The wilder side of the Wye: Plynlimon to Tintern
Mike Dunn, author of Cicerone’s new guide to ‘Walking in the Wye Valley’, suggests lots of walks for exploring the best of this much-loved area, away from the tourist honeypots.
The Wye may be only the fourth longest river in England in Wales but it is almost certainly the most scenic. George Borrow went further, describing it as ‘the most lovely river, probably, the world can boast of’. The Wye concocts a magical blend of the best of British landscapes, from open moorland in the upper reaches through pastoral tranquillity in the lowlands of Herefordshire to the final miles of its journey through a densely wooded limestone gorge to the Severn estuary. It is not just the natural history of the river which is so compelling. For centuries the Wye has been a border river: in Iron Age times hillforts defended key locations on either side of the river, while Offa’s Dyke was thrown up in the 8th century to keep the Welsh at bay and a string of castles sought to underpin Norman control of the troublesome Welsh Marches.
More recently, the sylvan beauty of the lower valley from Ross-on-Wye to Chepstow has captivated tourists since the development of the Wye Tour in the late 18th century fed the growing fascination with the picturesque, inspired JMW Turner and William Wordsworth, and drew visitors by the boat-load to marvel at the limestone cliffs, the turbulent river and especially the evocative ruins of Tintern Abbey.
These attractions together with a dense network of usable public paths mean that the Wye valley is already well known as a walkers’ paradise. And having lived nearby and walked there for many years, I thought I knew the Wye Valley pretty well. At one extreme, just before its confluence with the muddily brown Severn, I’d walked on both sides of the valley above the lower Wye gorge, using Offa’s Dyke Path and the Wye Valley walk to stitch together walks in and around the woodlands for which the area is famous. At the other, I’d roamed the grassy slopes of Plynlimon, enjoying extraordinary views towards Cader Idris and the rounded hills of mid Wales.
But this approach to the Wye Valley concentrates too much on set-piece tourism, and especially the lower valley, with its internationally renowned tourist honeypot sites such as Tintern and Yat Rock, and undervalues the richness and diversity of the valley as a whole. Researching and writing my new guidebook put that right, introducing me to an incredible variety of landscape and wildlife in a pretty compact but very special and generally very accessible area.
Even in the relatively well-trodden lower valley there are surprises and delights to be found at every turn and with every walk.
The restored heathland at Tidenham Chase and Poor’s Allotment offers exhilarating walking with outstanding views, while the panorama from Wintour’s Leap above the deserted village of Lancaut is a special highlight. A particular favourite takes in a historically important prehistoric bone cave and a huge but little-known Iron Age hillfort. Start the walk at the top of the Great Doward, taking in a series of delightful nature reserves with a variety of orchids together with butterflies such as marbled whites and ringlets before dropping down to the river near Symonds Yat.
A good riverside track goes upstream from Symonds Yat past the remains of the New Weir furnace, the tufa deposits at Dropping Well and the swaying Biblins suspension bridge to arrive at the Seven Sisters Rocks, limestone rock towers dominating this stretch of the Wye. Go steeply uphill from here to reach the massive hillfort at the Little Doward, cruelly mistreated by a 19th century landowner ‘entirely unacquainted with the antiquarian interest’ but still with a mightily impressive rampart and ditch. A final amble along the ridge leads to King Arthur’s Cave, which provided a refuge for hyenas, mammoths and cave lions in prehistoric times, and more recently sheltered our ancestors. And all this in a relatively easy walk of less than five miles!
The middle Wye welcomes far fewer walkers than the lower valley, yet the variety and quality of the walking is just as impressive. The big upland common of the Begwns, owned by the National Trust, not only provides one of the best short walks in the area but is also an exceptional spot from which to appreciate the mountains of south Wales, from the massive northern scarp of the Black Mountains through the distinctive sandstone peaks of the Brecon Beacons to the distant ridge of Bannau Brycheiniog and the Carmarthen Fan. To the north the gentler slopes of Llanbedr Hill provide a good introduction to the easy ridge walking of mid Wales, with Twm Tobacco’s grave and sightings of the elusive and increasingly rare red grouse the highlights.
