GLAMORGAN

Cardiff and Swansea, Wales' two biggest cities, were once located within the county of Glamorgan and the region still maintains something of the energy and variety of these urban centres. Heavily industrialised during the 19th century when the South Wales coalfield took off, the area in the centre of the region, known simply as the Valleys, was behind the financial prosperity of Cardiff and Swansea.  Today, visitors can experience what is was like to work in a coal mine at the Rhondda Heritage Park, where the Lewis Merthyr Colliery once operated. 

Aside from the glamour of cities and dust of coal, Glamorgan has some stunning natural scenery. The Gower Peninsula has been dubbed an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty for its sparkling beaches and hilly headlands.

Glamorgan is an ancient land. Evidence has been found placing humankind in the area up to 200,000 years ago. Human remains dating back to 29,000BP, the oldest known such remains in Britain, were found on Gower Peninsula. Much more recently in 6,000BP, inhabitants began building stone monuments such as dolmens, tombs, and henges. Many of these can still be seen. Historically, the area was frought by clashes between the Normans, and then the English, and the Welsh. Glamorgan was often made a battleground between the Marcher Lords and the Welsh princes. Some of the castles from this period have survived while others fell prey to the assaults of Welsh nationalist Owain Glyndŵr and his men before crumbling in the winds of time.

 

The River Tawe in SwanseaSwansea [pop. 228,100] is surrounded by great natural beauty in the cliffs and bays of Gower Peninsula. While it's a cracking, modern city, there is not a lot of unique or historic architecture to admire in the centre as Swansea was badly damaged during WWII bombing raids. Head out into the suburbs to the charmingly named Mumbles, however, and you can find a more idiosyncratic experience: from Oystermouth Castle and a restored Victorian Pier to the Lovespoon Gallery.

History
However, current thought points to Swansea having developed as a Viking trading post, perhaps bearing the original name of 'Sveinn's Island' or 'Sveinsey' in Old Norse. After the Norman Conquest, the area was brought under the remit of a marcher lord and Swansea itself received a borough charter in the mid to late 12th century. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Swansea developed as a trading port and as a centre for copper smelting, so much so that the city was often called 'Copperopolis'. In the 20th century, the city fell under bombing attack during the Blitz, which obliterated much of its medieval remains.

Layout
Swansea, meaning 'Mouth of the Tawe River', is situated on the coast of South West Wales. Its city boundaries include the Gower Peninsula and the Lliw Uplands. Swansea's railway station is located on the High Street while the bus station is near Quadrant Shopping Centre. There is also a Metro service. To find out more about getting around Swansea city by bus or metro, visit http://www.swansea.gov.uk. Visit http://www.firstgroup.com for more information on getting to Swansea.

Sights
Swansea Castle Flickr alexliivetSwansea Castle, which was founded in 1106 by Henry de Beaumont, has been used for a variety of purposes – as a prison, a market and a town hall too. Its present state is the result of an early 20th century decision to demolish part of the building to make way for a newspaper office.

The National Waterfront Museum [Oystermouth Road, Maritime Quarter, +44 1792 638950 , www.museumwales.ac.uk, free entry] is dedicated to Wales' industrial and maritime heritage. The museum is an area called the Maritime Quarter, which has some of Swansea's only remaining Georgian and Victorian architecture.

Swansea Museum [+44 1792 653763, www.swansea.gov.uk, free entry] has four locations: the main collection on Oystermouth Road which focuses upon Swansea city's past alongside the addition of a few other old fashioned curios like an Egyptian mummy; a collection of boats at the Swansea Marina; trams at the tramshed on Dylan Thomas Square in the Marina; and the collections centre, a kind of warehouse with the museum's reserve industrial and maritime collection, situated opposite Liberty Stadium on the Cross Valley Link Road in Landore.

The Dylan Thomas Centre
[Somerset Place, +44 1792 463980, www.dylanthomas.com, free entry to permanent collection] houses a permanent exhibition about the poet's life and works and organises  a number of literary events including the annual Dylan Thomas Festival in October and November.

Plantasia [Parc Tawe, +44 1792 474555, www.swansea.gov.uk, Adults £3.95] brings the tropics to Swansea. Aimed at kids – but an enjoyable experience for adults too on a dreary winter's day – Plantasia's exhibitions and actitivies showcase tropical plants and animals.

