Places to visit in Wales
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Enjoy a relaxed meander through Wales by on foot or by public transport. Some ideas and suggestions for when Wales opens up again for tourists.
A magical country of myths and mystery, mountains and streams and, of course, a stunning coastline. Wales has it all. Forget the car. The best way to explore its hidden treasures is on foot and by slow, meandering public transport.
The divide between North and South Wales – from a transport point of view rather than any notion of language, culture or geographic division – has to be Aberystwyth. Straight across the centre of Wales to the middle of the coastal path on the western seashore of Cardigan Bay, and with a direct train from Birmingham Airport or City Centre, you have the enviable option of whether to veer off to the south or north. Clearly, there are other places to start your journey, but this is the perfect spot to get acquainted with the magic and mystery that is Wales.
“The bus is a particular favourite as the routes often branch off into small rural villages you would not otherwise see, many of them with significant historical or cultural features. It is even better during the summer months when little Hopper buses are in operation along the coast.”
When you ask people about their impressions or memories of Wales, they often include seaside holidays, caravans, or imposing ancient Castles and fortifications. Sometimes the impressions are less positive, citing the dark, depressing coal mines, slag heaps and slate quarries of the industrial south. However, it manages to offer an incredibly diverse range of insights into its people and culture.
From the Medieval Queen of Caernarfon Castle, the first to introduce a mortgage system for tenant farmers; Miss Vulcana from Abergavenny, the 19th century Women’s weight-lifting champion and mother of 5 children; the one-eyed preacher Christmas Evans; to Aneurin Bevan the founder of the NHS, there are certainly plenty of fascinating characters to discover.
So, bump along country lanes on a bus, walk alongside rivers
and canals, experience traditional steam trains as well as the most picturesque
service train route in Britain up to Portmeirion, and meander your way across
this magical land.
Aberystwyth has a lot for the visitor to explore so is a great start/end point whether you are keen on architectural treasures, the arts, or the workmanship of Victorian structures.
Elephants bathe in the sea at Aberystwyth watched idly by locals who are getting used to the sight. The circus was in town again so why should this be unusual? This was rapidly becoming a popular tourist destination, the Bandstand on the sea front was always busy on a Sunday afternoon, and here was the longest Pier in the west of Britain. It is, of course, the later part of the 19th century, although even now you can be surprised to see the odd elephant or camel in the field near the railway crossing when the circus is in town. In nearby Tregaron, just a bus ride from Aberystwyth, an elephant died of lead poisoning in 1848 and is buried behind the Talbot Hotel.
The funicular railway was opened in 1896, is the 2nd longest in the UK, and is a less-strenuous way to reach the camera obscura on the top of Constitution Hill. The darkness as you enter the small building housing the camera is strangely comforting, the large disc of light drawing you in and sounds around you seem somehow muffled as you gaze at the distorted image of the coastline below.
If you can stay for an extra day or so, make sure you go to
the pier as sunset approaches to see the spellbinding Murmuration of Starlings.
Hundreds fly in from all directions, swirling and calling noisily as they form
a black shape-changing flock before they suddenly settle, silent, ready to
roost beneath the pier. Catch the T1 or T5 bus down the coast to Aberaeron, a
popular harbour town boasting brightly painted Georgian houses, old mill
buildings, and a house-plate showing the ‘Aberaeron Shovel’.
Locals line the streets of the town, jostling to secure a great viewing point and enjoying the summer sunshine as they wait expectantly for it all to start. Cameras at the ready, iPads and phones charged, all eyes shift towards the sound of the band and the wailing voices coming slowly along Market Street on the mackerel’s last journey of the year.
The deep, rhythmic beat of drums and saxophones of the New Orleans style band lead the procession forward. Behind the band, the 20-foot papier-mâché mackerel is carried by solemn pallbearers, sun glinting off its shiny silver and blue-green sides, huge eyes staring out at onlookers along the pavements. The mourners weep and wail loudly, dressed in black, masks hiding their faces and elaborate feathered head-dresses blowing in the breeze. Passers-by join in with the weeping, bowing their heads in sorrow and grief.
The procession moves on around the harbour, traffic held back as the giant, glistening mackerel crosses the bridge, gliding effortlessly towards its final resting place on South Beach. It reaches the quay, the eulogy and blessings are solemnly announced, and the congregation of devout followers stands back as the mackerel is set alight and returned to the sea at high tide.
The atmosphere changes instantly to one of celebration, drinks flowing freely at the Yacht Club, a barbecue, music, and dancing until late. It is the end of August, a time to mourn the passing of another fishing season, so what better time to hold a procession?
The busiest times for locals and tourists are July and August when you can see Shire horses and Welsh Cob festivals, vintage vehicles driving slowly through the town and Model Railway exhibitions. Aberaeron is also host to the annual All Wales Tug of War as well as local teams competing in the Tug of War across (or in) the harbour – choose which side you want to cheer for!
At any time of year, you can enjoy richly coloured sunsets across the sea to the fiery west. What of the weather in this part of west Wales? Henry the post said, “no, it never freezes here, and we don’t get the snow like they do inland”, but there is always the exception to the rule! The snow came thick and fast that year, not heavily at first but gradually forming a soft, gentle blanket over the town and harbour. Temperatures dropped further and in spectacular fashion, the river and harbour froze over and tractors came out to scrape a path through 5-6 inches of solid ice. The first time in living history, it is still part of the collective memory of locals so a great way to start a conversation when you are stuck for words.
Take the bus or walk the coastal path down to New Quay, look out for the dolphins in the bay, then join the Cardi Bach minibus along the coast to Cardigan. Be prepared for a very bumpy 2-hour ride along narrow, twisting lanes following the coast via Cwmtydu, Llangranog, Penbryn and Aberporth. It is a worrying sign when the lane narrows but the grass growing down the middle gets wider, shrubs and branches leaning in to brush against the sides of the minibus. The expert driver steams ahead, unphased, happily chatting with new passengers as they join us, smiling and waving at the oncoming car until he gives in and reverses a quarter of a mile to let us pass.
From the ancient strategically important town of Cardigan and its beautifully restored Castle, continue on the T5 bus through Newport and on to Fishguard and the impressive 100-foot tapestry that records the Last Invasion of Britain by the French in 1797.
The invading ships anchored offshore, some of the French soldiers had landed and managed to get a few miles inland. They knew the men of the town were away, assembling to support Thomas Knox and Lord Cawdor, so this was their opportunity. As more of the French landed, they were alarmed to see an advancing army much bigger than expected. The women of Fishguard, the only ones left to defend the town, were determined to thwart the French so prepared for battle with pitchforks and other implements. Confusing local women’s red shawls for soldiers’ uniforms, panic set in and the French surrendered, only then realizing their mistake.
There is some discussion about whether the myth was historically accurate, but nevertheless a treaty was eventually signed at the Royal Oak pub opposite the Town Hall. Next to this exhibition, brave the dusty, grey entrance to the Heritage Centre to find out about famous pirates and smugglers who avoided capture by the Customs Officers.
This is just a glimpse of places to explore along this
section of Cardigan Bay, with so much to see as you carry on southwards to St
David’s, Pembroke Castle and its Christmas Fair, Manorbier and then to Carmarthen.
From there, you have a range of options to carry on your journey by bus and
train, on to Swansea and Cardiff. If you fancy long-distance walks, the Wye
Valley Way stretches from Chepstow up to Plynlimon in the north, or there is
easier walking along the Brecon Monmouthshire Canal. There are plenty of places
to stay along the way, so plan your timetable and book ahead to explore more of
See alsoThe impact of Covid-19 on Welsh tourism
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