Over the last few decades, the south Wales valleys have been transformed into a walker's paradise. Why not visit Caerphilly County Borough and follow my suggested walks to discover the area yourself?
‘How Green Was My Valley’ asserted Richard Llewellyn in 1939, lamenting the transformation of once green and pleasant Welsh valleys into industrial wastelands. Over 70 years later, these valleys are green once more and the scars of industry (environmental if not socio-economic) have mostly healed. Across south Wales, local councils have created an enviable network of trails and paths, enabling walkers to experience at close-hand the dramatic beauty and rich heritage of the region.
Caerphilly Council has been especially enthusiastic in developing and promoting high-quality, waymarked walking routes. With its open moorland, green-wooded valleys, and views to rival those of the Brecon Beacons, the county borough is a great destination for a walking holiday. Best of all, guides to council walks are free, with routes already plotted onto OS mapping – just email firstname.lastname@example.org to request a copy or download the relevant PDFs from www.caerphilly.gov.uk/countryside.
Escape to . . .
There are two main types of country walk promoted by Caerphilly Council: ‘escape to . . .’ and ‘stride-out’. The ‘escape to . . .’ pack contains a total of six circular routes of between five and eight miles in length, all based around a particular scenic area. The distances covered are ideal for families with children, and the country parks or forestry holdings from which most of the walks start provide additional activities and attractions (see, for instance, my Simonseeks article on Cwmcarn Forest, the starting point for the ‘escape to . . .’ Twmbarlwm walk).
While I highly recommend all six routes, my own personal favourite is the Darran Valley walk. Starting at Parc Cwm Darran, highlights include incredible views towards the Brecon Beacons and the mountain-top graveyard of Capel y Brithdir – a particularly eerie place when shrouded in mist.
The ‘stride-out’ guides are produced separately and describe longer, more demanding routes. The longest of these is the Rhymney Valley Ridgeway Walk, a varied, 28-mile circuit round the hills of Caerphilly that only the extremely fit (or masochistic) would attempt to complete in a day. Fortunately, the Number 50 bus between Bargoed, Caerphilly, and Newport can be used to split the trail into two or three days’ walking – use the journey planner on Traveline Cymru’s website (www.traveline-cymru.info) to check times and routes.
It's worth taking your time as there’s much to see: the grand chapel in Groes-wen, for instance, where so many famous preachers and Welsh men of letters were buried that it became known as the Westminster Abbey of Wales; or the gaunt ruins of Ruperra Castle, a 17th-century mansion belonging to the Morgans of Tredegar that was gutted by fire during the Second World War.
You may also want time to stop off at one of the many country pubs along the way. I particularly recommend the Llanfabon Inn (01443 450264), the Rose & Crown in Eglwysilan (029 2083 0244), the White Cross Inn in Groes-wen (029 2085 1332), and The Hollybush in Draethen (01633 441326; www.thehollybush.com) – just not all on the same day!
Sharing part of the route of the Rhymney Valley Ridgeway Walk is the much shorter Rhymney River Circular Walk, a nine-mile circuit that includes some delightful riverside walking. A there-and-back detour to Craig Ruperra – a former Iron Age hillfort, Norman motte-and-bailey castle, and later summerhouse to the Ruperra Morgans – will provide you with an elevated view of the terrain covered, which includes another former Morgan stronghold, Plas Machen. If all this history is tiring you out, take a break in the Cefn Mably Arms (01633 680347) – next door to the historic St. Michael’s Church!
The two other walks in the stride-out series are the Raven Walk, a tough twelve-mile circuit that starts and finishes at Cwmcarn Forest Visitor Centre, and the Sirhowy Valley Walk, a 26-mile linear route along the length of the Sirhowy and Ebbw Valleys. As a linear route, this is a much harder walk to plan, but the X18 bus between Newport and Ebbw Vale will get you to within a mile of both start and finishing points – again, check the journey planner at www.traveline-cymru.info.
If you're tired of walking, or if the weather has let you down, why not head into Caerphilly and visit its famous castle? Entry to the castle, one of the largest medieval fortresses in Britain, is £10.40 for a family, £3.60 for an adult, and £3.20 for a concession. Joint tickets for Cardiff Castle are also available.
Worth a visit too is Llancaiach Fawr (www.llancaiachfawr.co.uk; 01443 412248), a Tudor mansion house restored to how it would have looked in 1645, when the owner, Colonel Prichard, was wavering in his support for the Royalist cause. In every room actors dressed as servants are waiting to tell you about the lives of ordinary people during this extraordinarily tumultuous time. Entry for a family (two adults and two children) is £19.00, an adult £6.50, a concession £5.50, and a child £5.00.
Where to stay
The Hollybush with Rooms (Draethen) and Wern Ganol Farm (Nelson) are at opposite ends of the Rhymney Valley Ridgeway Walk and could be used by backpackers undertaking a two-day circuit. The Forge (Lower Machen), is just off the Ridgeway Walk but situated on the Number 50 bus route. The Forge and The Hollybush are also suitable bases for walking the Rhymney River Circular Walk.
Wyrloed Lodge (Manmoel), and The Rock Country Inn (Blackwood), are situated on the route of the Sirhowy Valley Walk, while Cwmcarn Forest Campsite is a good base for walking the Raven Walk and the ‘escape to . . .’ Twmbarlwm walk. If travelling by car, all walks are accessible, wherever you stay.