As part of our celebration of the Wye Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Abi Whyte walks her favourite stretch and finds industrial relics, Cistercian ruins and a view that inspired one of our greatest poets.
Whenever I think of the Wye Valley, I think of lush forested hills, carpets of bluebells and wild garlic and, of course, that meandering river winding through sleepy villages and historic market towns. I don’t often think of its industrial past but indeed there was a time, from the 16th to 19th century, that the Wye Valley was one of the most important industrial hubs in the UK. Surprisingly, amid the churn of waterwheels, the hammering of iron and the roaring of furnaces, wandered visitors drawn by its natural beauty. The ‘Wye Tour’ from Ross-on-Wye to Chepstow became fashionable and so it was that this area can be considered as the birthplace of British tourism. Day trippers, artists, writers and poets have all drawn life-affirming inspiration from the Wye Valley’s natural beauty, picturesque topography and romantic ruins.
Today, the bulk of the industry has gone but the extraordinary beauty remains and I was here to see it in all its splendour on my mini pilgrimage from Monmouth to Tintern Abbey, the oldest Cistercian abbey in Wales. This 10-mile walk follows part of the Wye Valley Walk, a 136-mile route from Chepstow near where the Wye joins the Severn to the river's source on Plynlimon (also the source of the Severn).
I set off from Monmouth on a cold winter morning, the river high and running rapidly after a deluge upstream the day before. Across the river I could see the enormous Monmouth viaduct, a relic of the Wye Valley Railway that closed in 1959. I soon came across another railway remnant in Redbrook; an old iron bridge that I crossed over to Penallt and its very inviting looking Boat Inn. But it was early in the morning and the pub wasn’t open yet so I moved on, following the river past trees dripping with lichen and moss. I soon came to Whitebrook, a hamlet once famed for its wireworks and paper mills that produced banknotes and wallpaper.
Today Whitebrook is best known for its Michelin-starred restaurant owned by head chef Chris Harrod. Chris is all too aware of the edible bounty the Wye Valley has to offer, and is often out with his foraging basket gathering yarrow, fennel and chanterelles to wow his diners. For his lunchtime menu at The Whitebrook he'd even managed to find the sort of things you'd expect to gather along the seashore, such as rock samphire and scurvy grass, which he'd picked along the Wye's estuary. "I'm literally putting the Wye Valley on a plate - it's a constant source of inspiration," he told me, feeding me with pheasant and pumpkin canapes before it was time for me to head off again.
The Wye Valley Walk took me away from the river and up into the steep forested hills onto the Duchess Ride, so named for being the Duchess of Beaufort's favourite ride in her carriage. Along the ride are perfectly situated benches offering views out over the Wye on its way to Chepstow. I could even make out the white towers of the Severn Bridge in the distance. I imagined trows (flat-bottomed boats specifically built for the Wye and Severn) laden with copper, wire, wallpaper and limestone, making their slow way down river heading to the Welsh Back docks in Bristol and out into the world of the early British Empire.
After a rest and a flask of tea, I came to Cleddon Falls, cascading high above the village of Llandogo. Nearby are the Bread and Cheese Stones, a famous viewpoint supposedly where William Wordsworth in 1798 sat and wrote the poem Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey in 1798.
From then on it was downhill through dense forest, past moss-covered stone walls and snowdrops, until I came to the Tintern Old Station across the A466. This rather special place is a perfect example of what to do with a derelict railway station – simply turn it into an award-winning tearoom and picnic area, complete with a signal box art gallery and revamped railway carriages housing a visitor information area and a shop. The site even has its own Circle of Legends carved wooden statues depicting local, historical and mythical Welsh figures.
I was back at the river's edge and so close to Tintern I could almost smell a joint of Welsh lamb roasting in one its pubs. Or was I imagining it? My pace quickened as I followed the last bend of the river into this beautiful village with a restored working watermill and historic quayside. There can be no doubt that the Abbey is the star of the show; I've gazed up at the haunting ruin so many times, but somehow walking 10 miles to see it made the experience more memorable.
After a Sunday roast at The Rose & Crown and a quick stop at Parva Farm Vineyard to buy a bottle of Welsh mead, it was time to unlace the muddy walking boots and dry out my waterproofs in front of a fire – in my very own log cabin at Kingstone Brewery on the edge of Tintern. As well as being a very talented micro-brewer (trust me, I've tried his ale), Ed Biggs also owns and runs a glamping village of shepherd's huts, cabins and bell tents on his meadow.
Legs tired, belly full and a glass of local mead quaffed, it's safe to say I slept pretty well that night in my little wooden cabin, with the Wye river murmuring close by.