Tintern Abbey

The remains of Tintern Abbey

If you were looking for a picture-perfect spot on which to build an abbey, Tintern, on the banks of the River Wye in Monmouthshire, would tick all the boxes. Beside a bend in the river, Tintern is surrounded by steep hills covered in lush, green forest and is so lovely it’s inspired artists and writers, such as JMW Turner and William Wordsworth.

Since passing my driving test earlier this year and buying a car, I’ve been keen to explore the south Wales countryside, especially places that aren’t easily accessible via public transport. When I was drawing up a list of places to visit, Tintern was at the top. I had vague memories of visiting Tintern as a child and I’d been keen to go back after passing it a couple of years ago on the way to a friend’s wedding in Gloucestershire.

Tintern Abbey and the remains of the buildings associated with it

After what seemed like a very long drive from Cardiff along twisty-turny country roads (I wasn’t brave enough to venture onto the M4), I eventually arrived in the idyllic village of Tintern, parking in the handy car park opposite the abbey.

Inside the remains of the church at Tintern Abbey

The abbey was founded in the 12th century by the local powerhouse Walter de Clare, the owner of nearby Chepstow Castle, and it was the first Cistercian abbey in Wales. But in the 16th century, the abbey, like so many religious houses in England and Wales, was closed and plundered during the reformation.

The remains of the monks' dormitory and day room at Tintern Abbey

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the abandoned abbey and the River Wye proved a beacon for many artists and writers, inspiring poems and paintings that celebrated the romantic ruins and its picturesque surroundings. William Wordsworth name-checked the abbey in one of his poems, while JMW Turner and Thomas Gainsborough were among the artists who immortalised it on canvas.

The remains of the presbytery inside Tintern Abbey

Today, the abbey is an enormous, ruined shell, maintained by Cadw, the Welsh historic environment organisation, and is still one of the finest medieval buildings in south Wales. It’s flanked by the ruins of a number of monastic buildings, which I had a great time exploring, seeking out the many nooks and crannies.

Inside the church at Tintern Abbey

The abbey is still a draw for artists and creative types today, and on the day I visited, there were a fair few folk taking pictures of the gothic ruins. It’s a splendid structure, even in its ruined state, and I spent ages photographing the abbey from lots of different angles.

The ruins of the warming house at Tintern Abbey

After spending a good hour at the abbey looking around it all, I decided to go for a long walk and set off along a path close to the River Wye (below). I followed a trail that took me up into the steep hills on the other side of the river, where I went in search of Offa’s Dyke, the ancient structure that roughly marks the border between Wales and England, and the Devil’s Pulpit, which promised excellent views over the valley.

The River Wye at Tintern

The path to Offa’s Dyke took me through a thick forest and was quite uneven underfoot, and as I climbed higher and higher up the hill, it began getting quite windy and at one stage a large branch snapped off a tree in front of me.

The deeper into the woods I got, the more the weather turned less favourable, and after 40 minutes or so, I decided to turn back as I didn’t want to be caught out on a precarious hillside path if it suddenly started bucketing down or the wind picked up even more.

Lemon and elderflower cake, and a pot of tea, at The White Monk Gift Shop and Tea Room in Tintern

Back safely in Tintern, it was time for a well-earned rest, along with a pot of tea and a slice of scrumptious lemon and elderflower cake (above), in a charming cafe next to the abbey, The White Monk Gift Shop and Tea Room. It was the perfect way to end a very agreeable day out.

Info

Tintern Abbey, Tintern NP16 6SE
Adults £6.90, Seniors £5.50, children aged 5-16 and students £4.10, children under 5 free
cadw.gov.wales/daysout/tinternabbey

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Ogmore-by-Sea

The rocky coastline at Ogmore-by-Sea

Ogmore-by-Sea is one of my favourite stretches of coastline in south Wales. The rocky strip of land, which boasts fantastic views over the Bristol Channel, is around the corner from another favourite beach, Southerndown, and is a great place for a brisk weekend coastal walk.

Ogmore Beach and the River Ogmore where it meets the Bristol Channel

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a blustery morning exploring Ogmore as Storm Ali approached, whipping up the occasional (painful) blast of sand and giving my hair a very windswept aesthetic.

There’s a long strip of grassland along the top of Ogmore beach and I set off for a stroll along it, admiring the sea views as I walked and stopping every so often to watch the waves crash onto the rocks below. The rocks are home to lots of rock pools and, on a calmer day, they’re a great place to look for marine life such as starfish, anemones and crabs.

