Although the Wye Valley Walk is one of the most rural walks you can take, there are market towns, and one city, handily located at welcome intervals along the way, providing places to stay and eat and bags of history to be explored. Here's a taste of what is waiting to be discovered.
The first town on the River Wye, Rhayader has become the outdoor adventure capital of Wales in recent years, due to its proximity to the spectacular dams and reservoirs of the Elan and Claerwen Valleys and the many trails and bridleways to explore.
The name Rhayader comes from the Welsh name, Y Rhaeadr (the waterfall), but little remains of the waterfall itself, as it was destroyed in 1780 to make way for the bridge across the river, linking the town to the Elan Valley. In the 1890s Birmingham, some 80 miles to the east, decided that clean safe water could be brought from the Elan Valley to supply its rapidly expanding population. Thousands of workers were brought into the area to build dams and reservoirs and a new village to house the workers was built.
Today this market town has a good selection of independent shops and local traders along with plenty of food and drink and accommodation options. Check out what’s on at The Lost ARC, a live music venue, café and gallery just off West Street and CARAD, Rhayader’s museum and community arts centre. Just outside Rhayader is the Gilgrin Farm, famous for its Red Kite Feeding Centre .
A massive mural greets visitors to Builth Wells, depicting the final days of Llewelyn The Great, the last Prince of Wales, who died nearby in 1282. His head was sent to the English King, Edward I, whose fortress (well grassy remains) still stand behind Castle Road.
Builth (Buallt in Welsh) is thought to mean ‘the wild ox of the wooded slope’, referring to the ancient White Park cattle that roamed this area. The town is full of connections to bulls, with a magnificent bronze statue of a Welsh Black bull in Groe Park and the local rugby team called ‘The Bulls’. Sheep are far more important to the local economy today, but you can still see a bull or two at the Royal Welsh Show which takes place every July. Europe’s largest agricultural show is a lively mix of livestock, sheepdog trials, shearing, horticulture, honey, crafts, displays and music. Events are held at the showground year round including a popular International Antiques and Collectors Fair.
In the 19th century the healing properties of the local saline and sulphur water springs saw Builth develop as a spa resort with thousands of visitors arriving by train to take the waters. Before long ‘Wells’ was added to ‘Builth’ to help promote the health benefits of visiting. Today Builth Road railway station, 2 miles north west on the Heart of Wales line, serves the town. There are thriving independent shops including I am Curious Yellow, an antique shop in Smithfield Rd and The Market Builth, a gourmet grocery store with great range of Welsh products, perfect for a picnic in the hills. Check out what’s on at the Wyeside Arts Centre, housed in the old market hall, which is now a lively entertainment space with a cinema, theatre and gallery.
Enjoying its unique position on the border between England and Wales, Hay is known around the world for its bookshops! Hay Festival is the annual feast of literature and books which takes over the town in late May. There’s also a Winter Festival Weekend for those who can’t wait a full 12 months for another fix of book magic! Hay-on-Wye’s converted cinema carries a running stock of ca.200,000 secondhand and antiquarian books on all subjects.
Elsewhere in the town you will find around 20 more book shops as well as a growing number of art galleries such as the Hay Makers and Eiran Studio Glass. There are many more independent and quirky shops selling everything from outdoor gear at Golesworthy and Sons to antique furniture. More than 150 Listed Buildings give the town a well preserved heritage including the Butter Market, built in the form of a Doric temple in 1833, and the Victorian Clock Tower completed in 1884. The market (Thursdays 9am to 2.30pm) has been trading for 700 years in Hay bringing together local seasonal produce, locally reared meat, fresh fish and game, hot food, artisan crafts, vintage and many other stall holders. With oodles of choice for where to eat and great indoor spaces to browse Hay is the perfect rainy day option if the weather isn’t kind.
One moment you are walking through apple orchards and fields and the next you have arrived in the only city on the Wye, a relaxed place packed with history. Hereford Cathedral is home to the largest surviving medieval map of the world, the 800 year old Mappa Mundi, and a chained library. This fascinating 17th-century system of library security still has all its chains, rods and locks intact. Alongside the Jacobean Black and White House Museum and Hereford Museum and Art Gallery there is more than enough to fill a rest day (or a rainy day).
Today the city is some 20 miles from the Welsh border, but in the distant past Hereford was part of Wales. The cathedral was razed during a Welsh attack in the 11th century and the English King, Henry IV, used Hereford castle as his base to quash Owain Glyndwr’s rebellion in the 13th century.
Hereford’s food and drink scene is based on local produce from the Herefordshire countryside, such as the award-winning Beefy Boys, set up by four backyard amateur cooks sharing a passion for local produce. Locally grown apples and pears are celebrated at The Museum of Cider, housed in the original factory where Bulmers began making cider in 1888.
