As part of our celebration of the eight Welsh Protected Landscapes, Sarah Baxter discovers the Clwydian Range & Dee Valley AONB offers a fantastic range of outdoor adventure
Is the Dee Valley the UK’s most active valley? I think it might be. After a brief introduction to it I’ll tell you why I am face down in the raging white water of the River Dee steeling myself for my own almighty adventure.
The Dee Valley was added to North Wales’s Clwydian Range AONB in 2011, more than doubling the size of the existing Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. And it IS outstanding. The Dee has long been considered a special river: its name derives from the Celtic ‘deva’, meaning River of the Goddess. The landscapes all around it are dramatic - from endlessly interfolding hills to sharp-edged escarpments - and the history is deep and diverse. However, the Dee Valley is more than a pretty picture or a fascinating history lesson. It’s a playground for everyone, which brings me back to that impending tidal wave...
The reason I am facing down an angry burble of ice-cold river is because I am aboard a bodyboat, a sort of sun-lounger for adrenalin junkies. You lay on a contoured piece of plastic on your belly and paddle with your arms; there are handles on the sides but, unlike a kayak, nothing to keep you in.
Antony Fleming-Williams started his bodyboating company in 2015 and he is the country’s only commercial operator of these easy-to-hop-on vessels. I am braving the February chill to fling myself head first down the Dee with Antony, negotiating the 3-km stretch from Horseshoe Falls (a Telford-designed weir, built in 1808) to the town of Llangollen. I want to see if the valley can live up to its ‘most active’ claim, even in winter. Fortunately I am wearing A LOT of neoprene, including a pair of webbed gloves. “Congratulations,” says Antony, as I flex my fingers, “you are now half otter.”
Despite the cosy wetsuit, I rather hope I might stay on my board; that the rapids raging ahead won’t toss me into their angry depths. No such luck. With a cold smack, I am off, spluttering in the whirling river, dunked, gasping, resurfacing, giggling like an idiot. Brilliant fun!
This isn’t the only time the Dee beasts me. Bodyboating is simple – virtually anyone can have a go – but rapids have minds of their own. I paddle under the recently restored Chain Bridge that has spanned the river since 1817. I whoop successfully through the surf while glimpsing views up to the rolling hills, but I come a cropper again as we near Llangollen and a particularly gnarly swell jettisons me with gusto. I swim-laugh to the calm pool at the river’s edge, where Antony hauls me in, typically upbeat: “Perfect! What a leap! We needed to get off here anyway...”
There’s arguably no way to get closer to the Dee than by bodyboating, your face mere inches from its eddies. However, this is far from the only way to get active in and around the valley. You can also raft, kayak, canoe or stand-up paddle. You can stroll, hike, cycle, hop on a horse-drawn barge, board the steam locos of the Llangollen Railway, or combine all of the above, perhaps cycling one way to the vertiginous Pontcysyllte Aquaduct, then taking a boat back. In fact, there’s no need for a car. Take a train to Chirk or Ruabon (about 2.5 hours from London, via Chester), then a quick bus to Llangollen, and a week-full of walking trails, heritage rails and waterways are yours for the taking.
If you take the steam train along the valley to Glyndyfrdwy Station, you can disembark for something a little more sedate. Ant and Leanne, owners of Stand-Up Paddle Board UK, also offer archery in a meadow by the Dee. Wearing a Robin Hood hat is mandatory, Leanne insists, as she teaches me to ping arrows into the target. My first one disappears into the grass, but I blame my incompetency on the distracting views: glorious green folds brushed russet with winter bracken, all dotted with fluffy sheep.
The Dee gurgles as I draw back my bow once more – an action that feels quite natural in this ancient borderland, where many such shots would have been fired between warring Saxons and Celts. Indeed, Offa’s Dyke Path National Trail, which follows the eighth-century earthwork that once divided England and Wales, runs the entire length of the Clwydian Range and Dee Valley AONB.
Later I follow a tiny section of the historic footpath,where it skirts past Llangollen, to walk up onto the Trevor Rocks escarpment. The views – to the Berwyn Mountains and deeper into the Dee Valley – are striking, enhanced by a biblical sky, shafts of sunlight bursting through cloud like a message from the gods.
Dominating my view is the snaggle-toothed hilltop ruin of Dinas Brân castle, built in the thirteenth century by a local Welsh prince on the site of a prehistoric fort. Some claim it’s also home to the legendary cup of Christ. Maybe, maybe not but, whether it is true or not, scores of adventurers regard the Dee Valley as something of a Holy Grail.