Martin Sweeney takes us on a journey down the adventure-filled Wye Valley, home to some of the country’s best hiking, biking, climbing, caving and of course, paddling
Here it us. A place in Britain that finds space for almost any adventure you can think of. Whether you fancy a lazy day on the river, exploring underground, scaling dramatic cliff =faces or whipping along rugged mountain bike trails, the Wye Valley has something to offer every adventurer.
Lancaut Peninsula from the Eagle’s Nest | Martin Sweeney
The fifth longest river in the UK has spent over 10,000 years winding through the Anglo-Welsh borderlands, carving out deep gorges, caves and caverns and long, lazy meanders along its 215km length. The end result is a picturesque adventure hotspot, dotted with the marks of human influence from Iron Age hill forts to great Norman castles, abbeys and cathedrals.
The Wye starts as a trickle high in the Cambrian Mountains at Plynlimon, only two miles from where the Severn rises. Our adventure journey begins further downstream at Hay-on-Wye, on the north-eastern fringe of the Brecon Beacons National Park.
Hay-on-Wye and the Black Mountains
Famous for its annual literary festival and what can seem like more bookshops than inhabitants, Hay, nestled on the northern edge of the Black Mountains, is equally blessed as a top location for outdoor activities..
The sharp-edged ‘Cat’s Back’ ridge is a fun way to approach the tops of the Black Mountains, offering glorious views across the border into Herefordshire and as far east as the Malvern Hills, some 30 miles away as the crow flies. A long day’s walk would take you from the Cat’s Back down the nose of Hay Bluff – a popular spot for hang-gliders – and up onto the next peak, Twmpa, or Lord Hereford’s Knob to give it it’s English (and more amusing) name.
The Black Mountains
| Martin Sweeney
The hills here are accessible to anyone with a good general level of health and fitness, but navigation can be difficult in the low cloud and thick fog that sometimes shroud the hills. Thorough planning and preparation are advisable – walkers should always take a map and compass and be competent in using both.
If two-wheeled adventures are your thing, there are few better places to explore than the Black Mountains. For road cyclists, the Gospel Pass, a few miles south of Hay, is the highest tarmac road in Wales and winds through stunning mountain scenery towards the atmospheric ruins of Llanthony Priory.
Trail rides up and along Hay Bluff and the Hatterall Ridge will give you a loftier perspective on the area and also offer a few spicy descent routes for the more adventurous!
Hay-on-Wye is the gateway to the Black Mountains and its many, many hikes | Martin Sweeney
Ross-on-Wye and Monmouth
Ross and Monmouth are bustling gateway towns to the Wye Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, with deep historical roots. Monmouth lays claim to fame as the birthplace of Henry V and has been an important border town for generations. Eighteenth century sightseeing trips departed from Ross, taking in river journeys and visits to picturesque locations, giving the town the label of birthplace of the British tourist industry.
The stretch of river between these two border towns, only 10 miles apart, is famous as one of the finest canoe touring trips in the country. Numerous journeys can be undertaken, from half-day to multi-day trips, camping overnight or staying in one of the many riverside pubs and hotels en route.
The Wye is a paddler’s paradise | Laura McCartney
A few hours’ paddling from Ross, the steep-sided cliffs of the Wye Gorge rear up from the riverbanks, evidence of thousands of years of erosion, resulting in the dramatic limestone gorge we see today. Peregrine falcons patrol the sky here, screeching and swooping to catch their prey in midair whilst graceful grey herons glide languorously just above the water, hunting for salmon and trout. Down at river level you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of an otter hunting in the flow.
The famous Symonds Yat rapids, set in the middle of the gorge, provide the highlight of the journey: a swift and bouncy rush downstream when the river levels are right.
High above Symonds Yat rapids are several small cave systems, well used by local outdoor centres and providing an ideal introduction to underground adventures for beginners. For the more experienced caver, there are endless possibilities for exploration in countless extensive caves and disused mines further downstream and throughout the Forest of Dean on the eastern side of the river.
