Margam Country Park

Margam Castle as viewed from the park

With 800 acres of parkland, roaming deer, an abandoned castle, a ruined abbey, a farm and two of the best children’s playgrounds I’ve ever come across, Margam Country Park makes for a great day out. Situated not far from the south Wales coast and close to the industrial town of Port Talbot, Margam Park is easy to get to from the M4.

I hadn’t been to Margam Park since I was a child, but had fond memories of its incredible playground and was keen to revisit it as an adult. So earlier this summer, on a baking hot day, I hopped in my car for a road trip and was not disappointed.

I arrived at Margam Park bright and early, which meant it was fairly quiet when I got to the estate. Being the castle-lover that I am, I immediately made my way to Margam Castle (more a country house than a traditional castle) for a look around.

Margam Castle

Built in the 1830s, the enormous Tudor Gothic mansion (above) was the former home of the wealthy Mansel Talbot family, who were responsible for much of the area’s industrialisation and who helped introduce the railways to south Wales.

In 1974, the castle was acquired by Bridgend County Borough Council, but just three years later, a devastating fire gutted the mansion and today only small parts of it are open to the public.

The grand staircase inside Margam Castle

I popped my head inside the door and found myself inside the great hall, at the centre of which was a very grand staircase (above). The hall featured a small, informative exhibition about the Mansel Talbot family, which was interesting as I didn’t know anything about the family, and I learned a lot about their lives and how influential they were.

The ruins of the 12th century Cistercian abbey at Margam Park

From the castle, I strolled down the hill to the ancient ruined abbey (above). The Cistercian Abbey was built in 1147 and like so many monastic buildings in England and Wales was dissolved by Henry VIII during the reformation. Very little remains of the abbey, but it’s nevertheless an impressive structure with a few intriguing nooks and crannies to explore.

Beyond the ruined abbey is the Abbey Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, a small parish church, that’s still in use today. The church isn’t part of Margam Park, but you can go inside from the grounds of the estate and have a look around.

The Orangery at Margam Park

From the church, I walked to the park’s Orangery (above), an enormous Georgian structure that dates back to 1790. At that time it was built, it was said to be the longest orangery in Britain. You can’t go inside the building (it’s mostly used as a wedding venue now), so I had a pleasant stroll around the gardens that surround it instead.

Pig lying in the mud at the farm in Margam Park

Having seen all there was to see in this part of the park, I made my way back towards the castle and then headed south through the parkland to the estate’s farm. The farm is home to a host of animals, including the usual suspects such as pigs, cows, sheep, goats, chickens and even turkeys. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a live turkey before, so I was fascinated by them and spent quite a bit of time watching the birds strutting around their pen. 

From the farm, I set off to explore the rest of the park’s extensive grounds and planned to head up to the Pulpit, a viewpoint on a ridge overlooking the estate, as it’s said to boast fantastic views over the south Wales coast. But as I began walking up the path to take me to the top of the hill, I turned a corner and stumbled across a large herd of deer, many of whom pricked up their heads as I strode into view.

A herd of deer lounging in the grass in the foothill of Margam Park

Fallow deer have lived at Margam Park since at least Norman times and the deer, along with red and Pere David deer, freely roam around some 500 acres of the park. I visited the park in June, during fawning season, and as such I’d passed a number of notices warning visitors to keep their distance from the deer as the parents were very protective of their young.

As soon as I turned the corner, the stags in the herd turned to look at me, eyeing my every move. Not wanting to agitate them any further, I decided it was best to turn around, rather than continue up the path as it would have brought me even closer to the deer.

While it was incredible to see the deer in their natural habitat, I was a little intimidated, too, as the stags clearly weren’t pleased to see me and I had no desire to find out what happens when a herd of stags charge at you.

Stags in the grass at Margam Park

Despite not making it to the top of the ridge, there was still a great chunk of the park left to explore and I spent the rest of my visit sticking to the more widely populated paths to avoid disturbing any more deer.

I had a lovely day out at Margam Park – I’d forgotten just how splendid it was – and it’s now firmly back on my list of local places to visit for a weekend stroll. It’s huge and there’s so much to see and do, you can easily spend a whole day there. A real gem of a country park.

