Last month I had the pleasure of heading just Over the Bridge to Wales once again, for a particularly outdoorsy hosted weekend in the Abergavenny area. I say outdoorsy, and it was, I hiked, paddled, explored, and wandered, it was wonderful. But we also made good use of a rather lovely hotel and several eateries in the area, you know, just to make sure we made the most of our visit to this rather lovely part of Wales.
It should go without saying, but to allay any fears, let me confirm that when I visited Monmouthshire in early October, doing so was well within the pandemic restrictions that weekend, and we respected and followed the local rules at all times. However, at the time of publication Wales is under a national “firebreak” lock down, and England is having a month-long lock down too, meaning that we cannot currently cross the border for recreation. Please wait until restrictions are lifted before you visit, and check and follow the local rules thoroughly.
This might have been a hosted trip, but it was one that had been organised with all the things I love in mind, and could easily have been a weekend we organised ourselves. We had plenty of time outdoors, great views over valleys and for miles around, some excellent food, and a place to base ourselves for just the right amount of go and stop.
With the risk of this becoming an “and then we” travel blog post, I have decided to share how we spent our 48 hours in Monmouthshire in the right order, so that you can see just how much you can cram into one weekend while still having time to relax and eat well… buckle up, it’s a long one!
Over the Bridge
The two large bridges that cross the River Severn into into (and out of…) Wales have been free to cross for a little while now, which has the strange consequence of making the area feel a little bit closer to Gloucestershire (I know, I know).
The fact is, you don’t have to go far into Wales to find castles and historic houses, great walking and cycling routes, welcoming hotels and artisan food and drink makers – Monmouthshire has all these things. And the point of this weekend was to discover this for myself. Of course, my weekend was set to be all things outdoors, with an itinerary that involved hikes, water sports, castles, and lots of food.
Chepstow Castle, right on the border of England and Wales in Monmouthshire, is the oldest surviving post-Roman stone fortification in Britain. It sits above cliffs on the River Wye, construction began in 1067, and was the southernmost of a chain of castles built in the Welsh Marches.
Like Tintern Abbey not far up the river, Chepstow Castle has been a tourist attraction for years. When we visited it had reopened to the public with timed tickets, and there were only a handful of other people wandering around the grounds at the same time, giving us all plenty of space. We spent around an hour wandering around, inside and out, admiring the old walls, commenting on the size of the windows, wishing we had our own Great Hall and stone spiral staircases, and admiring the views of the Wye and surrounding area.
The castle looks pretty derelict from the outside, but there is plenty to explore here, including Marten’s Tower which originally provided luxury guest accommodation. Personally, the Great Tower, the oldest stone structure on the site, was my favourite – it might not have had a roof, but I could definitely see myself enjoying evenings by a roaring fire in there!
The Wales Coast Path and Lave Net Fishing
The Wales Coast Path is a 870 mile long distance footpath that provides walkers with a route all around the country of Wales… it is, in fact, the longest continuous coastal path around a whole country, and the very first of its kind in the world. I do fancy walking the whole thing one day, but on this occasion we visited to wander along a short section at the Black Rock Picnic Site, which also has great views of both Severn crossings, and is home to a new wooden sculpture.
The sculpture depicts a Lave Net Fisherman. Lave Net fishing is a traditional method of fishing which has been practiced for hundreds of years. It is still practiced at Black Rock, the last fishery of its kind in Wales.
The fishermen try to keep the fishery as traditional as possible, including making their lave net in the traditional way. The net has a Y shaped structure consisting of two arms called rimes which are made from locally cut willow (withy) and this acts as a frame for the loosely hung net. The Severn Estuary off Black Rock has the second greatest tidal range in the world, this rise and fall of water enables the fishermen at low water spring tides to wade into the estuary and fish.
The sculpture really is beautiful, I’d love to have a go at carving wood with a chainsaw one day. Find out more about the Living Levels and Lave Net Fishing here.
The Angel Hotel
Our based for the two nights was The Angel Hotel in Abergavenny, a traditional hotel that provided a very warm welcome (and not just because there were cheese straws in the room when we checked in…). Named as Welsh Hotel of the Year 2020, it was very nice to have a bit of luxury to come back to after exploring the local area.
A little unassuming from the outside, the hotel is actually very large, with a restaurant, bar, ballroom, and plenty of meeting rooms. We couldn’t get a space in the hotel car park so used the large public car park close by and walked, not a problem for us at all.
Our room was lovely and cosy, but it wasn’t a pokey space. As a listed building, the rooms are all different shapes and sizes; I can only speak for my own room, but the layout and style worked well for us. The large soft bed dominated the space, with a television on the wall in front in-between two opening windows, there was also a sofa, a large wardrobe (with robes), and a desk and chair. I liked the fact that despite this being an old and traditional hotel in many ways, they haven’t skimped on the modern touches; they had a sound dock as the alarm clock, and the radio was on when we arrived. It really is the little things.