Stormy skies above the River Ogmore

Having strolled along the coastal path and back, I wandered down to the shore near the mouth of the River Ogmore (above), and from there, made my way to Ogmore Castle, a short walk down stream.

The entrance to the ruined Ogmore Castle

Built in Norman times by one of William the Conqueror’s knights, William de Londres, Ogmore Castle is now very much a ruin and what’s left of it is maintained by Cadw, the Welsh heritage organisation.

The ruins of Ogmore Castle

The remains of the castle were more extensive than I was expecting, but there still isn’t a huge amount to see. It is, however, in a beautiful location, set against the idyllic (and strategic) backdrop of the Ogmore River. And it was a fun place to spend a little time clambering over the ruins, exploring  its nooks and crannies, and trying to imagine how the castle would have looked during its medieval heyday.

The remains of Ogmore Castle

Down by the river, there are a series of stepping stones you can use to cross it and from there you can walk to Merthyr Mawr, home to a large sandy beach and Wales’s biggest sand dune, and had it been a nicer day I would have set off in their direction. But by now the weather was turning blacker and the rain wasn’t too far off, so I made the decision to turn back rather than risk getting stuck the other side of the river during a storm. I’ll just have to go back next spring/summer when the weather’s better  and properly explore the area.

Info

Ogmore Castle
Open 10am-4pm, daily
Free
cadw.gov.wales/daysout/ogmorecastle

Fonmon Castle

Fonmon Castle in the Vale of Glamorgan

Tucked away in the Vale of Glamorgan countryside, not far from Cardiff Airport, is Fonmon Castle. I first heard about the privately-owned castle a couple of years ago when it opened its doors to the paying public for guided tours on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons.

As I work during the week, I hadn’t had a chance to visit until last Wednesday when I had the week off work and was spending my days exploring the countryside near Cardiff. It’s lucky that Fonmon Castle was at the top of my to-visit-list, as it turns out it’s up for sale and, depending on its new owners, might not be open to the public next year.

The small castle dates back to 1180 and since then it’s been owned by just two families – the original owners, the St Johns, and then from the 1650s onwards, the Jones and Boothby families.

One of the gardens at Fonmon Castle

I arrived a little early for my tour and so spent the next 20 minutes exploring the castle grounds, which are also open to the public on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons. As it’s mid-September, there weren’t many flowers to be seen (I suspect the gardens look rather more colourful in spring and early summer), but the gardens were well-maintained and the vegetable plots looked sublime with giant cabbages, lettuces and beans among the veg being grown.

Part of the gardens at Fonmon Castle

Just before 2pm, a side door near the castle entrance opened and I ventured inside to be met by our tour guide. Our friendly guide was incredibly knowledgeable about the castle, and over the next hour, proceeded to tell us in great detail about its history and its former owners, some of whom led rather colourful lives.

As the castle is also a family home, only part of it is open to the public, but we were shown a number of rooms including the grand orange-hued entrance hall with its sparkling chandelier, the old kitchen, and the small library dotted with old books and a cabinet filled with priceless china. Throughout the castle, portraits of its former occupants are on display, which helped bring the stories being told about them to life.

The delightful grand dining room at Fonmon Castle

My favourite room was the delightful grand dining room (above), a large, light and airy room with a beautiful rococo ceiling and bookcases filled with old tomes. The room is often used for weddings and teas, and I can see why it would be a popular venue as it’s enchanting.

The remains of a tower in the grounds of Fonmon Castle

Following our guided tour, I headed off for a stroll across a large, perfectly-mowed lawn, which was once the driveway to the castle, in search of Fonmon tower (above). The derelict, partially-ruined folly was at the end of the lawn, hidden behind some trees.

I’m glad I finally made it to Fonmon Castle – and in the nick of time, too! It’s a wonderfully preserved slice of local history, and it was great to have an opportunity to look around the castle and learn about the families who owned it and their long connection to the region. It was a charming place to spend a leisurely afternoon.

Info

Fonmon Castle, Fonmon, Vale of Glamorgan CF62 3ZN
Open for guided tours on the hour from 2-4pm on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, between April and September
£6 – adults and children over the age of 14 years
fonmoncastle.com

Dyffryn Gardens 2018

Rockery at Dyffryn Gardens 2018

A couple of months ago, I paid my annual visit to Dyffryn Gardens, a large Edwardian manor house, surrounded by 55 acres of botanical gardens,  just south of Cardiff.