Info

Margam Country Park, SA13 2TJ
Open daily 10am-6pm (April to August), 10am-4pm (September to March)
Free entry, but there’s a £6 car parking charge for cars
margamcountrypark.co.uk

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Dyffryn Gardens – Summer 2019

View of Dyffryn House from the lily pond

This morning I paid my annual spring/summer visit to Dyffryn Gardens. Situated in the Vale of Glamorgan, just outside Cardiff, Dyffryn Gardens is run by the National Trust and is home to a grand Edwardian manor, surrounded by some 55 acres of botanical gardens – and it’s one of my favourite places for a weekend stroll.

Italian Gardens at Dyffryn Gardens

I’ve visited the gardens a couple of times already this year, but this was my first visit during the summer when the flowers were in full bloom. I like going back every year to see what the groundspeople have done to the gardens as they never look the same from one year to the next.

White gladioli at Dyffryn Gardens

There was a lot of colour in the gardens this year, and following on from last year, the planting seemed much more natural and less formal that it has in previous years. I had great fun photographing the many flowers in the gardens – some of which were spectacular. Here are some of my favourites from this year’s visit:

There were lots of bees, dragonflies and butterflies buzzing around the gardens, too, and it’s safe to say I got a bit carried away trying to photograph them:

The gardens were as lovely and as welcoming as ever, and I really enjoyed my visit. If you’re ever in the Cardiff area, I highly recommend Dyffryn for a day out. And if you’re interested in how the gardens have looked in previous years, take a look at my blog posts from 2017, 2016 and 2015.

Info

Dyffryn Gardens, St Nicholas, Vale of Glamorgan CF5 6SU
Adults £10.90, children £5.45
nationaltrust.org.uk/dyffryngardens

The Royal Mint Experience

The Royal Mint Experience

Last year marked 50 years since The Royal Mint moved to Llantrisant, a small town in south Wales to the north-west of Cardiff, and two years since its visitor experience opened its doors.

The Royal Mint Experience consists of a 45-minute guided tour, which includes a look inside the factory where the coins are minted, after which you’re free to wander around the museum at your own pace.

A mini covered in pennies at The Royal Mint Experience

Our tour began with a brief introductory video about the Mint, before we followed our guide into the factory where he explained how they mint the coins and showed us some of the rarest coins currently in circulation in the UK. We were then taken into a room, where from behind a glass screen, we could see the factory floor and watch the coin production process in action.

A box of £1 coins at The Royal Mint Experience

I hadn’t realised that The Royal Mint produces some five billion coins each year, minting coins not only for the UK, but for countries all over the world. Only £2, 50p and 10p pieces have unusual, collectable designs on them. The rarest 50p piece features the pagoda from Kew Gardens – only 20 per cent of the coins are still in circulation because the other 80 per cent have been kept by coin collectors.

The guided tour was fascinating, I learned a lot and it made me realise how little I knew about the coins I handle on a daily basis, and how much work and thought goes into producing them. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and did an excellent job explaining the production process. There were a couple of serious coin collectors on our tour who asked the guide some tricky questions, but he answered them with ease.

Posters advertising the introduction of decimal coins in the UK at The Royal Mint Experience

After completing our factory tour, we were free to walk around the experience’s museum and I spent ages looking at everything. The museum featured displays about the Mint’s history, from its origins in the Tower of London to its later homes on Tower Hill and at Llantrisant.

There were lots of very rare coins on display, too, including an elusive 1933 penny (only six or seven were made), the first coin minted at the Llantrisant site, as well as coins from the reign of Elizabeth I and Sir Isaac Newton’s seal (he was master of The Royal Mint for almost 30 years until his death in 1727).

A display of facts about coins at The Royal Mint Experience

The Royal Mint makes coins, medals and blanks (the pieces of metal minted into coins) for lots of countries, including the Philippines, Costa Rica and Jordan, and there was an informative display about the many countries the Mint has worked with over the years.

A display about how coins are designed and modelled at The Royal Mint Experience

Other interesting displays included a section that explored the design process in detail (I learned that some coin designers choose to have their initials engraved on the coin, which I hadn’t noticed before), a section featuring a series of fascinating facts about coins and another that looked at the medals the Mint has manufactured over the years.

The Royal Mint made all the medals for the 2012 London Olympics (below) and the museum lets you handle replicas of them. It turns out that the Olympic gold medals are much heavier than the bronze and silver ones, with the silver medal also weighing more than the bronze.

London 2012 Olympic medals on display at The Royal Mint Experience

All in all, we spent a good two hours at The Royal Mint Experience and I thoroughly enjoyed our visit. I came away armed with so many facts about coins that I bored my family and friends stupid with my new found knowledge. I also made a mental note to start checking my change from now on.