The bathroom was actually brilliant; I’m used to Premier Inns, nothing wrong with them, but a walk in shower AND a massive bath, with a heated towel rail and decent bathroom minis, speaks to everything I want in a hotel room. It was a perfect space to relax for a couple of nights.
We ate dinner and breakfast in the Oak Room. Dinner was a reasonably formal affair, with a menu full of traditional and local options. We had three courses and a mocktail each and enjoyed it all, although when comparing it to our meal at The Hardwick the next evening, I think it had a hard job to do to stand out.
There are, of course, no buffets at the moment, and so breakfast was a much more relaxed (slow…) affair with everyone ordering from the menu. I chose the Eggs Florentine on one morning and the continental selection the following morning, I don’t normally eat breakfast at home so I made the most of this, especially as I knew we had very busy outdoorsy days on the cards.
The Angel really is an elegant hotel, the staff were friendly and attentive, and the rooms were relaxing and well equipped. It was certainly a step up from my usual overnight accommodation, but very much appreciated.
Water Sports at Llandegfedd Lake
Saturday morning was spent with the lovely people at Llandegfedd Lake, a Welsh Water reservoir with a fantastic café and watersports centre. The lake is a water supply reservoir set in beautiful rolling landscapes near Pontypool. Over the Bridge to Wales had arranged for me to spend a couple of hours “on or in the water”, and you know I was very happy indeed about that!
My couple of hours at Llandegfedd involved messing about on the reservoir doing three of the water sports they offer. After whizzing around the lake on a “peddle board”, which is basically a paddle board with a stepper attached to fins to move it through the water, I also got out on a traditional paddle board and on a kayak. The lake is large and so even though there were groups of kayakers, a paddle board yoga class, a handful of sailing dinghies, and lots of fishermen out in boats and around the shore, I felt like I had the whole place to myself as I explored on my three modes of waterborne transport.
I was very impressed with the centre. The buildings are shiny and new and the equipment for hire is great quality, and the staff I met were very helpful and knowledgeable. The indoor changing rooms weren’t open when I visited, but they’d provided an area outside with screens to make getting in and out of your wetsuit a bit more of a modest affair than it might have been otherwise.
Llandegfedd Reservoir itself is a Site of Special Scientific Interest with around four miles of footpaths and way marked wild walks. However, these are now closed for winter to allow space for the over-wintering wildfowl to settle in. We’ll be back in the springtime to walk around the lake and maybe have another go on the pedalboards!
After getting out of my wetsuit, we had soup lunch in the café, which has beautiful panoramic views of the reservoir. There is nothing better than finding a lovely spot to sit and warm up after a couple of hours on the water, and I can definitely see us visiting here again when we are allowed, and I would suggest you add it to your list, too.
You can’t visit Wales and not climb a hill, and during our 28 hours in Abergavenny we managed two of the seven hills that surround this lovely Welsh town.
Known locally as Holy Mountain, the Skirrid is the last outcrop of the Black Mountains in Wales, rising rather dramatically from the valley floor close to Abergavenny. Isolated from the main mountain range, it might be smaller than many other hills in the area at 486m, but it’s position and shape make it very attractive to any view-loving hill walker.
We parked in the National Trust car park on the Abergavenny to Skenfrith road (pay and display, I really do need to get me National Trust membership so I can park for free!), and took the direct route up and back down the hill, only around 3.5 miles in total. I would definitely call this an “energetic” walk; the route took us up through Pant Skirrid Wood, and then out onto the steep and exposed mountain side, before we could walk the more gentle path to the summit (beware of the false summits!).
The weather could have been a lot kinder to us that afternoon; it was blowing a hoolie and we didn’t quite beat the rain, or hail, but it was well worth the effort. The 360-degree views of the surrounding countryside were more than stunning. Despite the angry skies, we could make out the Malverns, the rest of the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons, and the Forest of Dean and May Hill in Gloucestershire.
One of the views from here is of Bryn Arw Common, where you might just make out the words “Stump Up for Trees”. Kind of, I only took my phone on this hike, well it was hailing!
Stump Up For Trees is an ambitious, community-based charity focused on woodland creation and enhancing biodiversity in the Brecon Beacons area of south-east Wales. This tree planting project will plant one million trees, because we need them.
“Trees give life. It’s hard to overstate their benefits. Trees provide wildlife habitat, food, better air and water quality, medicine, shade, sustainable timber, natural flood management and healthier soils. Most importantly in today’s urgent debate about climate change, trees also sequester carbon dioxide.”
What an amazing campaign. The writing on the side of the hill might be a bit of a publicity stunt, but the charity are genuinely planting 140,000 trees on that hillside – this part of the plan is already funded. It’ll be amazing to see the landscape change as the native woodland grows.
Nestled in the valley between seven hills close to the Welsh/English border, Abergavenny is considered the “Gateway to Wales”, and it really is an ideal place to explore the Brecon Beacons and Black Mountains. After our morning at Llandegfedd and a damp walk up Skirrid, we spent an hour or so wandering around the town itself, and it really is a nice little place to explore. The first major settlement was built here by the Romans; they called their fort Gobannium, occupied from 57-400AD.
