This article has been produced in partnership with Over the Bridge to Wales
Threading the border between England and Wales, like a green stitch holding the two countries together, is the The Wye Valley, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
Look at it on a map and it’ll give little away about itself. You’ll see the Wye River at the heart of The Wye Valley, snaking its way through three counties: Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Monmouthshire in the South – and you’ll get a sense that there are watery adventures to be had here, which there are.
But, the river itself is only one of The Wye Valley’s treasures, majestic as it is. On either side of the meandering waters is a wealth of inland things to do that almost hide away in this secret seam between England and Wales, keeping themselves to themselves and following the river downstream.
Native woodlands and limestones gorges; the beauty of which poets and painters have been trying to capture for centuries. Hillforts, castles and abbeys that have been fought over by the English and Welsh since records began.
And, perhaps most unknown of all, incredible food and drink that springs from The Wye Valley’s fertile valleys and orchards. Award-winning, Michelin-starred, and served in the numerous cafés, pubs and restaurants that string the valley.
With so much on offer beyond the serpentine river, the Wye Valley really does deserve closer inspection – especially now that globetrotting is off the cards. We were lucky enough to spend 48 hours in The Wye Valley recently, filling up on local food, meeting the talented women and men who call this diverse area home and exploring the local places and spaces under the radar.
And fill up, we did.
The Wye Valley is one weekend destination that won’t leave you short changed. In fact, you will almost certainly leave richer than you were before.
Saturday in The Wye Valley
Visit this: Britain’s Oldest Stone Castle | Chepstow Castle
Rising above the River Wye, casting muscular shadows over the waters beneath it, is Chepstow Castle – the first ‘real’ castle in Wales. For over 600 years it has lain here, stretching its long narrow stone form along the limestone cliff that gave it a natural advantage over invaders.
Chepstow Castle started life in 1067, built by Earl William fitz Osbern, close friend of William the Conqueror, and became one of the first Norman strongholds in Wales. In turn William Marshal (Earl of Pembroke), Roger Bigod (Earl of Norfolk) and Charles Somerset (Earl of Worcester) all made their mark on the castle before its importance declined after the Civil War.
In the 18th-century, Chepstow Castle’s romantic ruins became a must-see for many travellers who were following the famous Wye Tour, including William Wordsworth.
Today, it’s a well-preserved stone skeleton with neat lawns and firm paths to carry you through its remarkable history. Although the powerful medieval and Tudor families that once walked its halls are gone, you can still get a sense of how impressive their former home once – thanks to the mighty towers, stone fireplaces, and fragments of buttresses that remain.
Look out for: Roman stone taken from Caerwent Roman town (orange in colour) used for the castle’s construction, and the castle’s famous wooden doors – they were never breached and are the oldest in Europe.
Cost: £6.50 Adults, Children (aged 5+) £3.90
Do This: Blend Your Own Gin | Silver Circle Gin Distillery
Leave the ghosts of Chepstow Castle behind and head to the Silver Circle Gin Distillery, on the west bank of the Wye River. Here you can expect an afternoon that’ll leave you spirited – albeit in an entirely different way.
Silver Circle Gin Distillery is a new family-run business launched by husband and wife team, Nina and Jo, in 2019. The pair met in Berlin and relocated to Monmouthshire with the aim of developing a spirits’ brand that showcased the richness of the Wye Valley. Which they have.
The distillery is a modest affair; set on a neat little farm in Catbrook with juicy views over the Wye countryside and housed in a purpose-built green barn.
Outside the distillery there’s parking for a few small cars, whilst inside it’s a building of two halves: the front of the distillery serves as the blending room and bar (visitors are welcome to nip in here for a G&T or cocktail and drink up the surrounding countryside); whilst the business end of the distillery is partly shielded away behind wooden walls.
Small though it is, Silver Circle Gin distillery packs one hell of a punch, both in terms of quality of the product and excellence of the experience. Their handmade craft spirits include Wye Valley Gin (made with botanicals that grow wild throughout the area), Catbrook Honey Gin, and Gunga Gin – a small batch craft gin made especially for the band, The Libertines.
Their gin experiences include a tour of the distillery and a 2.5 hour ‘make your own gin’ session for 1 or 2 people – led by Nina. It was this that we enjoyed on our visit to the Wye Valley.