Tips

We visited the Mint bright and early on a Wednesday morning because between 10am and 2pm each Wednesday, you can swap a 10p piece for one of The Great Coin Hunt Quintessentially British A-Z 10p pieces. It’s a collectable series of coins that feature a different letter of the alphabet on the one side and a design linked to something intrinsically British (for example, M is represented by a Mackintosh raincoat and B by James Bond) on the other. So if you’re interested in picking up a collectable coin during your visit – Wednesday’s the best day to do so.

Info

The Royal Mint Experience, Pontyclun CF72 8YT
Open from 9.30am every day
Adults £13.50, children (5-15 years) £11, children under five are free, senior citizens £12
royalmint.com/the-royal-mint-experience

Hay-on-Wye

The clock tower in Hay-on-Wye

One of my favourite places to visit in Wales is the small market town of Hay-on-Wye. Straddling the Welsh-English border, and flanked by the River Wye and the Black Mountains, the attractive town is probably best known for its many bookshops and annual literary festival, which has attracted the likes of Salman Rushdie, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton over the years.

When I was growing up, my family and I used to make an annual pilgrimage to Hay, usually the week after Christmas, where we’d wander around the town, browsing in its shops (Hay used to be home to an amazing jigsaw shop, which has sadly closed) and scouring the shelves in the many bookshops on the lookout for interesting and unusual tomes. This year, for the first time in a number of years, we decided to carry on the family tradition and paid a visit on New Year’s Eve.

Millionaire shortbread at The Granary in Hay-on-Wye

We arrived in the town at lunchtime, and after parking the car, strolled down to The Granary Café and Restaurant for tea and cake. The café sells home-made traditional fare such as soups, jacket potatoes and toasties, and always has a good selection of cakes (above). The only downside is it’s often heaving, and on the day we visited, it was as busy as I’ve ever seen it, with the queue almost out the door. Luckily, we were able to get a table, and despite the huge queue, were served relatively quickly.

The Murder and Mayhem bookshop in Hay-on-Wye

Refreshments over, it was time to hit the bookshops, and as an avid bookworm, I made a beeline to my favourite bookshop, Murder and Mayhem, on Lion Street. The small second-hand bookshop specialises in murder mysteries and features classics from the golden age of detective fiction from the 1920s and 1930s, American hard-boiled detective fiction, as well as popular modern crime writers such as Ruth Rendell and Ben Aaronovitch’s River of London series.

I love raking through the shelves in the upstairs room and spent ages picking out books. I ended up with a massive pile that included one of Dorothy L Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries and a British Library Crime Classic by Mavis Doriel Hay. I also picked up a Lew Archer mystery by one of my favourite hard-boiled authors Ross MacDonald and a few novels from the Crime Masterworks series, including Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver. All in all, I was very pleased with my haul.

The Hay Cinema Bookshop in Hay-on-Wye

Laden with books, we strolled through the town, browsing in the many clothes shops, bookshops and food shops, before finishing up in another of my favourite bookshops, the Hay Cinema Bookshop, so named because it’s housed in an old cinema. The cavernous shop sells all manner of books and it’s great fun browsing the shelves, not knowing quite what you’re going to find. I ended up buying a couple of novels by Graham Greene and Alexandre Dumas that I haven’t read.

By now, we were thoroughly bookshopped out, so decided to make our way home. And I’m now armed to the rafters with enough books to last me until next Christmas.

Dinefwr

Newton House seen through the trees from Dinefwr Deer Park

Nestled among the trees and woodland of the Carmarthenshire countryside, Dinefwr is a grand estate boasting a medieval castle, a stately home and a 100-acre nature reserve that’s home to a host of wildlife including deer, otters and badgers.

Looking for somewhere to stop on my drive back to Cardiff from Pembrokeshire, I stumbled upon Dinefwr, and as it was almost at the half-way point between the two, I decided it would be the perfect place to stretch my legs and have a spot of lunch.

On arriving at the estate, which is maintained by the National Trust, I parked my car and made my way to the information hut to get a map from the friendly staff. There are a number of walking trails around the estate and I chose a route that would take me up to the castle, then through the nature reserve to Mill Pond and returning via the deer park.

Dinefwr Castle

I set off from the car park over a field and entered the Castle Wood, following the woodland path uphill until I reached the castle (above). Perched high on a hill overlooking the River Tywi, Dinefwr Castle was once the home of Lord Rhys and the princes of Deheubarth, the ancient kingdom of south-west Wales.