I won’t write about the house as it hasn’t changed much since I wrote about it last year. But there was a wonderful art exhibition in the great hall by the Japanese artist Takumasa Ono. If you come across an exhibition of his work at another National Trust property, I’d recommend checking it out. I spent ages looking at all the prints and paintings for sale, and eventually bought a traditional Japanese-style painting of cherry blossom.

The gardens were as beautiful as ever, and I spent a lovely, relaxing day walking around. As always, I got a little carried away photographing them, even though a number of the flower beds had been left fallow and there were fewer plants and flowers to see.

Here are some of my favourite photos from this year’s visit, starting with this lilac flower:

Lilac flower at Dyffryn Gardens

The blossom was out in force in May:

Pale pink blossom at Dyffryn Gardens

The dragon flies came out to play:

Blue and green dragonflies on a stick in a pond

The Italian Gardens were as delightful as ever:

The Italian Gardens, with a round fountain at its centre, at Dyffryn Gardens

I liked the shape of these red flowers:

Red flowers at Dyffryn Gardens

A couple of the many flowering cacti in the orangery:

A lonely blossom on a tree branch:

Pink flower on a tree branch at Dyffryn Gardens

In case you’re interested in seeing how the gardens have changed over the last few years, here are 2017, 2016 and 2015’s posts.

Cardiff – RHS Flower Show

Plants on display at the RHS Flower Show in Cardiff

For the last three or four years, I’ve made a beeline to the RHS Flower Show when it’s come to Cardiff and this year was no exception. The three-day event takes place annually in April in the city’s Bute Park and I usually pop along as soon as it opens (10am) on the Saturday, as the huge crowds that flock to the show often make it unbearably busy if you go any later.

The show is spread out over a large area and features a number of show gardens and plants for sale, as well as food, craft and other stalls selling products such as garden furniture and gardening tools. I tend to do a loop of the showground, looking at all there is to see, before going back and buying any bits and pieces that have taken my fancy.

Flowers at the 2018 RHS Flower Show in Cardiff

Despite not having a garden, I usually find myself going home with a few plants – this year I picked up two cactii (as I’m less likely to kill them than a flowering pot plant) and a pretty Japanese flowering quince. I also have a tendency to buy more food than plants as the numerous food stalls selling cakes and cheeses prove too hard to resist.

But my favourite part of the event is the show gardens as I’m always impressed by the imagination of the garden designers and the creative ways they make use of the space, objects and plants. I find it almost impossible to view a garden as a blank canvas and visualise all the different and creative things you can do to it, so I have a ton of admiration for those who can.

The Japanese-style Disequilibrium garden at the RHS Flower Show in Cardiff

My favourite show garden this year was the silver medal winning garden Disequilibrium (above). I’m a sucker for traditional Japanese-style gardens as they’re so pretty, and I particularly liked the use of water in this one and the rusted red metal backdrop that contrasted beautifully with the pristine, delicate nature of the garden.

The Urban Regeneration Garden at the RHS Flower Show in Cardiff

This year’s gold medal-winning garden was the Urban Regeneration Garden (above) with its stark concrete blocks that form a water feature. The garden was too minimalist and didn’t have enough plants for my tastes, but I can appreciate why it was a top medal winner as it looks very professional. Apparently the concrete blocks were a disused water tank the garden’s designers found while out walking, and while it’s a great way to reuse discarded objects, I found the garden as a whole too cold and uninviting.

The Reimagined Past garden at the RHS Flower Show in Cardiff

I loved this next garden, entitled The Reimagined Past, as I really liked the way the designers had incorporated reclaimed household objects such as the fireplace, sink and table into an outdoor setting. I also really liked the use of colour, and the orange-red bricks in particular added a striking contrast to the green and purple plants. This quirky, creative and colourful design is the sort of thing I’d like to have if I had a garden.

The 'Cwm Caerdydd' garden at the RHS Flower Show in Cardiff

I would have adored this next garden as a child with its man-made water feature, cave and mini-mountain to climb. I could imaging having great fun running over the top of the mound or having secret tea parties in the grotto behind the waterfall. Called Cwm Caerdydd (Cardiff Valley), it was designed to replicate the hills of the south Wales valleys, and it’s a fantastic, playful use of space.

Every year the flower show features a series of wheelbarrows planted by local school children and visitors to the show are asked to vote for their favourite. So before leaving, I had a look around the wheelbarrows. I love how much effort the children put into their wheelbarrows, they’re all brilliant, and it’s always difficult to decide which one to vote for. I ended up voting, not for the most eye-catching garden, but for one of the ones that was quite messy and looked as though the teachers had let the children run wild.

