we did share the dining room with 50 kids on a School trip!
Fat Biking at Porthcawl
The reason the Love the Valleys press trip appealed to me wasn’t just because it gave me an opportunity to visit and explore an area I knew would be beautiful, but also because there was a bucket list tick in it for me… On Sunday morning I was gifted fat bike hire at Porthcawl, which meant I could play around on the dunes and on the beach without sinking (much) into the sand.
Four of us headed to Porthcawl, which was about an hour away from our hotel, and met the guys at Porthcawl Bike Hire, which is slightly off the main strip by the seafront. This wasn’t a guided excursion or anything like that, we were given the bikes and helmets and went off to explore the area on our own for a couple of hours. If you’re wondering, a fat bike is basically like any other mountain-bike shaped rigid framed bike but with huge tyres on it that mean you can safely ride over soft ground such as sand, snow and mud. I’ve no idea how riding such a bike made it onto my bucket list, but it’s been there a good while, simply because it looks like a right giggle.
And it was so much fun! Simply a fantastic way to spend a couple of hours outside. Riding that bike with massive tyres along the beach as the tide went out was one of the highlights of my year so far. It certainly helped that the weather was beautiful – perfect seaside biking weather! I’m planning a proper bucket list blog post on this experience in a week or two, so keep an eye out for that, but in the mean time I will simply say that I will be back for another go very soon, that is a given.
Sunday Roast at Woodlands Bistro
If you are ever looking for an amazing Sunday lunch in The Valleys area of Wales, be sure to check out Woodlands Bistro at Tondu House Farm, which has a cosy and very well run community cafe serving roast dinners. Tucked away up a long drive in beautiful countryside, with views over the valley, this place provides a forest school and training centre for young people who benefit from a different style of learning, and the activities for paying guests at the weekends help raise the much-needed funds to keep that running. Along with the community cafe, there’s also a bunk house with its own pizza oven and this beautiful sensory garden.
A Personal Connection
During the course of my weekend in the Welsh Valleys I learnt about a family connection that lead me to visit this huge cemetery. I discovered that my 3x Great Grandad worked in the mine at Llwynypia in the late 1800s as a railway signalman, before being tragically killed in 1902 at the age of 30 in a mining railroad accident (you should read the newspaper cutting, it’s quite blunt!). To finish off my short weekend visit to the Valleys, I visited the village, walked along the street my family lived on, and visited the cemetery to see what kind of view he now has. Family history is a funny old thing, that can bring about sadness as well as intrigue, but there was something very special about being in a place I knew my ancestors once lived, and discovering a very personal connection with the mining past of this part of Wales. Maybe this personal link with The Valleys is where I get my love of the hills from?
There we have it – a very quick rundown of a busy but hugely enjoyable two days in The Valleys of South Wales. I really did just scratch the surface of this part of Wales and I will certainly be back for more in the not too distant future.
Have you visited this area? What else would you say I should do the next time I go?
I was hosted on this press trip by the Love the Valleys tourism board, who organised all the activities, put me up in the hotel, and fed me (a lot) throughout the weekend. Thanks so much for inviting me! For more information about the area, make sure you check out their website.