As part of our celebration of the eight Welsh Protected Landscapes, Abi Whyte visits the Wye Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and cycles along the Peregrine Path to discover an historic market town, the limestone gorge and the majestic river
I’ve lived in the Wye Valley for 15 years, but had never cycled the riverside path straddling the Welsh border from Monmouth to Symonds Yat (National Cycle Route 423). At just over five miles long, and relatively flat the whole way, the path is ideal for a family outing and of course there is a special sight to look out for - Peregrine falcons launching from the limestone outcrops above.
Before I set off on my bike I had a good nosey around Monmouth – one of my favourite things to do. The old market town was once a popular destination for visitors undertaking the fashionable Wye Tour in the 18th century, when Britain was at war with France and the European Grand Tour was off limits. It's clear to see what brought people here in their droves, including William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge and JMW Turner; each found inspiration while in search of the 'picturesque' among the forested hills and romantic ruins.
Monmouth retains much of its old-world charm, from its historic streets lined with independent shops and cafes, the Medieval gated bridge over the River Monnow (the only bridge of its type remaining in Britain), the Norman castle and Nelson Museum where you can see a collection of Nelson's letters and gifts to Lady Hamilton, as well as find out more about the history of the Wye Valley.
But I was here for a bike ride so, helmet on, I joined the Peregrine Path at Hadnock Road, following an old railway track – a remnant of the Ross & Monmouth Railway that closed in 1959. I soon came to Hadnock Halt, a sweet little railway platform on the edge of the path and old trackbed. Across the river I could see Wyastone Leys, a grand country estate now owned by a record company that hosts classical music concerts in its grounds. Soon I was venturing into the Upper Wye Gorge under canopies of beech, oak and ash, hoping to catch sight of the bobbing tails of fallow deer. No joy, but there were plenty of grey squirrels, and I could hear the distant rattle of a woodpecker.
I soon came to Biblins Bridge, an Indiana Jones-style suspension bridge that I couldn’t help bouncing on as I peered into the salmon-rich river below. I didn’t cross the bridge, although hikers on the Wye Valley Walk often do, I continued on the same side of the river, before long coming to Symonds Yat – a canoeist’s and climber’s paradise split in two by the river into Symonds Yat West and Symonds Yat East. ‘Symonds’ came from a 17th-century local sheriff Robert Symonds and the regional dialect for ‘gate’ or ‘pass’. A hand-pulled ferry connects the two villages and you can take your bike over and follow Route 423 to Goodrich Castle on the other side.
I stayed put at Symonds Yat East, where I locked up my bike and climbed the steep path up to the famous Yat Rock viewing platform where, in the nesting season, it’s possible to view Peregrine falcons by telescope. I sipped from my flask of hot chocolate, calves burning from the steep climb, but feeling fully rewarded with panoramic views of the Wye Valley.
It was time to head back to Monmouth and on the way I decided to climb the steep and windy road up to The Kymin, not far from the end of the cycle trail at Monmouth. At the top I found a gleaming white castellated tower called the Roundhouse, built in the 18th century at the whimsy of local gentry who wanted somewhere to picnic in inclement weather. From its beautiful wooded grounds you can see out over Monmouthshire and across to the Brecon Beacons.
On the recommendation of a local friend, I called in at Bistro Pregro in Monmouth, tucked away on a little street straight out of a Dickens novel. As well as Italian dishes and sumptuous seafood, this elegant yet cosy eatery serves up local fare with seasonal vegetables and is a popular pre-theatre venue for those heading to the Savoy Theatre, the oldest working theatre in Wales. I opted for the braised rabbit with mustard cream and a pint of local ale and while soaking up the atmosphere of this vibrant little place felt rather proud to call this stunning part of the world my home.