I spent a great couple of hours looking around this year’s RHS Flower Show in Cardiff, and I found myself wishing I had my own garden as there were so many lovely looking plants and flowers for sale. I’m not sure I’ll ever make much of a gardener as I’m not remotely green-fingered, but it’s fun spending a few hours pretending I could be and imagining what my ideal garden would look like.

Barry Island

Whitmore Bay, Barry Island

When I was a child, Barry Island was the most exciting place in the world. At the time it was the rundown site of a Butlin’s holiday camp, but it was also home to a fairground, games arcades and candy floss, so until I discovered the magic of Disneyland Paris, it was the most thrilling place on earth. I can still remember how excited I’d get whenever we’d get the train to the island.

Nowadays the Butlin’s camp has long gone and the island boasts sandy beaches, grassy headlands and hidden coves, which makes it a fantastic place for a Sunday stroll. The island’s transformation is down to the local council, the Vale of Glamorgan, which over the past few years has done an excellent job of sprucing it up, installing playful beach huts and other amenities, and opening up walking paths along the cliffs.

Friars Point, Barry Island

A few Sundays ago, I spent the day at Barry Island, enjoying a pleasant walk in the brisk January sunshine. We started off at Friar’s Point, the headland to the right of the island’s pleasure beach, Whitmore Bay. The headland is a site of special scientific interest because of its cowslip meadow and boasts great views of the sandy beaches either side of it – the one above looks out towards the headland at the Knap in Barry.

Whitmore Bay, Barry Island

From there, we ambled down to Whitmore Bay (above), where we walked across the long sandy beach, past the promenade, the pleasure gardens and the two eye-catching shelters that date from the 1920s.

The beach was full of families enjoying a day out, as well as dog walkers, and there were lots of dogs happily running along the shore front, dancing merrily in and out of the waves. During the peak season, dogs are banned from the beach but at this time of the year, when it’s far too chilly to venture into the water and the beach isn’t too crowded, they’re permitted to roam the sands.

Beach huts, Barry Island

From Whitmore Bay, we continued up towards the other headland that flanks it, Nell’s Point, passing the colourful beach huts, climbing wall and art installation that sprays water during the summer months.

Nell’s Point looks out over the Bristol Channel, and on the day of our walk, the sky was clear so we could make out the islands of Flat Holm and Steep Holm. Flat Holm belongs to Wales and is the most southerly part of the country; while Steep Holm, some six miles off the coast of Weston-super-Mare, belongs to England.

Nell’s Point used to be home to the Butlin’s holiday camp, which closed in 1996, and it’s taken almost 20 years to remove all traces of the 1960s resort and restore the area back to its natural beauty. These days you can explore the ruins of a Norman chapel, St Baruc’s, there, as well as the remains of a gun emplacement that was used to help defend the coastline during the Second World War.

Jackson's Bay, Barry Island

We carried on walking around the headland to the nearby cove of Jackson’s Bay (above), stopping at the Coastwatch Station along the way to visit its small exhibition about the work of the Barry coastguard.

Dating from the Jurassic and Triassic periods, the beaches around south Wales are a geological goldmine and popular with fossil hunters. The cliffs that surround Jackson’s Bay are made from layer upon layer of red and grey rock, and we couldn’t help but wonder as we walked down to the beach what sorts of fossils might be lying within them and what sorts of geological events occurred to create such striking strata.

Rocks, Barry Island

I always enjoy my day trips to Barry Island – these days for very different reasons to when I was a child. Barry Island has been a rundown shell for most of my life, so it’s fantastic to see it now so vibrant and full of life, and to have the chance to walk along its beaches and headlands, and admire the splendid views. It might not be the most exciting place on earth for me anymore, but it always makes me smile and brings back lots of fond memories.

Cardiff Castle

Cardiff Castle

A few of my friends came down to Cardiff to celebrate the New Year and while they were here, they were keen to have a look around Cardiff Castle. I’ve been to the castle a few times and have a key to the castle that lets residents visit for free, but I’m always a little ashamed to admit, that despite growing up in the city, I didn’t visit the castle until my early twenties.

The castle is unusual in that it features the remains of castles built by the Romans and the Normans, as well as a 19th century stately home. The castle dates back to the first century when the Romans built the first of four forts on the site. These days only the remnants of the final stone fort remain and you can still see parts of its ancient walls, which were destroyed by the Normans, in the visitor centre.

