Travelling to the Brecon Beacons has never been easier: now you can get there by train and bus, in just a few hours from London. Here's how to get the most out of a mini-break...
Where? South-east Wales, UK
Why? Beautiful mountain walks, ancient history and great food
When? Spring-Autumn to get the warmest weather
Wales is massively underrated and is usually known for its wet weather rather than its phenomenal landscapes and belly-warming, traditional food. South-east Wales especially is a microcosm of all that Wales has to offer: craggy mountains for scrambling, pub grub for guzzling, coastal paths for cycling and historical ruins for perusing.
South-east Wales is also an area most starkly affected by developments of the last century. One of the most important and influential impacts was the establishment of the coal mines and iron works in the 19th century. Many valley towns sprang up around the mines, and their subsequent closure left almost entire towns unemployed. Many of which are ghost towns today. The physical scars of coal mines can still be seen in the hills, and the slag heaps are slowly being reclaimed by nature. For visitors to the area, it's almost too easy to escape the cities, and from some towns you can simply walk out into wide, open countryside, meet the rolling hills that flank them, and lose your way within minutes.
Wales is perfect for those after endless greenery, some of the friendliest people in the world, adventurous activities and ancient forests. Discover tiny, welcoming villages nestled in the valleys with local markets raved about all over, such as Abergavenny and Crickhowell. Ruins and relics still remain from ancient Celtic settlements and the Roman invasions of the first century AD, especially around Monmouth and Caerleon.
Modern South Wales has a thriving culinary scene, and has been churning out some of the UK's most popular bands quietly over the last 20 years, both classical and contemporary. Along with this, shining examples of modern architecture now dot Cardiff's city and bay. Go and experience the passion of the Welsh people for their language, heritage, culture and country – you may be surprised to find it rather catching.
When to go: Like anywhere in the UK, Wales' weather can be unpredictable in any season, and Wales is especially renowned for its rain. Visit between April and September for the best chance of warm(er) weather.
Getting there: Although Cardiff has its own airport, Bristol airport is still close to the border and is served by far more airlines. Remember the toll bridge if you're driving over from England by car! Brecon is also well connected with train services: if you're travelling from London, take advantage of the Paddington-Cardiff First Great Western route, which will get you to South Wales in roughly 2.5 hours. From there, you can take the bus: the T4 runs from Cardiff to Newtown via Brecon, and tickets can be purchased when you book your train pass. The X63 runs from Swansea to Brecon, and on summer Sundays and bank holidays, the Bike Bus (run by Cardiff Bus) carries passengers and bicycles from Cardiff to Brecon. For more details, see the Brecon Beacons website.
Getting around: It's easy to explore by bus and car.
Where to stay: What about a stay in a lighthouse? West Usk Lighthouse near Newport, built in 1821, has since been restored and is now a B&B (from £145 per night). It has stunning views over the water, a rooftop jacuzzi... and various Doctor Who memorabilia, including a Dalek guarding the stairs, and the iconic blue phone box.
Cardiff city centre has a range of accommodation options from University Halls to luxurious hotels, B&Bs to hostels. Church Guest House is located close to the city centre and offers cheap and basic rooms from £40 per night.
Where to eat: Cardiff has a growing reputation for foodies and there's a range of eateries to choose from: try Mimosa Kitchen and Bar for traditional Welsh food; Y Mochyn Du for pub grub; or Bully's for French food with a twist.
Top tip: Make sure you grab a pack of Welsh cakes to take home with you – you won't find these little cakes taste as good anywhere else, even in the UK!
Soak up the capital city's culture before heading out into the Welsh countryside
Get a feel for the emerging Welsh capital. Once a city in decline and a muddy seafront, Cardiff city centre and bay have both undergone extensive renovations in the past ten years, and are now nipping at the heels of metropolitan English cities. There's so much to do in Cardiff and there's much more than just shopping: trail the 'animal walk' and spot the stone creatures that guard the wall of Bute Park; take a trip to one of the many theatres; explore the National Museum (free entry), Cardiff Castle (tickets from £11), the Edwardian Baroque city hall...
