Bristol and South East Wales

Bristol and South East Wales

This enriching and engaging itinerary combines a visit to the historic port of Bristol with a tour of some of the best scenery the country of Wales has to offer. Drive through mountain landscapes, deep wooded valleys, visit castles and ruined abbeys, delightful market towns, some of the best preserved Roman remains outside of Italy and spend some time in vibrant and energetic Cardiff, the capital city of Wales.

The M4 motorway provides a direct east-west link from places like London and Heathrow Airport to Bristol. A connecting motorway, the M32 takes you right into the heart of the city. Bristol today is a modern city of half a million inhabitants but its historic centre is the harbour area. Its origins as a port date from the 11th century, and the prosperity derived from its seaport status made Bristol the third biggest city in England by the 14th century, the explorer John Cabot sailed to the Americas from here in 1497, and the wealth of Bristol, seen as controversial today, arose partly through the slave trade. But it was after the discovery of America and the fact that Bristol faces west that the city prospered greatly. Shipbuilding was also a major employer. Its decline was in part due to the abolition of the slave trade and in part due to the narrow River Avon estuary being unsuitable for the newer larger ships. The modern port of Bristol now lies further up the estuary.

 Park in the Millennium Square car park and use the ferry to take you around to the museums, cafes and shops. The little boats zip to and fro and are used by tourists and locals alike. One 'must see' attraction is the SS Great Britain, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and launched in 1843, the longest passenger ship in the world at the time. Built of iron, it made the voyage to New York in 14 days. Financially this transatlantic service was unsuccessful and after the ship ran aground off the coast of Ireland the additional costs of refloating her meant an entire restructuring of operations was needed. In the end, after a refit, passenger capacity was increased, sails were added and the Great Britain spent the rest of her working life taking emmigrants to Australia.  Left for scrap in the Falkland Islands in the 1930s it was towed back to Bristol to be restored in 1970. The Arnolfini Art Gallery, which opened in 1961, is another ferry bus stop housed in an old tea warehouse and now filled with modern art.

Away from the harbour you can take a short walking tour of the town. Begin at the Arnolfini Gallery and walk up Royal Oak Avenue into Queen Square, built around 1700 for the shipping merchants of Bristol and named after the monarch at the time, Queen Anne, it has a pleasant grassed area in the middle. Walk north along Queen Charlotte Street and take a right on Baldwin Street to St Nicholas Church. The original church here was demolished to make way for the new Bristol Bridge over the Avon in 1768 and the new church dates from the same time as the bridge. During the Bristol Blitz in the Second World War this church sufferered serious damage and was largely restored in 1975. What is remarkable is the painting inside, a very rare religious work by the engraver and satirist William Hogarth. 'The Sealing of the Tomb' is a triptych dating from 1755. From here a brief walk up the High Street will take you to St Nicholas Market which opened up in 1743, a pleasant collection of independent retailers under one roof. A great place to stop for a snack.

The Corn Street exit will take you out into a pedestrianised street with the impressive Corn Exchange designed by John Wood the Elder in 1741. Wood was responsible for many of the elegant buildings in Bath and this neo-classsical style building was used as a general trade exchange but is now used by Bristol council as offices. The clock on the front of the building is noteworthy showing both Greenwich Mean Time and local Bristol time!

Turn left up Broad Street towards a section of the old city walls. On your right hand side is the colourful art deco building known as the former Edward Everard Printing Works which operated here from 1900 to 1967. The mural on the front features Johannes Gutenburg and William Morris. Just ahead is an arched gateway along the lines of the old city walls. This is the St John's Gate with the section of wall here and the church dating from 1120. From here turn left down Quay Street towards a large tree lined boulevard known as the Centre. Just before the harbour turn right on College Green to get acccess to Bristol Cathedral.

The city's cathedral started life as an Augustinian abbey founded in 1148, the 12th century Chapter House and 13th century Lady Chapel still remain but the religious community and abbey were dispersed and dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539 and a new cathedral dedicated to the Holy and Undivided Trinity established in 1542. The most recent part of the new cathedral is the impressive west front in the Gothic style added in 1888. Although it is a short walk from here back to the Millenium Square car park you might wish to walk up Brandon Hill just  north of the cathedral and climb Cabot Tower. This viewpoint was built in 1897 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of John Cabot's sailing to North America. The tower stands 105 ft (32m) on top of the hill which will elevate you 334 ft (102m) above sea level. 109 steps will take you to the top.