Only the outer shell of the castle, which is maintained by Cadw, remains, but you can walk all the way along the ramparts and they offer spectacular views of the Carmarthenshire countryside, the River Tywi and Dinefwr Park (below). The big round tower is still intact, too, and you can climb to the top and walk around it. There isn’t a huge amount to Dinefwr Castle, but what remains is in excellent condition and it’s a lovely place to explore.

View over Dinefwr Park and beyond from the top of Dinefwr Castle

From the castle, I headed back down the hill, cutting through the woodland, and continuing to follow the path over a field until I came to the deer park entrance. I passed through the metal gates into the park and followed the boardwalk through Bog Wood until I came to the picturesque Mill Pond.

Wooden sculpture of a bird of prey in the deer park at Dinefwr

From there, I carried on walking through the deer park, and was surprised and delighted when I saw two young deer sprint past me on the path ahead. I hadn’t expected to see any deer, despite the park’s name, and was thrilled to see not one, but two of these magnificent creatures.

Deer just visible on top of a hill in the Deer Park at Dinefwr

I continued through the deer park, and as I neared the metal gates at the end of the path, I looked to my left where I saw a row of deer relaxing on top of the hill (you can just make out them out in the photo above). Most were lying down, but some were standing around or eating.

It was an incredible experience seeing so many deer so close. I thought the deer would keep themselves hidden, away from the footpaths, and so hadn’t expected to come across any. The only other place I’ve seen deer is in Richmond Park in London, so seeing the deer made my visit to Dinefwr quite special.

Newton House in the grounds of Dinefwr

Feeling elated from my encounters with the deer, I continued on the path towards Newton House (above), the stately home at Dinefwr. The house was closed so I couldn’t look around, but The Billiard Tearoom inside was open, so I stopped there for lunch. The tea room sells a variety of soups, light lunches and sweet treats, and the staff were incredibly warm and welcoming, and made my visit all the nicer. Starving, I wolfed down a steaming bowl of red thai squash soup, followed by a slice of toffee gateau.

View of the inside of Dinefwr Castle from the ramparts

Dinefwr is an exceptional place, full of history, wildlife and beautiful scenery, and having lived in Wales most of my life, I can’t believe it was my first visit. Seeing the deer in the deer park was particularly memorable, and as I was walking around, I was already planning my return visit. I may only have just discovered Dinefwr, but it’s a place I’ll be returning to again and again.

Info

Dinefwr Castle
Free
Open 10am-4pm every day
cadw.gov.wales/daysout/dinefwrcastle

Dinefwr Park
Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire, SA19 6RT
Adults £7.60, children £3.80
www.nationaltrust.org.uk/dinefwr

 

Ceredigion coastal path – Gwbert to Mwnt

The sandy cove of Mwnt in the distance, spied from the Ceredigion coastal path

Earlier this month I was in Pembrokeshire, west Wales, for a wedding. The morning after, feeling a little delicate, I decided I needed a healthy dose of sea air to blow the cobwebs away and so embarked on a seven-mile circular walk from my hotel in Gwbert to Mwnt.

Gwbert is a tiny village perched high on the cliffs overlooking Cardigan Bay. The Ceredigion coastal path (part of the Wales Coast Path, a free to access footpath that runs along the entire Welsh coastline) passes through the village. Having done a spot of research online, I found that if I followed the path to the north, I’d end up in the picturesque sandy cove of Mwnt, just three-and-a-half miles away.

The wild and dramatic Ceredigion coastline from Gwbert

Before I set off, I paid a quick visit to the clifftops at the end of my hotel’s grounds to have a look at the spectacular stretch of coastline I was about to explore (above). Joining the coastal path, I walked firstly uphill along a wide country road, and then followed the signs over a stile through a series of (at times muddy and wet) farmers’ fields.

View of Cardigan Island in the distance from the Ceredigion coastal path

The path through the fields took me right down to the shore where I had good views of nearby Cardigan Island (above), and from here, I followed the jagged, curving pathway along the edge of the coast, through fields and quarries, and along narrow clifftop pathways.

The path was mostly well-trodden, but it was muddy, slippery and perilously close to the cliff edge in parts. The signs warning that clifftops could be deadly did not help reassure me and I was very aware that if I tumbled at certain points, I’d fall straight over the edge of the cliff onto the craggy, forboding rocks below.

