In ancient Wales, people talked about the llygad of a river – its eye. The River Wye has an eye, hidden in the foothills of Mid-Wales’ highest peak, Pumlumon (Plynlimon). To reach it from the river’s mouth into the Bristol Channel at Chepstow, you have to travel 134 miles. Imagine a week-long meandering adventure along that route. Now come with us on it.
Initially, this route traces Wales along its border with England, taking in some of our most beautiful countryside. Then it heads inland, deep into Mid Wales. You'll find many rich, rewarding towns on its riverbanks, like Chepstow, Monmouth, Hay-on-Wye, Builth Wells and Rhayader. You’ll also find quiet serenity along Wales’ second-longest river. Our country’s spirit is in the water.
River bridges in Chepstow, and waterside walking in Tintern and Llandogo
A journey inland can help you appreciate the beginnings of everything, and Chepstow is a great place to start. Begin at the Old Wye Bridge, or Town Bridge as it’s known locally, at Chepstow. Built in 1816, it's a beauty of five arches of gracefully curved cast iron, the largest of its kind in the world, crossing one of the world’s most tidal stretches of river, stretching over to Gloucestershire. Go to the middle, and notice the point when the pattern tells you're about to enter England.
Then head upstream. Stop at Eagle’s Nest Viewpoint near St Arvan's to gain you an incredible view of the meandering river, if you’re after perspective. Two routes take you there, one involving 365 strenuous steps, one a gentler climb: the Wye Valley Area Of Natural Beauty website gives you clear directions. If you’re feeling lazier, head to Tintern, with its stunning Abbey, Green Man Studio crafts centre and riverside pubs, which make for a lovely lunch hour or two. The Old Station Tea Room cafe is a particularly good stopping point from April to October if you have children, with its fantastic kids’ playground. There are ten acres of woodland here alongside the water.
After lunch, enjoy walking in Tintern, or go two miles north to Llandogo, a village that’s become better-known as the setting for the Netflix series Sex Education. The Cleddon Shoots (also known as the Cleddon Falls) that eventually run into the river are particularly lovely, especially after wet weather. And do bring your mac – but for these sights, it’s well worth it.
By then, you'll deserve a restorative pint. Try Llandogo’s lovely old-fashioned Sloop Inn, a former watermill, or if you want to go further upsptream, try the picturesque Boat Inn in Penallt, which overlooks an old railway bridge over the Wye.
Meeting the Monnow in Monmouth, and the meadowland in Hay-on-Wye
If you were following the Wye’s entire route from here, you’d swoop briefly into England, before heading back west towards Monmouth. An early morning walk from one of Monmouth's south-of-town car parks reveals the point where the Wye converges, dramatically, with the local river Monnow. From here the Victorian sandstone Wye Bridge can also be seen, now a busy traffic thoroughfare over to the Forest of Dean.
Afterwards, pop into Monmouth, a gorgeous old market town, for some lunch. The Marches’ Deli café sells fantastic coffee and light lunches, or eat where the locals do at The Whole Earth Café (Facebook page) - the homemade Thai food, including the Pad Thai, is delicious. The Wye then loops east into England again, taking in a long route around Ross-on-Wye and Hereford before heading west back to Wales. We’d suggest going straight from A to B by driving on the B4347 and B4348 Monmouth to Hay-on-Wye, a gorgeous rural drive that takes about an hour.
We enter Hay-on-Wye, the town internationally known for its wonderful bookshops (there’s still two dozen, and bibliophiles should definitely give up an afternoon here). But if you’re more interested in the river, you’ll find it hidden to the town’s north alongside a stunning riverside meadow known as The Warren. Bought by residents and businesspeople in the 1970s for the local community, it’s a magical place, where kingfishers, rabbits and otters can be spotted.
Five minutes easy stroll from the river, find a fantastic dinner at one of Hay's many pubs. For a fancy local hotel a stone's throw from the water, the old Georgian coaching, The Swan at Hay is a option. Gracefully stretch your neck from the rear rooms and you'll see the Wye winding by.
Beautiful boating in Glasbury-on-Wye
We’ve been near the water but not in it: that changes today. At Glasbury-on-Wye, you’ll find Wye Valley Canoes, where you can take a Canadian canoe or kayak (single and double are available) out for the morning. You can grab a bacon sandwich or a pastry in the fabulous River Café next door – and a strong Italian coffee – before you launch.
This stretch of the river is unspoilt, the ridges of the Black Mountains stretching above you. The local peaks have memorable names too, like Hay Bluff and Lord Hereford’s Knob. From here, you have to travel downstream, so enjoy Hay from a different perspective, or take a full-day to Whitney-on-Wye if your river legs are feeling particularly lively.
Wyeside art and hiking in Erwood, riverside culture and food in Builth Wells
Further upstream, the A470 travels boldly alongside the Wye. The river's still wide at this point, weaving within the woodland. Stop at Erwood Station Gallery for a lovely hour’s potter and shop: a craft centre has been here since 1988. Paintings, linocuts, ceramics, glass and woodwork and sculpture are curated through a collection of train carriages and station buildings, and you can also have tea and cake in an old-fashioned dining carriage.