Situated at the mouth of the Wye, Chepstow was once the pre-eminent port in Wales. Today it sits at the heart of its own mini adventure playground, perfectly located for any number of outdoor pursuits.
Climbing at Symonds Yat | Alec Roberts
With more than 10 crags and around 1,700 named climbing routes, the Wye Valley between Ross and Chepstow is one of the most important climbing areas in southern Britain. The series of limestone cliffs at Wintour’s Leap, just across the river from Chepstow, are the pick of the valley for the sheer variety of routes, outstanding views and good solid rock on much of the crag. Wintour’s Leap is peppered with classic routes graded from Difficult (suitable for many novices) to E6, among the hardest climbs in the country.
Chepstow sits at a junction between three fantastic long distance walking trails – Offa’s Dyke Path, the Wye Valley Walk and the Wales Coast Path – with good hiking guaranteed.
A thoroughly enjoyable summer’s day out links the Wye Valley Way with Offa’s Dyke path in a circuit passing through the pretty village of Tintern. High vantage points abound on a walk taking in the hills and cliffs either side of the river. Highlights include the Devil’s Pulpit, looking down on the ruins of Tintern Abbey and the Eagle’s Nest, a glorious viewpoint taking in Chepstow Castle and the Severn Bridge stretching across the waters of the Severn Estuary.
A hike with a view in the lower Wye Valley |Laura McCartney
A jaunt deeper into the Forest of Dean will bring you to apparently enchanted woodlands filled with gnarled oak and chestnut trees and a beautiful blend of forest floor flowers and fungi. Head into the forest in the early morning or late evening and you may be lucky enough to encounter one of the more charismatic local residents, wild boar. Boar were hunted to extinction in the forest centuries ago but have made a determined comeback over the past 30 years after a number escaped from local farms and began to repopulate the woods.
A visit to the caves around Chepstow is a must for experienced underground enthusiasts. Careful conservation of the caves in the area means that access to many of the larger caves must be arranged through one of the local caving clubs, but the rewards are worth it.
Otter Hole, lying deep beneath Chepstow Racecourse, is one of the most spectacular caves in the country. Incredible natural formations decorate its caverns and passageways. Accessible only at certain times of day due to the tides, the cave attracts only the hardiest of spelunkers.
Llanthony Abbey | Martin Sweeney
Miss Grace’s Lane cave, a short distance away, is a bewildering labyrinth of boulder-filled passageways and caverns, leading on to narrow subterranean alleyways and nerve-wracking traverses along deep rifts. Giant shards of white gypsum crystals erupt from the walls in some of the chambers, adding an impressive layer of beauty to the cave.
- The walking routes in the area are found on Ordnance Survey maps (OS) OL13, OL14 and Explorer map 189. For tips and suggestions on routes in the area take a look at wyevalleyaonb.org.uk
- If you’d prefer to take a guided walk in the area or need to brush up on your map-reading skills, check out Borderlands Outdoor and Adventures with Will
- For hints and tips on the best routes in and around the Black Mountains, have a word with the guys at Drover Cycles in Hay-on-Wye. They also do bike hire.
- For the independent paddler paddlepoints.net provides helpful information on suitable launch points and descriptions of the various sections along the river. If you want to hire a boat or take a guided trip you can’t do better than Monmouth Canoe Hire, the longest established canoe hire company on the river:
- For an introduction to caving, the friendly instructors at Viney Hill Adventure Centre will give you a great day out. If you’re a more experienced caver, try to link up with one of the local clubs to explore a little deeper:
- The Symonds Yat and Lower Wye Valley rock climbing guidebooks point the experienced climber in the right direction. If you’d like an introductory session on rock climbing, try borderlandsoutdoor.com or guidedmountain.co.uk
Taken from issue 142 of Outdoor Adventure Guide. Order it here