Offering world-class mountain biking, hiking, and a stunningly located campsite, Cwmcarn Forest is truly a Mecca for the outdoor aficionado. There’s plenty for the kids to do as well . . .
Looking up at the steep, forested slopes of Nant Carn, it is easy to understand why Granada Television, in a 2006 TV adaptation of Dracula, chose the area of Cwmcarn Forest (01495 272001; www.cwmcarnforest.co.uk) as a stand-in for Transylvania’s Carpathian Mountains: this tranquil, secluded valley could easily be mistaken as part of some great European mountain range.
Appearances, though, can be deceptive. For these are not the Carpathians but the hills towering above a former Welsh mining valley, only eight miles from the M4 and just thirty minutes’ drive from the major urban centres of Newport, Cardiff and Caerphilly. The forest itself is less than a hundred years old and hides the scars of heavy industry – the valley’s last pit did not close until 1968.
Today there are few reminders of the industrial past, and with reclamation complete, Cwmcarn Forest is transformed into a paradise for those who love outdoor living. Whatever your age, there’s plenty to do here – and you don’t have to be a daredevil downhill mountain biker to enjoy it!
The visitor centre
Your first port of call will probably be the attractive, modern visitor centre, open 9am to 5pm throughout the year. Inside are toilets, showers, a gift shop, an information station, and a café selling a range of snacks and meals. These can be enjoyed (weather permitting) on the timber decking that surrounds the centre and which, at the rear, overlooks a toddlers’ play area. Car parking here and throughout Cwmcarn Forest is free.
A little further up the valley from the visitor centre is the pay point for Cwmcarn Forest Drive, where you will need to pay a toll of £5.00 if you wish to proceed by car. What follows is an unforgettable seven-mile scenic drive which snakes across the wooded slopes of the Nant Carn valley. The most historic of Cwmcarn Forest’s tourist attractions (first opening in 1972), it is particularly popular with families.
Along the route, seven car parks provide great stopping off places to picnic, admire the view, or explore further; if the weather’s good, you’ll have no problem spending the day meandering from one to the next. From Car Park 2 (‘Mountain Walk’) it’s an easy one-mile walk to the summit of Twmbarlwm, an ancient Iron Age hillfort once voted as having the third-best view in Wales. Car Park 3 (‘Land of the Tylwyth Teg’), with its play area and barbeque facilities, is a great place to eat with children.
A word of warning - the forest drive operates a one-way system and once you’ve left one spectacular view, there’s no way of returning to it by vehicle without doing another lap. Early birds should also note that the drive does not open to traffic until 11am, with closing times that vary between 4pm in the winter and 9pm on weekends in July and August.
Cwmcarn Forest is a great place for cycling enthusiasts. The principal attraction is undoubtedly the Twrch Trail, a nine-mile mountain bike route named after a legendary Welsh boar. Maps for this and the popular downhill trail (suitable for experts only) are available from the visitor centre, though you should have little difficulty in following either route (assuming, that is, you manage to stay on your bike!).
Also running from the visitor centre is an ‘uplift’ service to the top of the downhill trail run by local company Cwmdown (www.cwmdown.co.uk) – the only aspect of cycling in Cwmcarn Forest for which there’s a charge. Day tickets can be pre-booked online and cost between £24.00 and £27.50. Alternatively, you can purchase (space allowing) a five-trip ticket for £15.00 or a single trip for £3.50 on the day.
While in no way as technically demanding as the downhill trail, the Twrch Trail is still rated red for difficult on the Forestry Commission’s grading system and is not a ride suitable for novices. The climb from the valley floor to the high point is particularly tough, which is why you’ll see so many riders using the forest drive to get there! Of course, if you prefer cycling on tarmac, you may wish to continue on the drive, which itself makes a fabulous cycle route, particularly in the early morning and evening when closed to traffic.
If cycling with children, your best bet is to head back down the approach road to the visitor centre and cross the main road to the towpath of the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal. This can be followed for six flat miles as far as Fourteen Locks Canal Centre (01633 892167; www.fourteenlocks.co.uk) – and beyond to Newport, if you wish to head down the locks.
Just before reaching the tearooms at Whysom’s Wharf, turning right off the towpath onto Route 47 of the National Cycle Network will lead you across Crosskeys (some road riding involved) to Sirhowy Valley Country Park, where the route follows a former railway. This is a lovely flat ride, though be aware that a diversion has been in place between Cwmfelinfach and Ynys-ddu since September 2008, when a landslide destroyed a section of railway path.
There are a number of short, easy walks from the visitor centre, suitable for most people. For more experienced hikers, though, I recommend the Escape to . . . Twmbarlwm walk, a strenuous six-and-a-half-mile circular walk that takes in both sides of the Nant Carn valley, as well as the summit of Twmbarlwm. A guide to the walk is contained in Caerphilly Council’s ‘Escape to . . .’ pack of walks, which is available free of charge from the visitor centre. Alternatively, email firstname.lastname@example.org to request a copy.
A more demanding challenge still is the Raven Walk (guide available as above), a twelve-mile circular walk that takes you out of Cwmcarn Forest into the Ebbw and Sirhowy Valleys and onto their adjoining ridges. By the time you’ve completed the first climb to the hill-top church of Mynyddislwyn, you’ll probably be in need of a drink. If you’ve timed your walk to coincide with lunch-time opening, I recommend the neighbouring Church Inn (01495 200262) – just remember how far you’ve got left to go! Although Twmbarlwm is not part of the Raven Walk, a detour can be made to the summit from Pegwn-y-bwlch.
Where to stay
With so much natural beauty close at hand, Cwmcarn Forest Campsite is the obvious place to stay. Facilities are fairly basic but you have the advantage of proximity to the visitor centre and the spectacular setting of the Nant Carn valley.
If a night under canvas does not appeal, Upper Grippath Farm is a great choice, offering three four-star graded self-catering cottages, all with fabulous views. The only drawback is that Upper Grippath is on the wrong side of the mountain! But if you are here to hike or mountain bike, don’t worry, as all trails can easily be accessed via the mountain ridge direct from the farm.