Wales and the unexpected: there are all kinds of oddities (we mean this kindly) hidden in the hills. Here are a few to be getting on with. You’ll find plenty of others along The Cambrian Way as you go.
When you’re in Snowdonia, all roads lead (eventually) to pretty Betws-y-Coed, the traditional gateway to the mountains. It’s an excellent base-camp for hiking/cycling holidays, with several good treks from the village itself, like the woodland climb to Llyn Elsi, or a riverside stroll to Swallow Falls. Fun fact: Betws-y-Coed is the most misspelt place name in Britain (the local website found 364 different variations of how to spell Betws-y-Coed). We find this both mystifying and highly amusing. In case you were wondering, it means ‘prayer house in the woods’.
The River Mawddach meets the sea at arguably our most spectacular estuary, carving a great sandy gouge in the mountains of Snowdonia. It’s straddled by two resorts, Fairbourne and Barmouth, and linked by a rattley wooden viaduct that trains share with walkers and cyclists. The poet William Wordsworth wrote, ‘With a fine sea view in front, the mountains behind, the glorious estuary running eight miles inland, and Cader Idris within compass of a day’s walk, Barmouth can always hold its own against any rival.’ We have nothing further to add.
The Dyfi Distillery started making gin in 2016, won multiple best-British-gin awards in 2017, and promptly sold out of everything. They only distil in tiny batches, using herbs foraged from a secluded valley that is Wales’ only UNESCO World Biosphere. Your best chance of bagging a bottle is at their distillery, which is part of the Corris Craft Centre community.
National Cycle Museum
Cycling has always been big in Wales. According to top coach Sir Dave Brailsford, it’s because we’ve got plenty of quiet lanes and big hills, which are the cyclist’s favourite habitat. So it’s fitting that Britain’s National Cycle Museum is here in the heart of cycling country at Llandrindod Wells. They’ve got 260+ cycles, from ancient bone-shakers to hi-tech carbon jobbies, and knowledgeable staff to show you what’s what.
Farmers’ Welsh Lavender
The lavender fields near Builth Wells produce the scented oil that goes into the Farmers' range of body care creams, balms, lotions and scrubs. You can visit most days during the summer (it’s very pretty, the views are lush, and cake is on the menu) – but ring ahead first, just to check they’re not out tending to their crops.
Erwood Station Gallery
Old railway carriages are the galleries at Erwood Station, which served the Brecon-Builth Wells branch line until its closure in the 1960s. Now it has an eclectic selection of painting, ceramics, sculpture and jewellery. There’s also a self-service café and lovely riverside walks along the River Wye, which flows alongside.
Red kites are one of the big success stories of conservation. While they were extinct almost everywhere in Britain, they survived – just – in remote pockets of the Cothi and Tywi valleys. Nowadays, they’re a common – but never commonplace – sight almost everywhere in Wales. For the best display of all, the daily red kite feedings at Gigrin attract up to 600 of these stunning birds, as well as a supporting cast of buzzards and ravens.
Welsh distilleries were drummed out by non-conformist religious fervour in the 19th century, and have only really sneaked back in the 21st. The leading light is Penderyn, which makes terrific whisky in the foothills of the Brecon Beacons. The visitor centre is open daily.
Rhondda Heritage Park
The Rhondda Valleys (there are two: Fawr and Fach, big and small) form the world’s most famous coal-mining area. There used to be 53 working pits in Rhondda, and this one – the Lewis Merthyr colliery – has been preserved as Rhondda Heritage Park, a living-history museum that vividly recreates the hardships and camaraderie of the Valleys’ mining community. All the guides are proper ex-miners and, in the café, the food is proper Welsh-Italian: there’s been a big ex-pat Italian community here for more than a century.