Everything about the Silver Circle gin-making session was brilliant (and we’ve done quite a few let me tell you!). Nina is there to inspire your own creation rather than do it for you. She sets you off on your personal conceptual journey then supports and guides you, gently leading you back on track if you get stuck, so you feel autonomous in your alchemy.
As you blend your recipe, drinks are being mixed behind the Silver Circle bar to keep your ‘spirits’ up: 2 G&Ts are part of the package; there are also some wonderful cocktails on offer that are impossible to resist.
After distilling the liquid in one of the distillery’s miniature copper stills, you taste, name and then bottle your personalised recipe in a 70cl bottle.
To complete the experience, you’re given a label for your bottle so the finished product looks good enough to be sold in any gin palace – it’s then yours to take home. Cheers to that.
Cost: £110 for one person or £140 for two people sharing a still
Go here: The Gothic Ruin That Inspired Wordsworth | Tintern Abbey
Tintern Abbey is a 12th-century Gothic architectural icon that draws thousands of visitors every year. It’s a national treasure, standing lofty and silent on the banks of the Wye Valley; its secrets sealed within its ancient walls. To the Tudors it was a symbol of monastic overindulgence and was destroyed by Henry VIII in the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536.
From that point on, Tintern Abbey’s majestic ruins lay abandoned and forgotten until the 18th-century when it experienced a second heyday, adopted by the Romantics as a marvel of the ‘picturesque’ movement. Indeed, it was penned into immortality by William Wordsworth in his poem, Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour.
Visit today and it’s not hard to see why it stirred so many British hearts. Roofless though it is, Tintern Abbey’s great walls, soaring arches and seven-lattice window inspire reverence whilst its doorways and empty corridors still your voice to a hush, even though the Cistercian monks who built the abbey have long since left.
Look out for: Tintern is also home to an old railway bridge you might recognise if you’ve watched Sex Education – it was used as Otis’s route to school. Whilst you’re in Tintern, stop for a bite to eat at The Filling Station Café. It’s a popular haunt for passing cyclists and ramblers, serving delicious hot and cold sandwiches, cakes, coffees and teas to eat in or take away.
Cost: Adult £5.00, Children (aged 5+) £2.30
Eat & Stay Here: The Whitebrook | A Michelin-starred Restaurant With Rooms
Monmouthshire is known as the foodie capital of Wales and when you dine at The Whitebrook you will see why. A one-Michelin-star restaurant with eight bedrooms, it sits below a remote wood overlooking its eponymous brook, six miles from Monmouth.
To reach the Whitebrook, drive down narrow roads through thick green Wye Valley countryside – when you arrive, the restaurant’s remote location makes you feel you’re somewhere special, although its unfussy Drover’s cottage exterior gives little indication of what awaits you inside.
The clue to the restaurant’s gastronomic greatness actually lies in the deep leafy landscape that holds the Whitebrook steady in its gaze. It’s from the surrounding hills, woods, farms and fields that owner-Chef, Chris Harrod, draws his sublime flavours.
His food is rooted in this area and driven by the seasons. His menu combines freshly-foraged ingredients with locally-sourced food, combining them with originality and flair for one purpose: to bring the taste of the valley to your plate.
And boy, does he achieve it. Chris’s technical brilliance means contrasting tastes and textures dance together symbiotically in every dish; his artistry means every course speaks to you visually, whilst Chris’s quiet, shy personality gives the food a confident modesty (no theatrics needed to impress).
All these elements pull together to form what can only be described as a culinary narrative. You don’t just taste the food you’re served at the Whitebrook; you absorb it like a book with your eyes, your mind, your mouth and your heart.
The Jerusalem artichoke starter, for example, was a vision that read like a forest clearing on a misty day: lightly-caramelised artichoke pieces standing upright like trees, a pool of white goat’s curd, rosemary milk foam hanging as lightly as dew and sprigs of ‘forest findings’ dotting the dish like a reminder of spring.
Yes, eating at the Whitebrook is an experience beyond food – it’s storytelling that you never want to end.
Book: The 7-course tasting menu with wine pairing. And the Eat & Sleep Package. The rooms at the Whitebrook look out towards the surrounding greenery, so you’ll wake to the sounds of birds and the sight of squirrels foraging for their breakfast. The décor of the rooms follows the feel of the restaurant downstairs: muted, natural and unpretentious, with thoughtful local touches, such as Welsh wool blankets, added to remind of the wonderful valley beyond.