Head to fashionable Mumbles: Oystermouth Castle [Castle Avenue, http://oystermouthcastle.wordpress.com/, Adults £1], the former residence of Gower's Marcher Lords with a castle keep dating to the 12th century. Check their events listings to catch an outdoor performance of Shakespeare; Mumbles Lighthouse, which was first lit in 1794; The Lovespoon Gallery [492 Mumbles Road, +44 1792 360132, http://www.lovespoons.co.uk/] exhibits (and sells) hand carved wooden spoons that were once given in Wales as tokens of love; and if you're feeling thirsty, stop by the Mumbles Mile, a stretch of watering holes that was once favoured by Dylan Thomas.



Gower Peninsula 'Worms Head'A designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty for over fifty years, the Gower Peninsula surrounds the city of Swansea with bright wash of coastline. The peninsula covers an area of 180 km square and the southern coast in particular has many excellent beaches such as Rhossili Bay Beach, known for its exceptional beauty, Llangennith Beach, which is said to be a good place for surfing, and Three Cliffs Bay, aptly named for its three triangular limestone cliffs, and a stunning beach with much to offer. There is even an 800 year old fort nearby the latter called Pennard Castle.

Aside from the fantastic beaches, there are also woodlands, sand dunes, marshes, and the picturesque rolling fields of the commons. There is a good map of the Gower Peninsula, including the commons sites, at this website: http://www.gowercommons.org.uk.

There have been significant archaeological finds on the Gower Peninsula, with items dating back to the Stone Age. In the 19th century, a man's skeleton (although he was mistakenly called the 'Red Lady of Paviland' for some time) was found, whose remains were recently reassessed as over 33000 years old. There is also a mesolithic and neolithic tomb, Parc Cwm Long Cairn, which contained human and animal remains as well as pottery.  There are eight standing stones (there were nine), which were erected in the Bronze Age. One of these, situated near Cefn Bryn, is often called Arthur's Stone. Additionally, there are medieval, early modern, and more recent reminders of the past such as submerged wrecks from WWII and defensive buildings from the same period.

Getting around Gower is easy: there are many bus services to and from Swansea Quadrant Bus Station. For more information about services, go to the BayTrans website, www.baytrans.co.uk.



Cyfarthfa Castle WikipediaMerthyr Tydfil [pop.30,000] was named after the daughter of King Brychan who was killed by pagans in 480. Merthyr Tydfil basically means 'church in memory of Tydfil'. There are a couple of sites that are worth visiting in the town: the elegant Cyfarthfa Castle [+44 1685 727371], built in 1824, is situated within a sprawling park. The building was designed by Robert Lugar for the Crawshay family, who grew rich by operating the local ironworks; Joseph Parry's Cottage [+44 1685 727371] has been decked out as a typical ironworker's cottage of the 1840s; Parc Taf Bargoed [+44 1685 727474] is a former colliery site that has been transformed into a beautful public park that also offers safe habitats for a variety of birds and animals.

 


Blaenavon Flickr Kevin Walsh Blaenavon [pop.6300], or Blaenafon in Welsh, grew around an ironworks which opened there in 1788, prompting the influx of hundreds of hard-working migrant families. This was followed by the founding of the steel and coal industries in the area. Blaenavon's tourist charms are still reliant upon this industrial past. Indeed, UNESCO have recognised Blaenavon's industrial landscape as a World Heritage Site. The town tried to reinvent itself recently as a second Hay-on-Wye-esque centre for books - The bid didn't really work but it did leave the town with a number of exceptional bookshops.

The Big Pit National Coal Museum [+44 1495 790311, www.museumwales.ac.uk] is a real coal mine and a museum too. Their underground tour takes visitors 90 metres down into the mine shaft to discover what life was like working in the depths of the earth.

Pontypool and Blaenavon Railway [Near Garn yr Erw, +44 1495 792263, www.pontypool-and-blaenavon.co.uk, Adults £4-9] is a charming heritage railway that takes in beautiful scenery and a little history too. The northern terminus, Whistle Halt, is the highest station in Wales at 1307 feet. The train passes through a landscape that still bears the marks and remains of industry, from collieries and slag heaps to the Whistle Inn, with its huge collection of miner's lamps.

 



Monmouth Castle Wikipedia Monmouth [pop. 8,500] is situated close to the border with England and over the centuries has fallen within the boundaries of both countries, giving the town a distinctive cultural flavour. Situated near the confluence of the rivers Wye, Monnow, and Trothy, Monmouth has been considered a place of strategic importance for a long time.

