From picturesque waterways to rolling hills and romantic ruins, Monmouthshire offers a wealth of wonderful views
Llanfoist in Monmouthshire is a find. Not because of its Indian restaurant, although that really is quite good, but because if you head uphill from the main road following the signs for Brecon Park Boats you will come to a canal. That’s right - a waterway halfway up a hill. I wondered why our ancestors thought this practical. The owners of Brecon Park Boats were happy to tell me the answer, which was something to do with transporting iron on to Newport after a railroad had brought it down from the pit face to this manmade canal.
But I had come here to stop thinking and to relax. And the Brecon and Abergavenny Canal, which is purely maintained for recreational purposes nowadays, turns out to be a bull's-eye of a choice if all you seek is picturesque tranquillity. I took to this waterway and found its silence golden. I passed by a world of ducks, pubs and cottages that gently blurred like an impressionist painting. The experience of steering my craft was almost subliminal, like meditating.
You can hire, as I had, a little electric motor boat for the day from Brecon Park Boats, an idyllic little boat yard operated from the old wharf house. Or, if you can play for a whole week or weekend, rent one of their more complex crafts: narrow boats, one of which even has a Jacuzzi.
Back on dry land
If you like to mess about beside water rather than on it, head for Tintern village, home to Tintern Abbey, which occupies a choice location on the banks of the River Wye. This incredible, Gothic ruin, attributed to Cistercian monks, dominates the landscape, and is an awe-inspiring architectural feat - most notably its round window frames, which appear to be suspended in mid-air
From the abbey you can head over a bridge and up a hill, then loop round to follow the course of the River Wye, crossing it again to reach the Old Station. This is a great place for lunch. Not gourmet food, but freshly prepared and tasty sarnies served with a smile.
When you are ready for a bit of hustle and bustle, Abergavenny is the place. Tucked beneath the green hills of the Black Mountains this is a thriving market town. There always seems to be something going on inside the historic market hall, be it a flea market or a farmer’s market. Abergavenny is also a treasure trove for those who prefer specialist independent retailers and coffee shops to familiar high-street chains.
Castles and countryside
Consider making the Angel Hotel (from £85 for a double) your base. It comfortably combines contemporary and traditional styles. It’s also just a short stroll from Abergavenny Castle, a crumbling ruin set in a secluded, well-tended garden. From the castle grounds you’ll get a great view of the town and the cloak of countryside that encircles it.
Abergavenny Castle is worth a look, and so is Chepstow, the best-known castle in the area, but my favourite is Caldicot Castle. It lies slightly off the beaten track and on the edge of a housing estate! It may not have been as historically important as Chepstow, but what it lacks in size and strategic location it makes up for in charm. Cross the moat and you’ll enter a restored fortress where you can clamber around the murky dungeons, battlements, towers, ramparts and timber-fronted buildings. There’s also a full programme of family entertainment on offer, from theatre to medieval re-enactments, ghost nights, Alice In Wonderland days and Knights and Princesses workshops.
But it is the view from the keep across to the River Severn that will really stay in your mind.