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Our first port of call was the Norman keep (above), which sits atop an artificial mound and dominates the landscape within the castle walls. Originally built as a wooden structure in 1081, it was rebuilt in stone in the 1130s, and used to be far bigger than it is today as much of the keep’s outer buildings were destroyed in 1784.

View of the main house from the top of the castle keep

We climbed the many steep steps to the keep where we were greeted by a large empty round space. We then climbed even more rickety, steep steps to the top of the tower. The staircase to the top is very narrow, which means there’s only room for one group of people to go up or down at any one time. This created some confusion with groups getting stuck at the top or bottom for ages, waiting for the non-stop flow of people from the opposite direction to finish. But the wait to get to the top was worth it as the keep boasts fantastic views over the castle grounds and the city.

We spent a little while admiring the views from all directions, before eventually making our way back down and over to the castle apartments (above), which were once home to the Bute family. During the Victorian era, John Crichton-Stuart, the 3rd Marquess of Bute, was reportedly the richest man in the world, and the eccentric, oppulent residence he had designed by the architect William Burges is testament to this wealth.

Cardiff Castle apartments

If you visit Cardiff Castle, it’s worth joining a house tour if you can. These last 50 minutes and take you around the entire residence, which means you’ll see the full extent of Burges’s splendid architecture and decor. During the summer months you can also tour the castle’s striking clock tower.

On our visit, there didn’t seem to be any house tours running, so we took the self-guided tour around the castle apartments instead. The self-guided tour is much shorter than the guided house tour and a number of the castle’s most impressive rooms are roped off. Even though I was a little disappointed we didn’t get to see all the rooms, my friends, who’d never been before, were impressed by what they saw.

The apartments’ most impressive room is the Arab room (above), which you can see on the self-guided tour. This quirky room features decorative marble walls and flooring, and a dazzling roof. The square, oddly shaped roof is decorated in an intricate gold, red, white and black pattern, and is stunning. It’s one of the most unusual roofs I’ve come across. The room’s tiny and only a couple of people are allowed in to see it at any one time, but it’s worth the wait to get in as it’s so distinctive and over-the-top.

The other rooms on the self-guided tour include the great hall, which features a fabulous fresco along the top of the walls that depicts the English civil war of the 1130s and 1140s; two dining rooms; and a parlour. The ceilings in the various rooms were more often-than-not jaw-droppingly embellished and I made a point of looking upwards whenever I entered a new room to see the lavish decoration above my head.

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The tour finished in the library (above), a long narrow room, which is filled with wooden bookcases brimming with books. We were delighted to find a couple of complete volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and found ourselves reminiscing about our pre-internet childhoods when we had to consult the encyclopaedia if we wanted to look something up. It’s a beautiful room and was a lovely end to our tour of the apartments.

The tunnels inside Cardiff Castle's walls

From the house, we headed over to the tunnels that lie within the castle walls. During the Second World War, the tunnels were used as an air-raid shelter for some 1,800 local residents and they extend quite a distance. We walked the full length of the tunnels, stopping to admire the many wartime posters (below) that lined the walls urging women to join the land army, grow their own food and mind what they said in public.

Some of the posters were a little sexist and seemed to imply that women couldn’t be trusted to keep secrets as well as men, but they were fascinating to look at and really helped transport us back in time to the 1940s. As we walked through the dark and damp tunnels, wartime music played over the loudspeakers, which added to the sense that we were back in 1940, taking shelter during an air raid.

One of my favourite features was the small canteen that had been recreated in one of the recesses in the castle walls. There was a small makeshift stove, an urn and it was “selling” teas, coffees and scones for a few pence. All the authentic wartime touches helped bring the tunnels alive and made them all the more interesting to explore. It also made me grateful that we don’t have to seek shelter in them any more as they were quite cold and damp, and I’m not sure how much protection they’d offer during a bombing raid.

Inside the Firing Line museum at Cardiff Castle

Having explored the tunnels, we made our way back to the visitor centre to have a look around the museum. Firing Line: Cardiff Castle Museum of the Welsh Soldier is a small museum dedicated to two Welsh regiments, The Royal Welsh and 1st The Queen Dragoon Guards.

The museum takes you through the history of the two regiments through major conflicts, such as the Second World War, the Anglo-Zulu War and the Napoleonic wars. It also explores the role of the regiments during the height of the British Empire. The museum is well curated, there are lots of interesting artefacts and everything is explained really well.