Looking down on the sandy cove of Mwnt from the Ceredigion coastal path

After around an hour or so, I finally spied Mwnt’s compact sandy beach in the distance (above). And as I got closer to the cove, the path became increasingly muddy, rocky and slippery, and there was one section where I struggled to keep my footing. But I soon made it down to the beach where I enjoyed the beautiful views over the coastline I’d just walked (below).

View of the Ceredigion coastline from Mwnt

Being November and a little drizzly, the beach was unusually quiet (it’s often heaving on a sunny summer’s day) with only a few other walkers around. I spent a little while at the beach looking out for any signs of seals, pups or dolphins, which frequent the area, and then headed up the hill to the small Church of the Holy Cross (below), which overlooks the cove.

The lonely Church of the Holy Cross in Mwnt

From there, I headed inland up a long, winding, uphill road, where at the top, I turned to the right, and walked back to Gwbert via the roads, passing the tiny village of Ferwig along the way. My return journey wasn’t anywhere near as scenic or as pleasant as the coastal path, but it was a much easier, more sure-footed walk. And some three hours after setting out, I arrived back at my hotel where I collapsed on my bed with a warming cup of tea and some ginger biscuits.

I really enjoyed my walk along this incredibly scenic stretch of the Ceredigion coastal path, it’s a great route and the views over the coastline are breathtaking. It was the first time I’ve deliberately walked a good stretch of the Wales Coast Path, and having completed this walk, I’d like to explore more of it.

Tips

  • Take a map – there’s no phone or internet signal in this part of rural Wales and while the coastal path is well signposted, the road signs are sporadic and there are a number of junctions that aren’t marked.
  • Take plenty of water and snacks – there are no cafés or shops en route.
  • There’s a small toilet at Mwnt that’s open all year-round, but bear in mind these are the only facilities along the walk.
  • Wear waterproof hiking shoes with good grips – the coastal path is muddy and very slippery in parts so good footwear is essential.
  • Be aware that once you join the coastal path at Gwbert there’s no way of turning off it until you get to Mwnt.

Info

Get more information about the Wales Coast Path.

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

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

Southerndown

One of the beautiful beaches at Southerndown in the Vale of Glamorgan

I love the bays and coves along the South Wales coast. I’m unashamedly biased but I think they’re some of the most beautiful in the world. Less well-known than the beaches of West Wales and the Gower Peninsula, their rugged beauty and excellent walking paths make for a great day out. Each one has its own attributes and personality – from the secluded cove of Monknash to the sand dunes of Merthyr Mawr and the great expanse of sand and strong tides at Ogmore-by-Sea that make it an ideal place for surfing.

The sandy beach at Dunraven Bay at Southerndown

One of my favourite beaches is Southerndown, which is situated on the Glamorgan Heritage Path in the Vale of Glamorgan. Nestled in the shadows of the golden yellow limestone and shale cliffs of Wales’s ancient Jurassic coastline, the sandy beach of Dunraven Bay that emerges when the tide is out can only be reached by clambering over the rocks or via the concrete path. The surrounding rocks are filled with rock pools and as a kid, I liked to imagine they were dinosaur footprints.

The cliffs of the ancient Jurassic coastline at Southerndown

There’s a gothic feel to Southerndown, in part because of the ruins of Dunraven Castle and its walled gardens. The castle, which was situated high on the cliff overlooking the bay, was a large manor house, first mentioned in the 1540s, that underwent major renovations in the 19th century. The site had been occupied by stone buildings since the Norman era and the castle was used as a hospital during both World Wars, and later as a guest house, before being demolished in 1963.

These days all that’s left is the walled garden and a few stone ruins. Entrance to the gardens is via a large wooden door, and within are three enclosed gardens with large lawns at their centre and the wooded cliffs beyond. There’s also a small tower in one of the far corners.

The remains of one of the towers in the walled gardens at Southerndown

The gardens have a secluded feel to them and even when the bay is busy, they’re usually fairly quiet. I can’t help but wonder when I walk around how they and the castle must have looked during their 19th century heyday – it’s such a beautiful spot for a grand manor house and I’m always a little sad that it’s been lost forever and I’ll never have a chance to see it.

That aside, when I’m in the mood for a brisk walk and the sea air, nowhere quite beats Southerndown (apart from maybe Monknash) and I’m aware just how lucky I am to live so close to such a beautiful part of the world.