The Cynon Valley (Cwm Cynon) stretches from Penderyn in the north to Abercynon in the south, but at its geographical and administrative heart is the town of Aberdare (Aberdâr). Once an industrial giant, it bears all the usual landmarks of valleys towns, yet Aberdare has a rich cultural history as well as geological splendour to offer visitors.
Sitting at the base of a wide and grand valley (part of the reason it is dubbed 'Queen of the Hills'), Aberdare is a busy town, populated by quaint cafes, restaurants, pubs, and bars. Not short of a 'Bracchi' (Welsh Italian cafe) or two, culture and history is evident around the town.
In addition to displaying much of the best examples of Victorian architecture of any valleys town, Aberdare can lay claim to two major cultural distinctions.
The town of Aberdare is a major reason (if not the main reason) that Wales is known as the 'Land of Song'. Choral master Caradog (real name Griffith Rhys Jones) led 'Y Côr Mawr' (The great choir of south Wales) twice to victory in the Crystal Palace Choral Competition in London, in 1872 & 1873. Not a bad claim for a small place.
The second is that Aberdare is the cradle of the British film industry, where renowned filmmaker William Haggard produced over 30 films, including 'The Maid of Cefn Ydfa' in 1901.
So that's the history. But what can today's visitor gorge on from the bounty of the 'Queen of the Hills'?
The Cynon Valley has many opportunities for outdoor exploration, with some beautiful walks, stunning viewpoints and exciting activities for visitors of all ages. In addition to the many Natural Resources Wales owned sites, here's what's on offer around Aberdare.
Aberdare Park (Parc Aberdâr)
Aberdare Park is a 50 acre open space, set in beautiful surroundings that nod back nostalgically to the Victorian era in which it was built.
Nestled between the suburb villages of Gadlys, Cwmdare (Cwmdâr), and Trecynon the park allows visitors to enjoy panoramic views of the Cynon valley. Home to a wide range of flora you'll be treated to rose gardens, a variety of numerous tree species, and meticulously curated flower beds throughout the site.
There are also plenty of cultural and historical sights to keep an eye out for in the park, including the Coronation Fountain (an exact replica of the one found in Raffles Hotel, Singapore), The Statue of Industry (situated near the parks southeast entrance), the splendid Victorian bandstand, and the Cerrig Gorsedd (Gorsedd Stones) a ceremonial commemoration of the three National Eisteddfods Aberdare has held in 1861, 1885, and 1956 respectively. The latter two events were held in the park itself!
Speaking of bandstands, you'll find plenty of gigs, concerts, and family events being held in the park during the spring and summer months as well as the famous Aberdare Park Bike Road Races held every July. For families there is a large playground catering for children of all ages, as well as peddle boats on the park's lake. Will you choose a Swan? Or a firey Dragon!
Dare Valley Country Park (Parc Gweldig Cwm Dâr)
If you're after wilder surroundings, then head to the Dare Valley Country Park. Set in a beautiful glacial valley, the 500 acre public park spans from the west of Aberdare town all the way up to the circular crag of Tarren y Bwllfa.
Armed with being the first country park in England and Wales as well as Dark Skies Wales status, the park offers diverse walks, camping, and outdoor activities.
The visitor centre is a good place to start, and get your bearings on the activities on offer. You can also fuel up for a big adventure or recharge your batteries at the end of the day at 'Y Cwtch' Cafe.
The park is a great place if you like walking. Three marked walks provide an excellent way to explore the park, and see some fantastic scenery. Bwllfa (3.5k, wheelchair & pushchair accessible), Cae Mawr (4km), and Penrhiwllech (6km) trails offer something for everyone.
Other outdoor pursuits include archery, bushcraft, a children's adventure playground, a trim trail, as well as bike hire. If you're looking for wildlife, as well as an abundance of bees, insects, pond life, and birds. There is even a viewing platform for peregrine falcons at the north end of the park.
Should you want to take more time to enjoy all the park has to offer, or even use it as a base to explore other nearby areas such as the Brecon Beacons, the park offers accommodation in the form of caravan and camping pitches, as well as the Dare Valley Hotel which is great for families and groups.
As previously mentioned, the Athens of Wales was so-called due to the cultural revolution that happened in the town, all based on the number of printing presses, theatre groups, and films being made in the town in its heyday.
The town was also the home of the Welsh language newspaper press in Wales.
Here's where you can experience a taste of Aberdare's boom years, as well as current cultural attractions.