One of the most interesting aspects of the museum was learning about the soldiers and their experiences. One display, for example, looked at six men who were awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery, why they were awarded the medal and what happened to them afterwards (which in some cases was quite tragic). There was also a hands-on display where you could dress up in the regiments’ uniforms.

All in all I enjoyed my visit to Cardiff Castle – even if I didn’t get a chance to explore the entire house. I know I’m biased as I’m from Cardiff, but I do think the castle is one of the best and most unusual castles in the UK as there are so many varied things to see and do. It’s a strange mix of a traditional, ruined Norman castle, Roman walls, a wacky, ornate stately home, air-raid shelters and a military museum. I’ve now been to the castle several times and never get bored of it, it’s a fascinating place.

Info
Cardiff Castle, Castle Street, Cardiff CF10 3RB
Open daily, 9am-6pm (March to October), 9am-5pm (November to February)
Adults £12.50 (plus an extra £3.25 for the house tour), children £9 (plus £2 for the house tour)
cardiffcastle.com

Cardiff – St Fagans

St Fagans Castle and gardens, Cardiff

One of my favourite places for a Sunday stroll is the St Fagans National Museum of History on the outskirts of Cardiff. The museum is an open-air museum set in 100 acres of woodland in the grounds of St Fagans Castle.

Blaenwaun Post Office, St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff

The castle and the grounds were given to the public in 1948 by their then-owner the Earl of Plymouth and since then more than 40 buildings from different eras from all over Wales have been rebuilt in the grounds.

Over the summer, the main entrance building, which had been closed for the past few years for an extensive refurbishment, reopened and I was keen to see what it was like. I was surprised to find the main building was quite sparse with an enormous foyer and a small information desk, a new café and a shop. But it turned out it has yet to fully reopen as the exhibition galleries are still being refurbished.

Turog Bakery, St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff

As a creature of habit, I always follow the same tried-and-tested route whenever I visit St Fagans. My first port of call is always the bakery (above) because their cheesy buns are one of my favourite things in the world to eat and they’re so popular they often sell out. There’s nothing more disappointing than a trip to St Fagans to find there are no cheesy buns. So cheesy buns purchased, we were free to stroll around the rest of the grounds at our leisure.

A pig on the farm at the St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff

First off, we headed down to the farm (above), which is home to numerous animals such as geese, chickens, and my favourites, the pigs. I love the pigs, especially the adorable piglets, and make a beeline to see them whenever I visit. They always look so content lounging on the ground or moving around their pens, sniffing as they go and munching the straw around them, that I could spend hours watching them.

Siop Losin (sweet shop) at the St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff

Having spent quite a long time watching the pigs, we strolled back towards the bakery, past the old water mill and the toll house, and on to the Gwalia grocery stores. There you can buy traditional Welsh produce such as cheese, jam, seaweed snacks and honey. Next door there’s a new sweet shop (above), so we popped inside and found a back wall filled with jars of old fashioned sweets, while the area around the counter was brimming with chocolate, Kendal mint cake and sticks of rock. I resisted the temptation to load up on sweet treats and instead plumped for an intriguing pot of raspberry and lavender jam from the grocery stores.

Oakdale Workmen's Institute, St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff

Behind the Gwalia stores is the Oakdale working men’s institute (above). I’m from a long line of coal miners in the Valleys and the institute is one of my favourite buildings as I feel it’s the one that best represents my Welsh heritage. Working men’s institutes were built all over the Valleys to provide coal miners and their families with a social and cultural centre, and this wonderful building boasts a library, reading room and committee room. Over the years, I’ve spent ages poring over the photographs that hang on the walls, wondering whether or not any of the faces staring back at me are my ancestors. Probably not – but it’s not impossible!

After the institute, we wandered up through the woods to Llys Llywellyn (Llywellyn’s Court). It’s a recreation of a medieval princes’ court from Anglesey and has been under construction for a few years. I like popping by whenever I’m in St Fagans to see how it’s coming along and this time I was surprised to see one of the buildings was almost finished. I’m really looking forward to having a look around it when it opens as there aren’t any surviving examples of the princes’ courts and I’m keen to see what they would have looked like.

From Llys Llywellyn, we walked the short distance to another of my favourite buildings, St Teilo’s Church (above). From the outside, the church looks like any regular church, but inside it’s elaborately painted as it would have been during the Middle Ages. I love looking inside and seeing the decoration. I often forget when I visit old churches in the UK that many of them would have been painted during the Middle Ages and I’m always amazed at how colourful and decorative St Teilo’s Church is as it’s so different to the plain, stone churches we usually see in the UK.

