The Otherness of South Wales

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Text & Images: Christopher Ludgate

Everywhere the eye could see was a photo, a scene worthy of its inspiring awe, and still, it felt impossible ever to capture it. In the peripherals, on those compact roads beneath arched boughs, I could sense the coast with its enchanting landscapes, atmospheric and remote.

High and low beyond, moors and mountains of cascading patchwork plains with grazing herds appeared beside castle peaks and pastoral farmhouse nooks hanging like unframed paintings in the air.

The thing is, there is no exact translation for being there. Along these roads and pathways of South Wales, I realized that in the actual being there, staying just briefly in the fleeting mental snapshots is where its splendour is truly appreciated.

I felt a synergy in its nature, so alive and all around me, commanding at any moment, immersive the next as we played off of each other, frolicking on the coastal trails before being tucked into it all atop Roch Castle.

A Cardiff Cwich

From Paddington Station in London, it was a hop, skip, and a jump to Cardiff, just over England’s border. Through the historic arcades, particularly High and Royal, I weaved in and out, exploring the city’s teahouses and artisan shops, ogling the world’s oldest record store, and getting instantly hooked on warm Welsh cakes from the old Cardiff Market.

I took it in, people-watching along the Hayes, sipping on Cardiff Cwich tea upon the sun-soaked stone. I listened to the thriving local tongue as the pedestrian-friendly city began its day.

Good morning, Wales, you charmer.

Offerings of Amgueddfa Cymru

It was a sweet recovery from the previous night’s pub hopping, sampling Brains and other brews with locals. The morning’s weather behaved for a spin through treasures like lush Bute Park and the impressionist collection at world-class Amgueddfa Cymru (The National Museum) en route to an illuminating tour of Cardiff Castle.

There, I ran my hands upon its cool walls with exposed remnants of the first-century Roman fortification upon which other incarnations were built. Accompanied by my animated guide, my imagination ran wild with the fun lore of the estate’s elaborately designed Victorian Apartments.

Later, at St. Fagan’s, endless acres of sprawling green landscape mingled with transplanted historical dwellings appearing like film sets, offering transportive glimpses of Wales recreated. Time flew by here.

At one point, at Big Pit, I found myself descending deep into a mine shaft, captivated, off the grid, into the blackness of an old industrial mining tunnel. Exploring Wales was an often evocative immersive experience, like here, with moving glimpses of cultural history and the sacrifices of Welsh mining families.

The Mining Museum can be found north of Cardiff near the 1966 colliery disaster in Aberfan, recently depicted in The Crown series.

Storybook Hay-on-Wye

The heavy mist of the morning cleared as I pulled onto Castle Street in Hay-on-Wye, a particularly—maybe even a peculiarly—special place with a…hmm, magical vibe. At the right of a fork in the road, across from the Hay-on-Wye Booksellers, Castle Hay hovered in the sky beneath a double rainbow…true story.

A sign appeared at the castle gate: Honesty Bookshop. Between the hedges right inside the motte before the steps to the portcullis, walls of books stretched across the stone fortification with an Honesty Box attached for patrons to deposit one pound per book of their choosing. The entire castle, originally built as part of the Norman Invasion sometime in the twelfth century, is a bookshop.

Actually, the entire town is a bookshop interspersed with curiosity and specialty shops: one dedicated to sparkling chandeliers, another to pretty stationary, and another to handmade soaps. Gems all around.

The Literature Laboratory is around one hidden bend near Shepherd’s Parlour ice cream shop, where an outdoor market also pops up. Down towards the leaning clocktower is world-renowned Richard Booth’s Books while on the way to Many Marvelous Things, which delivers on its promise.

Did I just enter a Harry Potter portal? Maybe.

An endless list of Welsh authors is celebrated here, no doubt: Dahl, Thomas, Roberts, et al. Actually, the Annual Hay Festival of Literature & Arts happens here at Hay, attracting 100,000-plus visitors in the springtime.

It is a celebration of and by some of the world’s great writers, poets, philosophers, comedians, and musicians. Bill Clinton once described the Hay in Wales as “the Woodstock of the mind.”

cows! in south wales

Bannau Brycheiniog

The wild moorland scenery of Bannau Brycheiniog National Park spans hundreds of majestic square miles. The reclaimed name now overrides the English name Brecon as part of a recent popular movement to preserve the original Welsh culture and language.

There is a reason why historic remains are everywhere you look in Wales. Its cultural heritage is as deeply important to the Welsh as the preservation of nature itself from the peak of Pen y Fen to beyond the grassland trails.

The dreamy little town of Abergannavy (or Y Fenni) is nestled within Bannau, emanating an irresistible romantic quality. Strolling the cozy streets at sunset in and out of shops and checking out sophisticated bistro menus, it seemed it would satiate any guest.

Wandering the back roads behind the gorgeous lux Angel Hotel, where I was meeting friends for a scrumptious dinner and staying the night, I got a peek at eleventh-century Abergavenny Castle where the Game of Thrones series filmed its infamous Red Wedding episode. This castle has an eerily similar history.

Tucked Away in Pembrokeshire

I watched the locals of Pembrokeshire along the breathtaking trail jutting out along the coast as I walked on the causeway after a swim in Cardiff Bay. Some were foraging, some just strolling. They carried an admirable air of contentedness.

Pembrokeshire is where the UK’s smallest town, St David’s, can be found. It is a remote treasure, for sure. There is a calmness about this place whose name loosely translates into land’s end. Maybe the calm is more the effect. There is a distinct otherness about it: quintessentially remote, a bit mysterious, and seemingly unexploited.

Pembrokeshire is also where you’ll find Roch Castle, a Green-Key awarded hotel with a staff of eco-warriors to ensure its plastic-free, sustainable responsibilities.

I remember waking up at sunrise there just to walk the dewy grounds outside, where I marvelled at the grandeur of the restored twelfth-century castle, breathing in the clean air. The evening before was misty, which further saturated the green of the fields encompassing it. Roch rises up from nature’s canvas, sculpted around its foundation of volcanic outcrop almost modestly. This is the place I needed to get away from it all and feel fabulous doing it.

A shuttle was available to get to stellar yet understated restaurants and pubs in town. The restored five-star luxury hotel offered clean, modern comforts and featured curated art on its creamy white walls. I loved its cozy private nooks while enjoying tea and stargazing with a book. Holistic restorative treatments of all kinds were tempting for the asking. But it was just in the being there, in the moment and remoteness and the beauty of South Wales.

Chris is a professional writer, photographer, and award-winning filmmaker with a background in hometown NYC’s indie scene. With itineraries beyond the ordinary, his travel stories combine culture, wellness, outdoors, lux, and history. A longtime advocate for holistic health and animal rights, Chris is an avid gardener, cook, and cat dad.

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