The Coliseum Theatre (Theatr y Colisëwm)
Fronted with art deco architecture and located a stone's throw away from Aberdare Park in the heart of Trecynon, the Coliseum Theatre offers a varied programme of drama, dance, comedy, and music from both national and local artists. Opened in 1938, the theatre also doubles up as a cinema on specific nights for those who want to indulge in a night of the silver screen.
Cynon Valley Museum (Amgueddfa Cwm Cynon)
Forged under the shadow of the former Gadlys Ironworks, the Cynon Valley Museum is a community-run enterprise that presents visitors with an fascinating look at the Cynon Valley's past, as well as showcasing the best of the local arts. You'll get a real sense of the local area as well as snapshot of industrial south Wales.
Displays include everything from huge advertisement banner for the first National Eisteddfod to WWII air raid shelters. You'll find historical artefacts, sporting paraphernalia, full recreations of scenes from Aberdare's past, as well as two art galleries, the Oriel and Mezzanine. The galleries curate dynamic art exhibitions for local and national artists.
The museum also hosts a lively calendar of events, and has an on-site cafe (Green Valley Kitchen) and museum shop selling local and national produce and products.
Land of Song (Gwlad y Gân)
Once you're done at the museum, head to Victoria Square in the middle of Aberdare town centre and look northwards up the hill you'll see a man standing on a podium brandishing a wand, this is Caradog. The statue is believed to be the only one in Wales dedicated to a conductor, and it's a well earnt dedication. Leading over 500 voices to victory in a London choral competition two years in a row in the 1870s, Caradog (Griffith Rhys Jones) and 'Y Côr Mawr' (The South Wales Choral Union) helped solidify Wales' reputation as a musical nation. You can learn all about this at the monument surrounding the statue.
Head back down the hill towards the cenotaph in Victoria Square, bear right and take the first left down Market Street. Towards the lower end of the street you'll find Aberdare Market. This was the location for the first ever National Eisteddfod of the modern era, held in 1861. Originally planned for Aberdare Park, a great storm forced a rearranging of the national event - and thanks to the concerted efforts of local coal mine owner and poet David 'Alaw Goch' Williams and his workers, the national event was moved indoors within the market with just a 48 hour turnaround! This is also the location where Aberdare (Cwmaman!) band The Stereophonics filmed the music video for their single More Life in a Tramps Vest. Step inside and you'll find a great selection of stalls from independent music to traditional Welsh fare.
A feast of food & drink
What Aberdare offers in culture it can match with food and drink. A tour from the north of the Cynon Valley to the south of Aberdare town will satisfy anyone's taste buds. From the famous to the unexpected, here's what treats are in store for the hungry (and thirsty!).
At the north end of the Cynon Valley you'll find the Penderyn Whisky distillery. In the year 2000 a group of adventurous local entrepreneurs decided that Wales was overdue to produce its first Whisky for the first time in a 100 years! What came from this venture was Penderyn Whisky.
Set in the heart of Penderyn village, the attached visitor centre is a great place to start your food and drink experience in the Cynon Valley. Here you can sample some of the highest quality internationally awarded whiskys, as well as learn about the distillery's unique process which makes Penderyn a one of a kind. If whisky's not to your taste there's also the quintuple filtered Brecon Vodka, Brecon Gin, or Merlin Cream Liqueur.
The Red Lion (Y Llew Coch), Penderyn
Just a short walk across the road form the distillery you'll find the Red Lion Inn hidden up a country road. The Inn dates back to the 12th century and used to serve as a rest stop for weary drovers. This beautiful traditional Welsh pub, next to St. Cynog's church, has fantastic views of Penderyn Village as well as the Brecon Beacons is a great next step on your Cynon culinary tour.
Inside you'll find the cosiest of settings in front of a roaring fire in the bar area. The Red Lion boasts a fantastic range of Local and National real ales and beers, as well as some from further afield. There's also an extensive wine list, which coincidentally will go very well with the fine dining food menus found in the restaurant and bar areas of the Inn.
Outside in the Inn's car park, you'll find a parked van hosting the Little Lion Pizza Co. which offers artisan pizza's straight from the oven, in a range of great toppings with a welsh twist.
Grey Trees and The National Tap
If real ales and beer is your thing, then head to the centre of Aberdare and you'll find The National tap. Owned and operated by Grey Trees independent craft brewery, you'll find a great range of Grey Trees' own award winning beers, as well as many fantastic guest ales, beers and ciders.
If you're interested in the brewing process, head to Grey Trees Brewery building. After starting in the village of Llwydcoed (Grey Trees is English for Llwydcoed), the company has now moved to larger premises in Aberaman where you can book tasting tours on specially designated dates.