Wicker man at St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff

After looking around the church, we strolled up to the old slate farmhouse, which was closed for renovation work, then walked past the woods that played host to the Battle of St Fagans on 8 May 1648 during the Civil War.

As we wandered back down towards the centre of the museum, I was intrigued by the giant wicker man that was standing tall in one of the fields (above). The wicker man had been erected for Halloween and was set to be burned during one of the museum’s nighttime Halloween events. There were lots of craft stalls nearby, too, where you could buy handmade goods or try your hand at making a mini wicker man, pottery or jewellery.

Our final destination was St Fagans Castle (above right). I love strolling around the castle gardens as they’re so vast and varied. They include Italian-style gardens on the hill leading up to the castle and a series of rectangular ponds beneath them (above left). Up near the castle there’s a fruit and vegetable garden with a number of greenhouses, as well as a series of gardens beautifully laid out in different patterns.

It’s a really pretty, relaxing place to walk, especially during the autumn when the trees are a medley of reds, yellows, oranges and greens. I’ve been inside the castle countless times, so I often skip the tour inside and just spend time enjoying the gardens, which we did this time, too.

Red stone farmhouse, St Fagans National History Museum, Cardiff

From the castle, we then headed back to the main building for a well-earned, warming cup of tea in the café. The perfect way to end a very pleasant autumn stroll.

Info
St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff CF5 6XB
Open daily, 10am-5pm
Free
museum.wales/stfagans/

Doctor Who Experience

For the last few years, I’ve walked past the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff Bay on a regular basis and each time I’ve said to myself, “I must go in and see what it’s like”. In July, with the news the attraction is set to close at the beginning of September, I finally made good on my promise.

Now I should probably start by saying I’m not a Doctor Who fan and although I’ve seen the odd episode, I haven’t watched it in years. So I came to the experience completely cold, aware of the TARDIS and the Daleks, knowing who the current Doctor Who is (goodbye Peter Capaldi, hello Jodie Whittaker)… and that was about the extent of my knowledge.

Having bought our tickets, we were told to line up at 3pm for the start of the interactive experience. This was fine, except the experience didn’t start for another 20 minutes and by that point everyone in the queue was bored and restless.

We were finally ushered inside the Gallifrey Museum where we were met by our tour guide and were given time crystals to wear around our necks. The experience lasted some 30 minutes and during this time we were led into the TARDIS where we travelled to various locations and eras, including a creepy graveyard and the 1960s, on a mission to help the Doctor.

Photos were strictly forbidden during this part of the tour and if I’m honest, I was a little confused as to what was going on, which is why my write up isn’t as clear as it could be. The sound quality was poor and I found it hard to hear what was being said. Nevertheless, our tour guide was super enthusiastic and the kids seemed to be having a great time.

Having successfully navigated the experience, we were now free to explore the rest of the visitor attraction, which is essentially a museum dedicated to all things Doctor Who, set over two floors. This was the real gem of the attraction.

The lower floor of the museum featured recreations of sets and props from every era of the show, including the interior and exterior of a number of TARDIS time and space machines, such as the one above from the Christopher Eccleston-Billie Piper era. The detail in the props and sets was amazing, and it was fascinating seeing them up close.

My favourite part were the costumes, which were on display on the upper floor, along with models of the various creatures that have appeared on the show over the years. I spent ages looking at everything – some of the models were really creepy and the attention to detail was again incredible.

I was also intrigued by how different some of the costumes looked in real life compared to how they appeared on screen. There was one brown leather jacket worn by Catherine Tate’s character that was really pale in real life but looked much darker in the stills from the show.

Overall, I had mixed feelings about the Doctor Who Experience. I didn’t massively enjoy the 30-minute experience at the start of the tour (not helped by the unnecessary 20-minute wait in the queue before we began). The production values weren’t good enough, with the sound quality in particular a problem, so I didn’t feel immersed in the world, which hampered my enjoyment of it.

But the museum part was fascinating and I would have liked more of it. I’m sure for fans of the show the whole experience is a delight, but I would have preferred a bigger museum section as you don’t need to be a fan of the show to appreciate the incredible skills and handiwork that went into making the props, costumes and sets. Interesting enough, but could be better.