From Millennium Square take the B4466 Jacob's Wells Road northwards, turning left on the B3129 on Constitution Hill, keep on this road up the hill until you see the spire of Christ Church appearing on your right, you will bear left here at the roundabout, still on the B3129, following the brown sign for Clifton Suspension Bridge. The district of Clifton is an attractive part of the city with 18th century Georgian terraces and squares. The most famous structure, though, is the bridge over the Avon Gorge. Taking over thirty years to build and opening in 1864 the initial designs by Isambard Kingdom Brunel were improved after his death by William Henry Barlow and John Hawkshaw. Take a drive over the Clifton Suspension Bridge, 75 metres (250 feet) over the River Avon, continue on the B3129 and take a right on the A369 towards Portway and the present location of Bristol's docks. Join the M5 and head northwards. You are now on your way to Wales.

You will be crossing the estuary of the River Severn along the old Severn suspension bridge so keep on the M5 to Junction 16 then head west on the M4 towards Wales but branch off a couple of miles later on the M48 towards Chepstow. The two bridges run side by side, the new one to your left built in 1996 and the one you will drive across being opened in 1965 replacing the old Aust Ferry, the loading jetties of which can sometimes be glimpsed below. This body of water, the Severn Estuary, has the highest tidal range anywhere in the world outside of Canada.

Upon crossing the Severn and then the estuary of the River Wye you will arrive in Wales, a country of just over 3 million people with a language which is Celtic, of Brythonic origin. Signposts are now in both languages and you will soon see the road sign displaying the words Croeso I Gymru (Welcome to Wales). Take the A466 then right on the A48 into Chepstow (Welsh name : Cas-gwent, meaning the port of Gwent) and head over to the Castle Dell car park in the shadow of Chepstow Castle. Here you will find the Tourist Information Centre and the castle entrance. One of the oldest stone fortresses in Britain, it was constructed by William FitzOsbern in 1067 as part of the Norman conquest of Wales. The castle stands on limestone cliffs overlooking the River Wye and the main part of the town with shops and cafes is located a little higher above.

Leave Chepstow on the A466 past the racecourse and along the beautiful valley road to the romantic ruins of Tintern Abbey, this area was set to poetry by Wordsworth and the ruins of the Abbey painted by Turner. Founded in 1131 Tintern was the richest Abbey in Wales at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII in the 1530s. Its Cistercian community scattered, its buildings abandoned, it leaves a lasting impression of sorrow and decaying beauty to any visitor here.

Continue up the scenic valley road on the A66. You will pass briefly back into England as the River Wye forms the border here and you will cross it several times along this bucolic and serene country journey. A pleasant place to stop will be the village of Redbrook on the English side of the river, you can then cross over the old railway viaduct into Penallt in Wales to visit the Boat Inn pub, a traditional old hostelry complete with a waterfall in the garden.

Now leave the Wye valley behind you and drive up to Berry Hill on Scowles Road and briefly join the A4136 by turning right, heading east, then turn left at the junction (signposted for Symonds Yat and English Bicknor). A short drive down a country lane will take you to the parking area on your left. From here it is a short walk to the rock itself. A former Iron Age hill fort, the earthworks date from 500 BC, the rock here at Symonds Yat is now one of Britain's best loved and most dramatic viewpoints. Stand up on 500ft high cliffs and look down on the meandering River Wye. A breathtaking vista.

Re-enter Wales by returning back to Monmouth. This town has a Welsh name Trefynwy which means mouth of the River Monnow. The historic Monnow Bridge, built in the 13th century, is a great photo opportunity. There is a delightful town square and a castle, although very little of it remains and most of it forms part of a regimental museum. Henry V was born here in 1386.

You will now travel deeper into the heart of South East Wales by leaving Monmouth on the B4233 Rockfield Road past the Rolls of Monmouth golf course and estate. This name derives from the Rolls family whose lands you will be passing through. The most famous member of this family was Charles Rolls who formed a motor car building partnership with Henry Royce. This country route through lush green farmland and cattle grazing at pasture will take you to the charming Welsh town of Abergavenny with its castle and 16th Tithe Barn. Both buildings are worth a look. If you park in the town car park by the River Gavenny and bus station it's a short walk to the old barn and St Mary's Priory and in the other direction, up the hill to the castle with its museum and views.

From here its time to head up into the mountains by taking the A40 road towards Crickhowell and, after driving through the town, there will be a righthand turning about a mile further on, this will put you on the A479 over the scenic mountain pass towards Talgarth. There are spectacular views on either side as you climb up through the Brecon Beacons into wild moorland and rocky terrain. Once you've negotiated the bendy road down the hillside into Talgarth take a right turn onto the A4078, then just a few miles further on a right onto the A438 eastbound then at Glasbury join the B4350 to Hay-on-Wye, the world famous "town of books".

