South Wales may be most famous for its chirpy and hearty capital Cardiff, yet beyond the bright lights and bubbling ambience lie a litany of charming towns and villages. Sweeping the country’s southern stretch, the South East and South West regions of Wales have plenty to keep the bright-eyed wanderer curious.
Whether it’s gazing at murmuring blue waters, absorbing the haunting aura of ruins and churches or immersing yourself in illustrious literary settings – the warm-hearted and charismatic spirit of southern Wales lingers in the soul like an unfinished sonnet. Here are ten towns and villages that do just that.
Set amidst the spectacular backdrop of the Brecon Beacons, the town of Brecon conjures an atmospheric timelessness. Quaint cobbled streets showcase Georgian and Jacobean houses and shopfronts, as well as an 11th-century cathedral replete with an exquisite Celtic font. The town occupies the fortunate position of residing on a convergence of the rivers Usk and Honddu – making for pleasant riverside strolls. With a thriving creative community scattered throughout the Breconshire region, there are plenty of shopping opportunities for unique hand-crafted gifts – the Welsh ‘lovespoon’ taking pole position – and for local produce such as mine-matured cheeses and mountain-bred lamb. Lauded for its gateway to the Brecon Beacons National Park and its venerated Brecon Jazz festival which lures a bonanza of big-league musical guests – Brecon puts the magic in the organic.
‘For every brick a book’, would be an apt aphorism to bestow upon Hay-on-Wye. Since opening its first second-hand bookstore in 1961, the written word has flooded the town’s buildings from its old cinema to its 17th-century castle; making it the world’s second-hand book capital. In tandem with this is the town’s globally-renowned Hay Festival (a 10-day fiesta of literature and culture) where the world’s literary pilgrims congregate en masse. Such is the festival’s compelling and thought-evolving stature, that former U.S. president Bill Clinton was moved to correctly observe Hay as ‘the Woodstock of the mind’. Continuing this erudite alternative spirit, meandering lanes lead down to the town centre’s quirky shops and cafes, where just in case your book fix is incomplete, book shelves line the castle’s outer walls. A bibliophile’s dream.
Just shy of the Anglo-Welsh border, Tintern’s village community emanates from the riverbanks of the misty Wye Valley. The beguiling monastic remains of Tintern Abbey have fuelled many a romantic poet’s inspiration. Its atmospheric riverside location and magnificent Gothic arches have been the setting for yarns and verses such as Wordsworth’s Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey and Tennyson’s Tears, Idle Tears. Founded in 1131 by the Cisterian monks from Normandy, then dissolved during the reign of Henry VIII, it has since gradually morphed into elegant ruin. In the surrounding village, arty-crafty shops and cosy inns with crackling log fires and home-cooked fare abound. With easy-winding rivers to mosey along and enchanting woodlands to amble through – Tintern stirs the senses.
Snuggled between the Blorenge, Ysgyryd Fawr and Sugar Loaf mountains, the breezy and bustling market town of Abergavenny makes for an ideal base to put down roots while roving its smooth and undulating hills. In recent years, the town has become an essential fixture on the UK culinary calendar. Its annual Abergavenny Food Festival in September is sending gastro-experts into salivatory orbit. Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall, Jamie Oliver and Monica Galetti are just a few starry guests to have graced its masterclasses and topical debates. And its weekly markets summon fanatical foodies far and wide.
In his last four years, world-famous Welsh poet Dylan Thomas called Laugharne home. He also called it ‘the strangest town in Wales’. The town and its inhabitants became the creative impetus for some of Thomas’ most spellbinding storytelling – most notably his epic radio play Under Milk Wood. Overlooking the Tâf Estuary, the fabled Boathouse is where the bohemian poet’s words travelled from imagination to paper. Now a museum and gallery, its café serves tea & Welsh cakes, and Welsh rarebit (spicy cheese and beer sauce melted on toasted bread). Brown’s Hotel was Thomas’ favoured watering hole – so frequent and lengthy were his and wife Caitlin’s visits, that they gave out the pub’s phone number as their own. It’s also worth paying a visit to 13th-century Laugharne Castle, and to Corran Books, which is a shrine to the bardic legend and his enduring legacy.
The historic market town of Cowbridge rightly deserves its reputation as having ‘a touch of class’. High Street – the town’s main artery – is lined with all manner of chic fashion boutiques, aromatic delis and vintage furniture shops. And it never fails to excite the taste buds, offering a cornucopia of tantalising options from sophisto-bistros to slick canteens, buzzy tapas bars to charming pubs. For the more artistically inclined, hidden gems like the Old Wool Barn – an arts and crafts grotto – in Verity Court should satisfy any creative curiosities. At the epicentre of Cowbridge lie the much visited Physic Gardens. Once a part of the Old Hall (which is next door), its tranquil setting contains a glowing variety of medicinal herbs and plants that were originally used for healing, cooking and fabric-dying.
Heralded by the Sunday Times as the best place to live in Wales 2018, the Mumbles – a seaside retreat west of Swansea – has become a beacon of cosy and cool. A plethora of bars and restaurants straddle the promenade and promise ‘fresh-off-the-boat’ seafood and ‘world-class ice-cream’. Local icons Bonnie Tyler and Catherine Zeta Jones are sometimes spotted here chowing down in style. Shopping? Mumbles has numerous swanky boutiques, and an art gallery with rotating installations from local artists. The town’s location on the Gower peninsula coastline is perfect for a lazy sunny-day stroll along its Victorian pier, or clambering up the hilltop to Oystermouth Castle to savour the vast blue expanse of Swansea Bay.
With a population of just under 1,800 you could be forgiven for thinking that St. Davids is a village or a town. Yet owing to its bewitching 12th-century cathedral, it has the status of Britain’s smallest city. Given its size, it attracts an astonishing number of tourists who come to soak-up the mystical atmosphere of the birth and burial place of Wales’ patron saint. Anchored on the western tip of the Pembrokeshire coastline, the city is ideally located for activities like surfing, dolphin and porpoise spotting, and for superb walks along its wild and unspoilt coastal paths.
Tenby’s scenic beaches and fishing-village atmosphere are hard to beat. Unlike other famous British seaside towns, this jewel on the southwest coast of Wales successfully sidesteps tacky pastiche. Cliff-top, pastel-hued Georgian houses overlook its harbour. Large strips of velvet-sand beaches flank its headland, and a labyrinth of cobbled medieval streets host an abundance of traditional pubs, funky knick-knack shops and Italo-Welsh ice-cream parlours. Tenby’s Welsh name ‘Dinbych-y-Pysgod’ translates as ‘little fortress of the fish’, so no trip would be complete without a spot of sea fishing. For lovers of tranquillity and nature, a boat trip to nearby Caldey Island is sacrosanct – a prime place to let thoughts run free on the horizon and watch sea birds float on the breeze.
Located on the outskirts of Cardiff in the grounds of St. Fagans Castle, St. Fagans National History Museum is an intriguing trawl through Wales’ rich and storied past. Spanning 100 acres (equivalent to 100 football pitches), visitors can explore more than 40 Welsh historic buildings. Brick-by-brick, original buildings the length and breadth of Wales have been deconstructed, then reconstructed on-site transforming St. Fagans into ‘a living museum’. Ranging from a water mill, an 18th-century chapel, a Victorian country school, and Iron Age roundhouses in a Celtic village, the spirit of yesteryear is omnipresent. Likewise, the General Store comprising an ironmongers and grocers sells period-appropriate merchandise – ensuring the museum ‘lives and breathes the culture, history and identity of Wales’.