Info
Doctor Who Experience, Discovery Quay, Cardiff CF10 4GA
Adults £16, children £11.75
doctorwho.tv/events/doctor-who-experience

Dyffryn Gardens – the manor house

I’ve written about my annual day trips to Dyffryn Gardens a lot, but for some reason I’ve never written about the house even though I always go inside and have a look around.

Dyffryn House is a large, beautiful Victorian mansion set amid 55 acres of gardens. It was built in 1895 by the Cory family, who made their millions from the coal fields of the south Wales valleys. At the turn of the 20th century, around a third of the world’s coal was being exported from nearby Cardiff and it’s rumoured the city’s coal exchange witnessed the world’s first £1 million deal (a cool £100-ish million in today’s money).

Dyffryn Gardens, July 2017 (8)

Needless to say, as a major player in the city’s coal trade, the Cory family was loaded – hence, the gorgeous villa surrounded by acres of land. In 1939, the estate was leased to the local council and the house was then used variously as a police academy, training and conference facility, and a dog-training centre. Still council-owned, the National Trust took over responsibility for running and maintaining the property in 2013.

When the National Trust stepped in, the house was in a state of disrepair without any furniture or artworks. The trust has slowly been restoring the house to its former glory, doing a fantastic job in the process. When the house opened its doors to the public in 2013, only five rooms had been restored and since then more rooms have undergone restoration work.

You can wander around many of the rooms as they are being restored and the National Trust has handily put up signs explaining the restoration and conservation work, including any issues they’ve faced. It’s been fascinating to go back every year to see what they’ve been doing and how much work goes into restoring these grand houses.

Dyffryn House, Vale of Glamorgan, July 2017 (18)

The first room you enter on going inside is the great hall. The grand wood-panelled room has an enormously high ceiling and was once used by the Cory family as the main drawing room. Above the door is a large stained glass window and on the other side is a balcony where you can look down at the room from the first floor. It’s a magnificent space and gives a sense of how palatial the house must have been during its heyday.

Dyffryn House, Vale of Glamorgan, July 2017 (19)

The great hall leads off into a number of different rooms, one of which is the billiard room. It’s a fairly standard billiard room with the requisite wood-panelling and massive billiard table in the centre. After years of reading 1920s-1940s crime novels, I always feel no stately home is truly complete without a billiard room and Dyffryn House hasn’t let me down.

Dyffryn House, Vale of Glamorgan, July 2017 (20)

Close by is the blue parlour room, which is set out as a music room, and during this summer’s visit featured a number of props created by the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama as part of a performance called ‘The Desert Daydreamer’. The props included a model of a dead bird under the piano (above) and a dead ostrich beside the chest of draws. The room is a gorgeous space largely because of the huge windows, which let in enormous amounts of light – it was very light and airy, and must have been a great room in which to relax.

Dyffryn House, Vale of Glamorgan, July 2017 (21)

The red parlour room next door is so-called because of the red silk panels on the walls, which were discovered during the restoration work. Some of the silk panels were repaired by conservationists, but those that were beyond repair were replaced by replicas. I was really impressed by the restoration work as I couldn’t see a difference between the different panels and they all looked to be in great condition.

Dyffryn House, Vale of Glamorgan, July 2017 (22)

From the red parlour room, I wandered along to the second-hand bookshop where I had a good rake through the shelves to see if there were any books I wanted to buy. Being a bookworm, I like having a bookshop on site as I’m always on the lookout for interesting books I haven’t come across before and it’s a good way to raise some extra money for the house, too.

Dyffryn House, Vale of Glamorgan, July 2017 (24)

While much of the downstairs of the house has been restored, upstairs it’s another matter and the rooms are largely unfinished and in a state of disrepair. In a number of rooms there were exhibits about the First World War with various displays showing the support the Cory family gave to the war effort. The displays were interesting and really brought home how the war affected everyone, regardless of wealth or status.

Dyffryn House, Vale of Glamorgan, July 2017 (23)

As someone who likes visiting castles and stately homes, I’ve enjoyed seeing the restoration of the house over the last few years and reading about the conservation work that goes into restoring a grand old house like this. Having spent years as a child visiting Dyffryn Gardens but never being able to go inside, it’s great to now be allowed to explore the house and see it slowly restored to its full glory. If you’re ever in the Cardiff area, it’s definitely worth a visit – especially in spring and summer when the gardens are in full bloom.

Info
Dyffryn Gardens, St Nicholas, Vale of Glamorgan CF5 6SU
Adults £8.60, Children £4.30
nationaltrust.org.uk/dyffryn-gardens