The pleasures of southern Wales
"Do you need directions?" an elderly woman asked from the porch of her flower-dappled cottage.
We had been standing on a street corner in her village really just a cluster of several houses and a pub beside the Wye River in Wales for no more than five minutes. But our map wasn't helping and we couldn't decide whether we should take the grassy footpath or head into the labyrinthine country lanes that led up the hill.
Almost as soon as we began telling the woman that we hoped to hike to the next village, she cut in and, with a melodious country accent, offered to drive us instead. Several minutes and a brief conversation with a neighboring farmer later, we tumbled into the car and set out through the countryside.
Our new friend introduced herself as Claire. As she zipped through the narrow lanes lined with verdant hedgerows and explosions of wildflowers, she gave us a primer on life along the English-Welsh border: According to ancient law, sheep have the right of way, pubs are getting worse due to big chains and she added matter-of-factly the hostel we planned to stay in was haunted.
Southern Wales near the English border sometimes gets overlooked in American travel books, which often focus on the ostensibly quainter Cotswolds or wilder northern Wales.
But the region is sprinkled with charming villages, crumbling castles and warm people like Claire who make it a delight and an adventure. It's a sleeper hit, and the reduced attention means fewer crowds and lower prices for travelers willing to do just a bit more work to get there.
Chepstow • I spent my first night in Wales in Chepstow, a town of about 10,000 that feels much smaller. Walking down the town's main residential street, I gazed up at brick-and-timber homes that had acquired an irregular geometry under the weight of centuries. Many of these ancient little homes also take in travelers, and after knocking at a few doors including a tavern that looked like it was scooped right out of Lord of the Rings I finally met Glyn and Jan. Glyn immediately welcomed me and my companions into his house and escorted us to the back porch, which was just feet from the walls of an ancient ruin. Then, as we relaxed and watched the clouds race over the crumbling stone bulwarks, he and Jan ran next door to borrow a futon to accommodate our group of three travelers.
Listening to Glyn talk about Welsh, his native tongue and a gradually shrinking language, the next morning while he fried sausages and eggs would have made the trip to Chepstow worth it by itself.
But the town also boasts an impressive castle, perched on cliffs above the Wye River. The castle is one of the oldest in the UK and dates back to the mid-1000s, the time of William the Conqueror. Various rulers continued updating the castle through the 1300s, but by the late 1600s it fell out of use.
For a small fee, tourists can now pace the ramparts and lie in the grassy courtyards. And because it's a smaller castle off the beaten path, the crowds that flood more famous sites evaporate into silence, pierced only by the calls of seagulls plying the updrafts. The ancient stones drip with water, are soft with moss and smell sweetly of rain and clover.
Hiking in the Wye Valley • Chepstow has a tiny, free museum and a handful of good pubs, but beyond the castle and the people, the main attraction is hiking the photogenic Wye River valley. The area was once a major mining and shipbuilding center, but today is a patchwork of woods and sheep fields strung along the banks of the river, which changes dramatically with the tides.
I set out from Chepstow on the first leg of a 12-mile loop that never took me far from the Wye's gurgling water and muddy banks. The stretch of trail marked by signs for the Wye Valley Walk led steeply up into the hills and through woods thick enough to block out the misting rain. When the rain became heavier, I remembered the Welsh saying Glyn had told me earlier that morning: There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.
I apparently had bad clothing and ended up drenched to the bone, but I quickly dried out when the woods gave way to sunny sheep pastures bisected by public footpaths. Along the way I explored the ruined estate of Valentine Morris, an 18th-century noble who went bankrupt, and had more than a few encounters with curious sheep. The entire hike is free, and the only other people I saw were locals out for day hikes.
Tintern Abbey • The high point of any trip to the Wye River area is a visit to Tintern Abbey, which marks the halfway point on the loop from Chepstow. Most people drive to Tintern or take public buses. It's a serviceable option but one that deprives visitors the pleasure of gradually emerging from the woods and beholding the ruined abbey for the first time.
Tintern Abbey sits nestled in a clearing along the river and surrounded by undulating forests. It was founded in 1131 by the Cistercian order of monks.
But the history of the sight is almost secondary; by the late 1700s the abbey was already a ruin and a favorite spot of romantics like William Wordsworth, who were inspired by its pastoral setting and delicate stone skeleton.
Today, it still offers an opportunity for reflection, meditation or soul-searching. In "Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey," Wordsworth describes "the quiet of the sky" and "pastoral farms/Green to the very door."
Aside from the tourist information office and more manicured landscaping, the scene now isn't all that different from Wordsworth's day. Ferns grow out of the old stone walls and I'm not making this up doves flutter around the old Gothic arches. In the pane-less windows, the sky is so blue it looks surreal, like something from a Magritte painting. Without a roof, the wind-weathered pillars soar not toward a simulated celestial scene as in other churches, but to the heavens themselves.
Getting back • The easiest way to see Tintern and the surrounding countryside is to simply do the loop as a long, one-day hike from Chepstow. Tintern also has a handful of B&Bs just down the road from the abbey, so slower or more contemplative hikers willing to carry their backpacks could do it as a two-day trip. But either way, trains leave regularly from London, making it surprisingly accessible.
When faced with the choice myself, I continued northward by foot and it's worth plugging that option as well; if you're like me, your thirst for more of the area won't be sated after a single day.
Moreover, while hiking and improvising transportation isn't for everyone, winging it and heading north proved to be among the most rewarding parts of the journey.
First, following the Wye and crossing back into England, my companions and I hiked through endless fields of wildflowers, over streams that sang to ancient poets, and into villages where the houses have names but no numbers.
Finally, when our feet were weary and shoulders sore from our packs, we met Claire, who whisked us off to St. Briavels Youth Hostel, which is in an ancient Norman castle 5 or 6 miles the distance depends on the route from Tintern. Once we arrived at the hostel, we had the entire floor of an old stone tower all to ourselves.
There are few actual sites in St. Briavels other than the mossy trees and quaint lanes, but after checking into the hostel, we spent time in a drafty old country church, half of which predates the invention of the Gothic arch.
The next morning we hiked several more miles through the countryside and asked almost everyone we saw for directions to the nearest town with a train station. Finally, with about two miles left to go, we hitched a ride with elderly Norm and Betty, who dropped us off at the station but not before letting us know we had a place to stop in for tea the next time we visited.
If you go
How to get there • Trains leave London's Paddington Station hourly most days. Ask for help at any information kiosk. Reaching Chepstow typically requires a transfer at Newport. Free maps in Chepstow indicate the path to Tintern Abbey.
Where to stay • Visit http://www.chepstow.comuf.com to stay with Glyn and Jan, or simply knock at any of the towns other charming B&Bs and taverns.
Where to eat • The Boat, a locally run pub near the river.
More info • Get maps, advice and local news at the tourist information center, just across the street from the Chepstow castle.