Look a little closer and you'll see the leftovers of Cardiff's 19th century heyday – Cardiff, the 'city of arcades', has the highest concentration of Victorian, Edwardian and contemporary arcades than any other British city. The very first of these to open was the Royal Arcade in 1858. In Duke Street Arcade you'll find the cosy Garland's Cafe, an excellent choice for homemade Welsh classics and freshly baked cakes. St Fagans nearby is a man-made village constructed to replicate the different stages of Welsh history in terms of the lifestyle of its inhabitants. Don't miss the bakery and the old-fashioned sweet shop!
Spend the evening dining out on the bay and see the uber-modern Scandinavian architecture of The Senedd, the National Assembly building. Spanish restaurant La Cha Cha boasts a charming view over the bay and a terrific wine selection – try the beef, fig and chorizo tapas.
Spend the morning gallivanting around the rolling hills of the Brecon Beacons National Park. Whatever your activity – canyoning, pony trekking, hiking, mountain biking, caving or bird watching – you can do it here. The rolling, wave-like mountains of the Beacons beckon you on: Pen y Fan, Corn Du, Cribyn, Fan y Big, Bwlch y Dduallt, Waun Rydd... There are so many to choose from! Of the Old Red Sandstone peaks, Pen y Fan is the tallest in South Wales. The cracked, red path leads to fantastic views over the surrounding peaks and lakes of the national park. Take a picnic and have lunch as your reward for the 886m ascent before heading back down to explore the more southerly valleys.
It's not the most cheerful of journeys, but a drive around old Welsh mining towns – Merthyr, Rhondda, Rhymney and Ebbw – is an eye-opening experience. After the mines closed down in the 1980s, the towns declined and haven't recovered since. The mines themselves are still apparent, lying almost completely untouched since the last shift. Many of these towns are now like ghost towns, remnants of a time past, having been completely unchanged and uncared-for since the decline, and now serve as a reminder of how Wales used to work.
However, one mine still remains open to this day. Blaenavon's Big Pit now serves as a National Heritage museum. Catch the last tour at 3.30pm (free entry), which will take you deep into the mines (90m deep, to be exact) for you to see exactly how the miners, and even young children, once lived. The rest of the complex, including the canteen, has also been well-preserved since its closure and stays open until 5pm for inquisitive visitors.
Twmbarlwm, or 'nipple hill' as it's affectionately known by locals, is the subject of many Welsh myths and legends. Some believe a giant is buried here, others a hidden treasure guarded by swarms of bees. It is even believed by some to be a sacred site of judgement. Whatever its origin, it makes for a wonderful morning stroll to reach the 'pimple' at the top, where the remains of what is supposedly a Celtic Iron Age Hill Fort can be found.
After your morning ramble, scoot over to nearby town Caerleon for one of the best fry-up breakfasts in South Wales at The Snug at Cafe Ffwrwm. Once you've had your fill, it's time to delve into the area's ancient past. Caerleon is the site of some of the most fascinating remnants of the Celtic/Roman age: the remains of a huge amphitheatre, the foundations of old Roman army barracks, Roman baths, the old castle and town walls are all open for exploration. If the weather is unpredictable (most likely), shelter in the Caerleon museum, which houses an interesting collection of the town's archaeological finds and explains a bit more about the significance of the town and what happened there.
But that's not everything. An inspiration to artists like Turner, Wordsworth, Tennyson and Ginsberg, Tintern Abbey is only a short drive away. One of the earliest and greatest monastic ruins of Wales, the 12th century Abbey fell victim to Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536. The remains, however, are still largely intact, and the structure of the abbey can still be seen and explored. For some of the best local produce, just down the road is the Abbey Mill. Its pies are renowned, as is the Mill Wheel tea cake.
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