The town is now a blend of very old and new, with plenty of good food options, and lots of independent shops to take your money… I was good and left my credit card and reusable bags in our hotel room, so I wasn’t tempted, but sometimes it’s good just to go window shopping.
There is also a castle dating back to 1087 here in Abergavenny. It would have been a wooden structure protected by a ditch until a stone Keep was built in 1100 and the development really started. Of course, King Charles ordered that this castle was destroyed during the English Civil War… but there is actually a lot to look at here.
The grounds, which allow you to see the ruins of the castle walls, are in open parkland so you can wander as you choose. This motte and bailey castle has an impressive looking keep sat on top of its manmade mound. This is now a free museum, which was unfortunately closed when we went (closes at 4pm).
My favourite meal of the weekend was at the Hardwick, and when I say that we fully intend to travel to Wales just to eat at this restaurant you will know how much I enjoyed my dinner there.
Owned by Stephen Terry (that’s “eat at a celebrity chef’s restaurant” ticked off my bucket list!), the Hardwick is apparently Michel Roux Jr’s favourite Welsh restaurant, and I think it is now mine. I’m no food critic or restaurant reviewer, and so there are no photos of my food and I’m not able to do the quality or presentation justice in my writing. But I can say that we had an absolutely lovely evening at the Hardwick, the food was superb, and we will be back.
I was pleased to find that while this is a very well known and upmarket restaurant, it did not feel snobby or awkward in any way, and the prices on the menu felt right for the food that was on offer. The website says they want to provide you somewhere to completely relax and eat fantastic food, and I think they’ve managed that very well. I just hope that when we return for our second tasting, that the rice pudding with soured apple is still on the menu, my favourite restaurant desert for years.
Guided Hike on The Blorenge
I highly recommend hiking with a guide. The combination of having someone to do the route planning for you and to tell you all about the history and stories of the place you are walking is just wonderful. And our second hill walk of the weekend was thanks to Huw from Treads and Trails, who took us for a guided walk around The Blorenge (rhymes with orange…).
Our circular walk in the south-eastern corner of the Brecon Beacons National Park took us from the Foxhunter Memorial to Keeper’s Pond, down the hill to the old tramroad, past (but not in) the tram tunnel, through larch woodland, down to the Punchbowl (what a beautiful oasis of a manmade lake), and then back up through more woodland, up along a beautiful stone wall up to a large weather station (this is where we found the widest views), and across a boggy path to the summit.
This is the route we took (albeit with a different start and end point), which gave us a decent three-hours walking in this area without tiring us out too much. If you are heading to this area and want to do one hike, I would put this one on your shortlist, as it’s got a lot going for it.
It was an absolute pleasure to spend my Sunday morning in Huw’s company; if you are looking for a walking or mountain biking guide in South Wales, when things there reopen to us again, be sure to give him a shout.
I should say that for those who like hill views but can’t (or don’t want to) climb up a massive hill, this one has a couple of car parks very near to the top… a perfect spot for a picnic. You can also do a nice circular walk following the same contour line around the top of the hill, which opens up views even if you don’t want to climb.
Welsh Tapas at The Gaff
After our walk we were clearly ready for lunch, and the final place Over the Bridge to Wales had lined up for us was The Gaff, a lovely modern looking café on the edge of Abergavenny. The premise of the food here is a kind of Welsh Tapas; small plates that show off local ingredients and traditional lunchtime fayre.
We went for five plates between us; the stars were the freshly cooked Scotch eggs (with runny yolk, of course), and the bang bang cauliflower, which was sticky and delicious and I could definitely eat again. And for desert went for the sharing plate of chocolate and hazelnut bread and butter pudding with custard and ice cream. Yes, both. It was delicious. This came to a little over £40 which made it not a cheap lunch, but a very good one.
Time to Head Home
And with that our 48 hours in this lovely part of the country was up and we jumped in the car and headed back over the bridge to Gloucestershire…
My friends at Over the Bridge to Wales know me well and certainly pulled off a really fantastic itinerary of outdoors activities and good food. Abergavenny might be known as the gateway to South Wales, but it really is a great place to visit itself, and the perfect base for lots of outdoorsy fun in the local area.
The highlight of my weekend was probably that guided walk on The Blorenge, partly down to having Huw lead us, and partly because the weather was spot on for hiking, and my favourite food was our meal at the Hardwick. Who knew Abergavenny had such a great food scene?! I’m told there are lots more places to eat that I need to try, so I guess another 48 hours in this lovely town is on the cards for 2021.
Have you spent time in this part of Wales? What are your favourite trails and places to explore here?
If you made it to the end of this mammoth blog post, well done. I hope you found it interesting!
With huge thanks to Over the Bridge to Wales for organising this lovely weekend for me. I genuinely love working with tourist organisations here in the UK who want to show off the outdoorsy-ness of their local areas – give me a shout if you have a hill you think I should wander.