To explore the Begwns, start in the north-east at Croesfeilliog and use a succession of wide grassy tracks to meander past the Monks Pond (the name suggestive of monastic influence in the distant past but the pond actually created as recently as the 1960s) to the Roundabout, with a girdle of trees planted in 1887 on the highest point of the common to mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. An easy stroll along the northern edge of the Begwns, with every chance of seeing breeding curlew, lapwing and golden plover in summer, leads above the deserted farm at Bailey Bedw back to Croesfeilliog.
The village of Painscastle, seen below to the left from Bailey Bedw, was the site in 1198 of one of the bloodiest battles in the turbulent history of the Welsh borders, when Gwenwynwyn, prince of Wales, was defeated by an English army led by Geoffrey fitz Peter.
Towards Builth Wells the valley takes on a more upland character, with big ridges such as Banc-y-Celyn and Aberedw Rocks hemming in the river. The ridges offer excellent opportunities for some really good walking through spectacularly attractive landscapes dotted with historic remains, ranging from prehistoric cairns through medieval castles to the cave where another one-time prince of Wales, Llewellyn, spent his last night.
A personal favourite, however, is another of the shorter walks in the book, centred on Cors y Llyn, which has the distinction of being the only quaking bog in Wales. Quaking bogs are formed when vegetation in basin mires grows out over deep pools to form a mat floating on the water surface. Stunted Scots pines rise above bog mosses, cotton grass, round-leaved sundew and the unusual and distinctive marsh cinquefoil. From the car park the walk crosses a field thick with orchids in early summer, then takes the boardwalk around the reserve. There’s an unexpected frisson of excitement here because the boardwalk lies only an inch or two above the water level, and indeed can be swamped after rain.
The walk also takes in a classic green lane heading for Smithfield Farm (groups of red kites can often be seen prospecting for prey on either side of the lane) and drops down to visit the unlikely site of a Roman fortlet at Penmincae. The camp guarded the point at which a minor Roman road forded the Wye, although the rectangular enclosure can be hard to pick out on the ground. A straight green track then completes the walk, with a great prospect developing of the volcanic hills of the Builth inlier to the east and the undulations of the upper Wye valley to the west.
The moorland slopes of the upper valley are home to some excellent if remote walks, with the Monks’ Trod a classic example. Originally mapped out as the quickest route on horseback between the abbeys at Strata Florida and Abbeycwmhir, the medieval trod covers 24 miles of high exposed moorland yet paved sections of it still survive and the whole route provides a challenging, unforgettable high-level traverse of the ‘green desert of Wales’.
A rather more manageable walk in the remote and often damp mountains of the Elenydd west of the upper Wye tackles the ascent of Drygarn Fawr. Start at Llanerch Cawr, at the western end of Dol-y-mynach reservoir in the upper Elan valley, and climb alongside the Nant Paradwys stream to the grassy col at Bwlch y Ddau Faen, where the sketchy remains of a stone circle can be discovered. A right turn here leads across the peaty upper slopes of Drygarn Fawr until the unmistakable summit ridge comes into sight.
The special features of the mountain, one of the most remote tops in Wales, are the enormous beehive cairns at each end of the summit, constructed from the stones of Bronze Age cairns and topped with white quartzite cairns. The return to Llanerch Cawr drops down into the Nant yr Ast valley and passes much more recent ruins, with the low walls of an old shepherd’s summer dwelling followed by the stark ruins of the copper, lead and zinc mines littered along the Rhiwnant valley. And for the following day there’s always that ascent of Plynlimon, the highest mountain in mid Wales, with the chance to look down on the source of the Wye…
Mike Dunn was born and bred in Leicester but has now lived in Penarth in the Vale of Glamorgan for over 30 years. He worked for the Welsh Assembly Government, latterly specialising in environmental and conservation issues, and has also written widely on landscape, walking, pubs and real ale. His books include The Penguin Guide to Real Draught Beer, Walking through the Lake District, Walking Ancient Trackways and Real Heritage Pubs of Wales (with Mick Slaughter). He is married and has two daughters, and his interests include playing and organising tennis (he is a Board Member of Tennis Wales), birdwatching, cricket and real ale. Mike's favourite locations for walking are the Welsh borders, the Hebridean Islands and the Lake District.View Articles and Books by Mike Dunn