Hay for the culturally adventurous

The annual Hay Festival, now in its 29th year, attracts speakers and visitors from all over the world to enjoy an 11-day celebration of the arts. Many are captivated by the stunning countryside, returning year after year.

Whether your passion is walking, cycling, horse-riding, canoeing or climbing, there’s a wealth of outdoor activities at the foot of the Black Mountains, within the Brecon Beacons National Park. Declared an International Dark Skies Reserve in 2013, you can spot major constellations and meteor showers here in blissful tranquility. Find out about stargazing events at breconbeacons.org.

As a Welsh border town, Hay has played an important historical role, so where better to start than at Hay Castle? Formerly a Norman fort, with later Elizabethan and Victorian additions, it was until recently the domain of Richard Booth, who turned the town’s fortunes around by opening the first secondhand bookshop 50 years ago. It is now run by a trust and is revealing its secrets during a 10-year restoration project.

Other ancient monuments lie within a short distance. Llanthony Priory, reached via a spectacular drive skirting Hay Bluff, was originally occupied by Augustinian monks. The ruins that remain evoke the grandeur of a bygone age; the evening light is magical; comfortable accommodation with good food is available for overnight stops.

Llanthony Priory, Brecon Beacons

Llanthony Priory, Brecon Beacons

The town of Crickhowell is, like Hay, known for its alternative spirit and has retained its independent stores. Three miles away is Tretower Court, an excellent example of a 15th century fortified manor house, surrounded by a garden with arbour and fruit trees. The whole region is rich in gardens to visit – the Weir at Swainshill, Hergest Croft and Brilly Court to name but three.

Talgarth, on the way to Brecon, is enjoying a renaissance, with a Victorian mill, restored in 2011, once again grinding flour which can be bought next door in the excellent café. Volunteers give guided tours and tend the riverside garden, where you will see a distinctive willow fence hand-woven by Welsh artist Mary Zammit. For lovers of music and literature, a disused Welsh Baptist chapel, the Tabernacle, has become a venue for music, poetry and performance art.

Nine miles (14 km) further on, Brecon is the home of the Regimental Museum of the Royal Welsh, charting military history from 1689. Children and adults alike will love the Zulu War Room, illustrating the exploits of the 24th Regiment during the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War, as depicted in the film Zulu, starring Michael Caine and Welsh actor Stanley Baker. Other exhibits cover the exploits of the South Wales Borderers, Welch Regiment and Monmouthshire Regiment in two World Wars. Since 1974, Gurkha soldiers have been based here and Nepalese families have become an integral part of the community. While in Brecon, visit the 11th century castle and the cathedral, on the site of a former monastery.

Seven miles (11 km) south-west of Abergavenny, famous for its annual Food Festival in September, lies the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Blaenavon, which played a major part in the Industrial Revolution. Learn about iron, coal and steel production and the working families who risked their lives there. The raw materials of coal, iron ore and fireclay for bricks were found in the surrounding landscape, and transported across the hills on a primitive railway, to connect with the canal and world markets. Blaenavon town has important buildings such as St. Peter’s Church, built by ironmasters in 1804, the Blaenavon Workmen’s Hall, financed by workers’ subscriptions in 1894; and St. Peter’s School, founded by an ironmaster’s sister, Sarah Hopkins, in 1816.

Blaenavon Workmen’s Hall, Blaenavon

Blaenavon Workmen’s Hall, Blaenavon

All of these notable sites are easily visited before, during and after Hay Festival, which runs over the summer half-term. For more information visit hayfestival.com and visitwales.com.