For shopping, head over to Church Street, close to the cathedral, which has delightful independant shops, art galleries and food stops such as the Mousetrap Cheese Shop. Trekitt should be able to solve any outdoor kit or walking supplies issues. Find arts and evening entertainment at The Courtyard Arts Centre
When the Reverend John Egerton began entertaining his guests on the Wye at Ross, little did he know that he would start a fashion for travel down the river that continues to this day. The Wye Tour, a two day boat trip from Ross to Chepstow became the height of fashion in the late 18th century. The popularity of The Tour was greatly assisted by the publication of a best-selling guide book, ‘Observations on the River Wye’ by William Gilpin. It was the first tour guide to be published in Britain. This was a new type of travel, focusing on the appreciation of scenery. Poets, painters and writers seeking the Picturesque came to be inspired by the landscape. Tourists followed a set itinerary and dined at specific locations, took walks to particular viewpoints and visited must see romantic ruins, making The Wye Tour one of the first ever package holidays. The Wye Valley, with its gorgeous river scenery, became the first of Britain’s great landscapes to be ‘discovered’ – and the birthplace of British tourism.
Today you can explore the river scenery in a canoe, whilst the town has a great selection of art galleries, including Made in Ross at the Market House, which showcases the work of local artists and craftspeople. Markets are held here on Thursday and Saturday. There’s also a Vintage Shopping Trail around the town’s specialist independent shops selling antiques, vintage clothes, collectibles, jewellery and furniture.
Monmouth, or Trefynwy in Welsh, meaning ‘town on the Monnow’, has a history dating back to the Bronze Age. The remains of a boat building community living beside a now-vanished lake was discovered in 2013 and has been dated to 4867 BC. Monnow Bridge is the only surviving example of a fortified bridge in Britain and was constructed around 1300 when the town’s fortifications were improved.
King Henry V, born in Monmouth Castle in 1386, was known as Henry of Monmouth before his coronation. With the support of skilled local Welsh archers, the longbowmen, Henry won the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. During the Civil War the castle was largely demolished by Cromwell and Castle House was later built on part of the castle site. It is now home to a small volunteer-run museum, telling the story of the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers.
Nearby the town’s elegant Georgian Shire Hall hosted the infamous Chartist Trials in 1840 when 3 Chartists were the last men to be sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered in Britain. An eleventh hour royal pardon from Queen Victoria saw the sentenced commuted to transportation to Van Dieman’s Land.
Wander along cobbled Church Street to find independent shops including contemporary goldsmiths Atelier Gilmar, Creates Fine Art Gallery and the beautifully restored Savoy Theatre, first granted an entertainment licence in 1832 and now entertaining the town with comedy, music and film.
It’s quite a climb up to The Kymin, the hill overlooking Monmouth, but the views are magnificent. There’s also a Georgian Banqueting House known as the ‘Round House’, and a Naval Temple built to honour Nelson and other naval heroes.
Chepstow controls an important river crossing and is the lowest bridging point of the Wye before it flows into the Severn two miles downstream. Chepstow was strategically important to the Normans and the town’s clifftop Norman castle is the oldest surviving stone castle in Wales. The Normans used it as base to expand their influence into south Wales and to control river traffic up the Wye to Hereford. In medieval times Chepstow became the largest port in Wales, known for its imports of wine from France and Portugal and for the export of timber and bark.
By the late 18th century Chepstow had become a popular tourist destination with visitors taking The Wye Tour to view the ruins of Tintern Abbey and Chepstow Castle and the Picturesque landscaped walks and views on the Piercefield. Artists, writers and poets flocked to take The Tour and Chepstow Museum, just across the road from the castle, has an amazing collection of 18th and 19th century paintings and prints which illustrate the appeal of the Wye Valley.
The old Severn Princess Ferry, which used to cross the Severn before the two Severn Bridges were built, is now being restored by volunteers on the river bank.
If racing is your thing, Chepstow Racecourse hosts meetings throughout the year as well as evening concerts and entertainment. Chepstow Walkers Are Welcome are a friendly, active group organising an annual walking festival each spring as well as an annual programme of local walks. If you are finishing the Wye Valley Walk in Chepstow you will find a variety of pubs, cafes and restaurants as well as good onward transport connections via National Express coaches, local buses and trains from Chepstow station.
These Tourist Information Centres along the route can assist you, helping you to find accommodation, transport advice, where to eat and drink, what’s on and other local services.
Hay on Wye TouristInformation Centre
Chapel Cottage, Oxford Road, Hay-on-Wye HR3 5DG
Hereford Tourist Information Centre
Town Hall, St Owen's St,Hereford HR1 2PJ
Ross on Wye Tourist Information Outlet
Made in Ross, Market House, Ross on Wye
Monmouth Tourist Information Outlet
Shire Hall, Agincourt Square, Monmouth, NP25 3DY
Chepstow Tourist Information Centre
Castle Car Park, Bridge Street, Chepstow NP16 5EY
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