There are formal gardens, there are wild landscapes – we’ve got plenty of both – and then there are country parks. These big green spaces are fall neatly into the gap between the two, designed for the pure pleasure of everyone who visits. Here are a few of our favourite places to have fun in the fresh air.
Gnoll Estate Country Park, Neath
There are lots of grand estates like this in South Wales. Wealthy industrial families – in this case the Mackworths, the local metalworking oligarchs – created playgrounds on which to lavish their fortunes. Today the Gnoll Estate has been developed into a country park in a beautiful 18th century landscaped garden, full of open green spaces, lakes and wild woodlands, cascades and grottoes. Attractions include fishing, Footgolf and pitch-and-putt, and it hosts the weekly Parkrun.
Margam Country Park, Port Talbot
Margam Country Park still has traces of prehistoric, Roman and Norman occupation, but it’s the 19th century Tudor Gothic mansion that dominates this 850-acre (344ha) country estate. The semi-formal gardens trail off into wooded wilderness and lakes, and there are plenty of activities for kids, including a farm trail and an excellent adventure playground.
The Great Orme, Llandudno
The hulking limestone crag that dominates Llandudno was named ‘orme’ (it means ‘sea serpent’) by the Vikings. The Great Orme, or Y Gogarth as it’s called in Welsh, has everything from heathlands to sheer sea cliffs, limestone grassland to woodland, formal gardens down in Happy Valley, a scenic drive and hairpin roads to the top. There’s loads to do and see, including a tramway, cable car, a herd of wild goats, the world’s largest Bronze Age mine Great Orme Mines, an artificial ski slope, toboggan run, pitch ‘n’ putt golf – and stunning views all the way to the Lake District, and down to the beaches nearby.
Padarn Country Park, Eryri (Snowdonia)
Llanberis is a starting point for train rides, walks, or cycles up to the summit of Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon). But before you do, it’s well worth spending a few hours at Padarn Country Park, which has lovely woodland, quarry and waterside trails along the northern shores of Llyn Padarn. It’s also the place to find the National Slate Museum and steam-powered Llanberis Lake Railway.
Dare Valley Country Park, Aberdare
The South Wales Valleys run down to the coast from Bannau Brycheiniog (the Brecon Beacons) mountain range. This was a thickly-wooded eco-paradise until the iron and coal industries changed everything in the 18th century. But now it’s changing back, and here’s a great example: Dare Valley Country Park is the site of two former collieries has been restored to 500 acres (202ha) of wide green loveliness, with walking trails across a remarkably biodiverse landscape.
Wepre Park, Flintshire
Wepre Park's 160-acre (65ha) oasis of green space is largely given over to beautiful woodland walks, but there are also old water features and the remains of 13th century Ewloe Castle, built by Welsh princes to protect the woodland from English invaders, who had pinched it as a deer-hunting park. While you’re in the area, it’s also worth exploring Greenfield Valley Heritage Park at Holywell, where the woodland trails run between the ruins of Basingwerk Abbey and the ‘Lourdes of Wales’, St Winefride’s Well shrine.
Cosmeston Lakes Country Park and Medieval Village, Vale of Glamorgan
On the outskirts of Penarth, Cosmeston Lakes Country Park is a tranquil 247-acre (100ha) park set around two lakes (actually, flooded quarries). The big draw for children is Cosmeston Medieval Village, where the original 14th century settlement has been fascinatingly recreated. Unlike the original, this one isn’t ravaged by the Black Death, thankfully.
Pembrey Country Park, Carmarthenshire
For family romps, it’s hard to beat Pembrey Country Park, which has loads of adventure activities in its 500 woodland acres (202ha), including mini golf, horse riding, adventure play, and a dry ski slope. What’s more, it’s fringed by the eight golden miles (13km) of Cefn Sidan, the first beach in Wales to win a coveted Blue Flag award.
Craig-y-Nos Country Park, Bannau Brycheiniog (Brecon Beacons)
The Italian-French singer Adelina Patti (1843-1919)was the greatest operatic diva of her day, a friend of composers like Verdi and Tchaikovsky, who performed around the world – including a private White House recital for Abraham Lincoln. Yet she settled at what is now Craig-y-Nos Country Park - nestled at the top of the Swansea Valley, creating a splendid Victorian garden of woodlands, meadows, lakes and lawns alongside the River Tawe.