Very soon after their conquest of Wales, Monmouth Castle [www.monmouthcastlemuseum.org.uk, free entry] was built by the Norman French. The original motte and bailey structure was gradually replaced by stone. In 1387, this was the birthplace of Henry V, the English king who would go on to win the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. The castle is now in ruins but it does hold a regimental museum which tells the story of the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers, a regiment which dates back to the 1530s.

A Benedictine Priory [Priory Street, +44 1600 712034, www.monmouthpriory.org.uk, free entry] was built in Monmouth in 1101. It is most famous for educating Geoffrey of Monmouth, the 12th century historian who wrote The History of the Kings of Britain.

The River Monnow is adorned with Britain's only remaining medieval stone bridge with an intact gatehouse.

Monmouth Museum (formerly the Nelson Museum) [+44 1600 710630, www.monmouthshire.gov.uk, free entry] has a huge collection of material relating to the life of Admiral Nelson such as letters and other personal effects.

Outside the 18th century Shire Hall [+44 1600 715662, www.monmouth.gov.uk] is a statue of Charles Stuart Rolls, whose ancestral home was The Hendre, near Monmouth. He was one of the founders of the Rolls-Royce company and a pioneering aviator who died for his passion, thereby becoming the first ever Briton to die in a plane crash.

 

 


Raglan Castle Stock Exchange Located on the site of an earlier Norman motte and bailey construction, the present Raglan Castle [www.cadw.wales.gov.uk ] was begun in the 15th and 16th centuries by Sir William ap Thomas, who raised the Great Tower. His son William Herbert and his descendents in turn continued the ambitious building programme that created a castle of exceptional strength and luxury. Part of the castle was finally slighted after a thirteen week siege during the Civil War. Raglan Castle has been called one of the “last formidable displays of medieval defensive architecture” by historian Anthony Emery.

 

 

 


River Wye the Wye ValleyThe River Wye begins up in the middle of Wales at Plynlimon and snakes down to Chepstow. The stretch between Monmouth and Chepstow follows the border between England and Wales and this area, the Wye Valley [www.wyevalleyaonb.org.uk], is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The valley is steep with shady woodland covering its slopes on both sides. It is a popular area with hikers now but in the 18th and 19th centuries it was favoured by poets, writers, and painters such as Turner, Coleridge, Thackery, and Wordsworth, who came to visit the romantic ruins of Tintern Abbey in particular. Subject of bitter contention for so many years between England and Wales, this border area is dotted with the broken remains of castles including Monmouth, Chepstow, Raglan, and Caldicot.

For help in planning your walk along the Wye Valley, check out www.wyevalleywalk.org. Information about public transport can be found at www.traveline-cymru.org.uk.

 

 


Chepstow castleChepstow [pop.14,200] is an attractive market town on the River Wye. Its impressive castle is the oldest stone castle in Britain to have survived the ravages of war and time. Over its history the town has been of considerable strategic importance because of its seat on the border with England and its prominence as a port. These days it's just a nice spot to relax, take in a little history, and perhaps have a flutter at the races.

Layout
Chepstow is nestled in the 's' bend of the River Wye. Its train station is centrally located at Station Road and the main bus interchange can be found to the east at Thomas Street, just off the High Street. Cross the river and you're in England.

Sights
Chepstow Castle [Bridge Street, +44 1291 624065, www.cadw.wales.gov.uk, Adults £4] has the oldest castle doors in Europe. At 800 years old the large wooden doors are now housed in the castle's museum to keep them safe. The castle was begun in 1067 making it among the oldest of the Norman castles in Britain. Up until the 17th century the castle was still being renovated and refortified.

The Priory Church of St Mary [Church Street, +44 1291620980] has a richly decorated west doorway that dates back to the early Norman period. A few other elements remain from the original Benedictine Priory built in 1072, including the vaulted nave and large piers, but the church has undergone considerable rebuilding.

Learn about the town's history at Chepstow Museum [Bridge Street, +44 1291 625981, free entry].  Located in an 18th century townhouse, the museum recreates the building's different phases over the years, including its use as a Red Cross hospital during WWI, and also has paintings, photographs, and objects to show Chepstow's history, from the Romans to the more recent past.

Chepstow Racecourse [+44 1291 622260, www.chepstow-racecourse.co.uk, tickets range from £16-37] opened in 1926 and quickly became a popular venue for racing. The Welsh Grand National  began at Chepstow in 1948, thereby cementing the course's place as Wales' premier racetrack.