The pretty town of Hay-on-Wye lies on a stone bluff just south of the River Wye and as you walk around its narrow streets and alleys you will come across bookshop after bookshop. Over thirty of these stores can be found throughout the village. So popular is this "town of books" that there is a very large parking area, signposted as soon as you enter the town, a very informative tourist information centre and plenty of cosy tea rooms and pubs. The first second-hand bookshop opened here in 1962 and now Hay boasts a huge literary festival every year attracting nearly a million visitors. It is a great place to browse, even the old castle has its collection of previously owned novels and magazines on sale. That familiar musty smell of old books fills the air as you stroll around.

From Hay retrace your steps back to Glasbury but this time continue on the A438 towards the town of Brecon, bearing onto the A470 to reach the town. Like Abergavenny and Hay, Brecon is a market town with a square and a collection of 18th century buildings. It gives its name to the mountain range it sits beside, the Brecon Beacons. For most of this journey you have been in the Brecon Beacons National Park, created in 1957, with an area of 519 square miles (1,344 square km) but now you will head over a mountain pass of sandstone uplands that truly are the Brecon Beacons themselves. This range of hills gives the entire National Park its name. It is a contrasting drive as the A468 road takes you over wild moorland and rugged peaks down to the old Welsh valleys were the industry for centuries was coal mining. Its all gone now, pits were closed in the 1970s and 1980s, the last deep coal mine in Wales finished in 2008. The town of Merthyr Tydfil epitomises this and it sometimes difficult to see where the industry was as land has been reclaimed, landscaped or built over. You will continue along the A468, the newer more direct road replacing the one that went through the old pit towns, turning left for the B4263 to the town of Caerphilly and its impressive castle.

Caerphilly Castle was built by Gilbert de Clare from 1268 to put his stamp of authority on the conquered lands and the peoples of Glamorgan. It occupies a 30 acre site with a huge defensive moat and is the second largest castle in Britain. Ruined by the 17th century a lot of its fortifications still stand, although one tower looks like it is about to topple. Certainly worth a good look around then find a local cafe or delicatessen and try the famous Caerphilly cheese. After a break here it is time to leave southwards on the A469 then the A470 into Cardiff, the capital of Wales.

Cardiff boasts the National Museum of Wales, Bute Park and Cardiff Castle but with a city of 335,000 people it can be a bit overwhelming. It can be more rewarding to skip the busy centre and travel down to Cardiff Bay which has a multitude of interesting sites. The 500 acre (2 square km) lagoon stretches out to the ocean and there is plenty of maritime history here. Boat cruises take you out to the headland. There is the delightful Norwegian Church which is now an Arts Centre, the Wales Millennium Centre, now home to the Welsh National Opera and the Senedd, the Welsh parliament building. All this can be seen across Roald Dahl Plass, the large square extending down to the water's edge with the bay ahead of it. Waterside restaurants and cafes are plentiful and come with great views.

If you leave Cardiff Bay along the A4232 you soon pick up signs for St Fagans National Museum of History, an open air folk museum of Welsh life. Set up in 1948 there are now over 40 historic buildings saved from various parts of the country and reconstructed at the museum site. A chapel, a blacksmith's forge, a tannery and various cottages can be viewed. One of the highlights is Gwalia Stores, originally opened in 1880, it is a fascinating example of a local Welsh community store with dry goods, medicines and groceries along with the attic rooms upstairs where the staff would sleep. It was moved to the museum site in the 1980s from Ogmore Vale. The museum gives visitors a rewarding insight into Welsh daily life from times gone by.

A short journey from here on the A4232 will bring you to the M4 which you will take eastwards back towards England. It is worth making another stop before you cross the Severn estuary. Exit at Junction 25 and take the B4596 to the Roman town of Caerleon. From 75AD and for the next 250 years this was the Roman fortress settlement of Isca. Here you can walk over to see the well preserved amphitheatre, the most complete Roman amphitheatre in Britain. The nearby museum also reveals the bathing area and open-air swimming pool or natatio which could hold more than 80,000 gallons of water. You can also visit some of the best preserved Roman legion's barracks in Europe.

By leaving Caerleon southwards on the B4236 you will eventually turn left on the B4237 to gain access to the M4 eastbound. This will take you over the new Severn crossing, opened in 1996, at a length of just over three miles and now known as the Prince of Wales bridge. Upon arriving at the east shore of the estuary you will find yourself back in England.