A mini guide to The Wye Valley

Look beyond the woodlands, waterways and lofty summits of the Wales-England border and you’ll discover an area speckled with historic treasures...

3 mins

For somewhere as fabled as the ‘birthplace of British tourism’, the narrow, steep lane leading to Symonds Yat’s waterfront was remarkably quiet. In fact, it almost felt like a dead end until I turned a tight corner and there was the River Wye, spread out before me in all its glory.

Over two centuries ago, this 210km-long river hosted the UK’s very first organised tour: a pleasure cruise from Ross-on-Wye to Chepstow that featured pit stops at quaint waterside inns, crumbling medieval ruins and various dramatic viewpoints. I imagine that embarking on that same cruise today would yield a remarkably similar experience, as very little about the landscape has changed in the years since. Perhaps the only exceptions are the canoeists, kayakers and paddleboarders who now flock to the Wye to enjoy its slow-moving currents. Typically, you can spot someone gliding through the water at any given moment, regardless of the time of year.

The monks at  Tintern Abbey built their  Gothic masterpiece in 1269 (Claudio Divizia/Shutterstock)

The monks at Tintern Abbey built their Gothic masterpiece in 1269 (Claudio Divizia/Shutterstock)

The view from Symonds Yat (Wolstenholme Images/Alamy Stock Photo)

The view from Symonds Yat (Wolstenholme Images/Alamy Stock Photo)

As I sat watching a handful of people row past Ye Old Ferrie Inn’s sunny terrace, a pint of local cider in my hand, I felt an irresistible urge to join them. And yet it wasn’t solely the Wye Valley’s namesake river that drew me here. The area is peppered with crumbling fortresses, ancient abbeys and industrial-era relics, all of which weave a fascinating tale of the region’s history. Wales is largely to thank for the inundation of castles. During the 11th and 12th centuries, hundreds were built by the Normans to protect their border. You could visit a dozen times and still find a new one to enthral you.

Adding to the eclecticism is a string of riverside towns. Each is unique, and yet they’re all connected eternally by the Wye’s gentle waters. It’s possible to spend hours perusing the shelves of Hay-on-Wye’s bookshops, while Ross-on-Wye’s vibrant buildings harbour all manner of vintage stores, art galleries and cafés. It is a region that ticks plenty of boxes: canoeist’s paradise, historian’s playground, rambler’s oasis, book-lover’s haven. I can think of very few other places that offer so much and yet remain true to their traditional roots. Perhaps that’s why the valley’s status as the cradle of British tourism is still so apt today.

How to spend 48 hours in Wye Valley

Hereford cathedral (Robin Weaver/Alamy Stock Photo)

Hereford cathedral (Robin Weaver/Alamy Stock Photo)

Day One

Kickstart your day with a history lesson on Hereford. The city’s cathedral not only houses a treasured medieval map of the world, known as Mappa Mundi, but also the planet’s largest-surviving chained library, in which books are literally chained to shelves. After marvelling at ancient manuscripts, stroll to the river and sip coffee in De Koffie Pot’s sunny courtyard. Next, venture to Ross-on-Wye in the heart of the Wye Valley. Explore its riverfront before heading up the hill past rows of colourfully painted houses. Grab a sandwich from Truffles Delicatessen and eat on one of the benches in the Thomas Blake Memorial Garden. If it’s rainy, seek shelter in The Hope & Anchor instead. Continue on to Goodrich Castle, which was constructed in the 12th century and was later wrecked by Parliamentarians during the Civil War; it’s one of the more dramatic medieval relics in England. Journey south to Symonds Yat Rock, where you can hike up the crag for valley panoramas. Finally, trek back to the river and use the hand-pulled ferry (one of two still in operation in the UK) to reach Ye Old Ferrie Inn for dinner with a view. 

The River Wye (ali williams/Alamy Stock Photo)

The River Wye (ali williams/Alamy Stock Photo)

Day two

Begin with an early-morning dip (weather permitting) in the River Wye – at Redbrook you can float with one foot in England and the other in Wales. If you’re inexperienced, book a guided swim with a local expert, such as Angela Jones. Next, make your way to Monmouth to warm up with a breakfast bap at the Coffi Lab. Wander around the town, pausing to admire the 13th-century gatehouse bridge and browse the shops for local treats. Continue south to Tintern Abbey to uncover nearly a millennium of history in its ethereal ruins. Fill up on seasonal grub at the cosy Anchor Inn and then cross over the Tintern Wireworks Bridge. Hike via Offa’s Dyke Path to Devil’s Pulpit, a limestone rock with brilliant views of the abbey, before looping back to the river (takes two hours), then spend the late afternoon exploring other medieval strongholds. Sprawling Chepstow Castle sits on the Wye and was built by a friend of William the Conqueror; alternatively, Raglan Castle features a magnificent Great Tower encircled by a moat. End your stay with a feast at the excellent Whitebrook, near Monmouth.

Ask a local

“There’s no better place to wander than Great Doward, starting at King Arthur’s Cave. If it’s spring, you’ll walk through wild garlic and bluebells as you head for the Seven Sisters rocks. When you get there, marvel at the view downriver towards Monmouth, and upriver in the direction of beautiful Symonds Yat gorge.”

- Jamie Hicks, Wye Valley native and owner of Ye Old Ferrie Inn

Things to do in Wye Valley

Detour to Hay-on-Wye. While technically outside of the Wye Valley AONB, the town is a must-visit for book lovers. As well as its prestigious literary festival in late May/early June, it is littered with independent bookshops selling rare editions and crowd-pleasing bestsellers alike.

 

Hike some of the Wye Valley Trail. The entire route is 219km long, running from Hafren Forest in mid-Wales to Chepstow Castle on the Welsh border. For a taster, stroll the route between Tintern and Bigsweir Bridge, or perhaps tackle the Symonds Yat-to-Kerne Bridge section. The latter edges past the Courtfield estate, which was the childhood home of Henry VI. 

 

Savour a local delicacy at the Museum of Cider. Housed in Bulmer’s original 19th-century factory in Hereford, its displays provide a potted history of cider-making in the region. There’s also a bottle shop where you can buy over 100 varieties of alcoholic ciders and perries, or just grab a glass of fresh apple juice.

Canoe downstream on the Middle Wye. This section of river meanders between Hereford and Symonds Yat, passing pubs and landmarks aplenty. The Hoarwithy to Ross-on-Wye section is particularly pleasant, with canoes available for hire at Tresseck Campsite.

Fifinella Retreat (Sawdays)

Fifinella Retreat (Sawdays)

Getting there: Hereford is reachable by train from London Paddington in under three hours with Great Western Railway; from £36 return. Local bus services can get you to most places in the valley, although having a car gives you more freedom. If the weather allows, amble down the river in a canoe or make use of the area’s extensive cycle network.

Stay at: Wake up to the sound of woodpeckers in the trees at Fifinella Retreat. This enchanting cabin for two sits in tiny Orcop (just 20 minutes’ drive from Ross-on-Wye) and has an eco-conscious design and a wood-fired hot tub.  Alternatively, opt to stay at The Hope & Anchor right on Ross-on-Wye’s riverfront.

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