Leave room for lunch at the cosy Wheelwright Arms (Facebook link) in the village, where hearty, traditional food will warm you up alongside the log burners.
Then spend the afternoon walking. A beautiful route through the woodlands near the gallery stretches high above the Wye, and a few miles to the east you’ll also find Llanbwchllyn Lake. It's a great place for spotting rare goldeneye ducks, kingfishers and sandpipers, and indulging deeply in the nature that thrives near the water.
Head to Builth Wells for some small-town fun after your few days in the countryside. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a gig, comedy show or recent blockbuster at the gorgeous Wyeside Arts Centre, a Victorian cattle market impressively converted into a theatre and cinema. Its name is literal too: it sits in a gorgeous spot right on the water. Overnight options include the Bronwye Guest House in town, which is a four-star Victorian delight.
Builth river breakfasts, creativity and nature in Newbridge-on-Wye
Today’s full programme of riverside fun requires some pre-booking. But first, get set up with a sturdy Builth breakfast. The Strand Cafe right by the river, offering huge Strand breakfasts, in carnivorous and vegetarian options, to all-comers.
Then head upstream. Pass the turning for Builth Road station, on the Heart of Wales line, a long, lazy route for train travellers from Swansea to Shrewsbury. Then stop at Newbridge-on-Wye, where the arty side of the Wye starts to truly flow. Here you'll find the Alex Allpress Pottery (Facebook page), where you can enjoy learning to make your own ceramics, with the guidance of an artist who trained at the prestigious Camberwell School of Art. He’ll even provide lunch - just remember to pre-book.
If you’re more of a fan of flowers and trees, pre-book a tour of Llysdinam Gardens, just to the west of the Wye. The delights are extensive: an acre-sized walled kitchen garden, huge herbaceous borders, an 150-year-old orange tree among the beautiful greenhouses. An unusual form of daffodil also grows here, the Penllergaer Red (named after the village near Swansea where the estate’s original family, the Llewellyns, came from). Open twice a year, a head gardener will happily guide you by appointment.
For an overnight stay, the brilliantly-named The Vulcan Lodge, Llanwrthwl, offer a lovely collection of cottages that can be booked singly, or together for large groups. The hybrid bicycles for rent here also provide an opportunity to take in the cycling delights that await you, as the Wye heads back to its eye.
Red Kites by the river, Rhayader, and a last night by the riverside
The Wye is narrowing now, as we approach its source. Here, Mid Wales starts to get a little wilder. Stop at the 200-acre, family-run Gigrin Farm, famous for its Red Kite feeding centre. Hundreds of the birds feed here every day, and there are hides in which to watch them, including special ones for photographers. There’s a lovely picnic spot too, a coffee shop and gift shop.
Head to the Elan Valley Estate nearby, to see the area’s reservoirs set in incredible scenery, or enjoy a potter around Rhayader. The arts thrive here, in places like the Rhayader Museum and Gallery, which hosts ambitious exhibitions. It also has a brilliant permanent one about the history of the town, playing films and more than fifty oral histories about riverside life. Covering the days of early Rhayader settlers to the 21st century, that's even more of a journey than you've made this week.
In the evening, gently prepare for your last day. Have dinner at the 16th century Triangle Inn, just outside town in the small hamlet of Cwmdauddwr. When the weather’s fine, you can sit outdoors looking at the winding path of the water with your fish and chips; when it’s not you can get cosy by the log fire.
Good riverside sleeping spots include the Nannerth Country Holidays cottages, a mile upstream at Nannerth Fawr. You’ve come this far. You’re nearly there. Tomorrow it's time for the eye of the Wye.
The eye of the Wye awaits – and this requires a sturdy walk. After all, between Rhayader and Llangurig, the highest village in Wales, the landscape becomes truly spectacular. Huge peaks surround you on either side, as the river winds quietly below.
If you’re not walking to the source itself, stroll around the Gilfach Nature Reserve. In its last miles, the Wye meets with the local Afon Marteg. Or if you’ve got a bike in the boot, try a slice of National Cycle Route 81 that runs adjacent the water. It’s one of the most stunning routes for cyclists in the whole of the country.
But if you’ve got your boots laced and ready, then it’s time to approach Pumlumon (Plynlimon), which is also the largest watershed in Wales. The Severn has its source here, only two miles away from its cousin – they eventually meet again at Chepstow, of course, as they flow into the sea together.
Many routes to the eye are available. One of the best begins at a car park run by a farm at Eisteddfa Gurig (look for the road sign on the left as you come from Llangurig). This five-mile walk ascends 350 metres from its starting point, full details of which can find on the Wye Explorer website. At its end, you look for a depression in the ground that the website describes as 'no bigger than a bowler hat.' This is the llygad (eye) of the mighty river which has guided you all week, the source at which you have arrived, many miles from its faraway, wide, watery mouth.
Now there’s a way to experience nature. And if you’ve got another week free, why not just weave your way back to the sea?