Cost: from £330 per night for 2 people including dinner, bed and breakfast
Other Places to Stay in the Wye Valley:
Sunday in The Wye Valley
Visit this: The Grandest Castle Ever Built by Welshmen | Raglan Castle
You don’t need to use your imagination when you step inside Raglan Castle to get a sense of how magnificent it was during its lifetime. This huge palace-fortress is as commanding and striking as any skeletal structure could be.
Crowning a ridge in a sea of green Welsh countryside near Abergavenny, Raglan Castle is said to be the grandest castle ever built in Wales – a claim that becomes immediately obvious when you see its unmistakable silhouette rising above the A40.
Construction on Raglan Castle began in 1430s at the behest of Sir William ap Thomas, ‘the Blue Knight of Gwent’, who fought at the Battle of Agincourt with King Henry V in 1415.
Sir Thomas is responsible for one of the castle’s most striking features: its moated Great Tower, which is as impressive as it sounds. And it was Thomas’s son, son Sir William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, who created the gatehouse with its flared ‘machicolations’ – openings embedded in castle walls for dropping rocks or boiling oil onto enemies.
Despite its defensive features, the castle was designed to impress as much as to intimidate. Under various earls of Worcester, Raglan was transformed into a magnificent country seat with a fashionable long gallery and one of the finest Renaissance gardens in Britain. And amongst its notable residents was the young future king Henry VII.
During the Civil War Raglan Castle fell. It was deliberately destroyed and looted – ‘slighted’ – and left in ruins until the 1930s. Today, it is maintained by CADW – the Welsh heritage conservation body. They’ve built a good-sized gift shop at the castle gates; and there are toilets located in the castle grounds.
Look out for: the Tudor Oriel Window. It would have been one of the most stunning features of the castle in its day – built around 1549. It’s said that the Earl of Worcester’s family watched in terror from this window as the final defences of the castle fell, and Raglan was besieged.
Cost: Adult £6.50, Children (aged 5+) £3.90
Do this: Welsh Vineyard Tour and Tasting |
White Castle Vineyard and also Parva Vineyard
You can thank Romans for introducing wine to Wales; 2,000 years ago, they planted the first Welsh vineyards. Since then, Welsh viticulture and winemaking has grown strongly in the country with some 30 vineyards now rooted into the landscape, covering an area of 57 hectares.
Whether you’re a wine buff or not, visiting a Welsh vineyard is a tantalising experience. Walking amongst the vines, in the fresh Welsh air, plucking a grape to eat every now and again, then settling down to sip the bounty brings you even closer to the Wye Valley’s riches. Plus, the wine is bloomin’ good and sure to flush your cheeks.
The two vineyards that we visited – White Castle Vineyard near Abergavenny and Parva Farm Vineyard in Tintern – both offer pleasant wine tours and tasting, all year round.
Parva Farm Vineyard encourages you wander its 4,500 vines on your own self-guided tour, soaking up the fabulous views over historic Tintern and using the information boards to learn about the grape varieties. The slopes of this vineyard are thought to be the site where the monks from Tintern Abbey grew their vines and possibly the Romans before them.
Afterwards, head inside the small and quirky farm shop to meet the owner, Judith, and taste the farm’s award-winning red, white and sparkling wines. Make sure you try the vineyard’s spicy Welsh mead – it is delicious (we left with a bottle). Also look out for: the Roman well and spring whilst you’re exploring the vineyard.
Cost: Self-guided tours cost £1.50pp and the wine tasting is free.
White Castle Vineyard’s 5,000 vines are ready to welcome you to their home on the gentle south facing slope in the village of Llanvetherine. Tours of the vineyard run on Friday, Saturdays, Sunday and Bank Holiday Mondays and are hosted by the one of the owners, Rob or Nicola.
Rob was our vineyard guide; he was passionate about his business and craft and gladly took the time to give us the full vineyard experience, walking with us through the vines sharing the story of the vineyard and the grapes that grow there.
Best of all, for a wine novice like me, there wasn’t a hint of haughtiness that can so often be associated with winemaking. Rob has a casual, down-to-earth manner, happily admitting that the vineyard had never been in his life plan. In the wine tasting which followed we tried 4 of the vineyard’s award-winning red, white and rose wines and left with a bottle of Pinot Noir Reserve, 2017.
You can also book a Welsh cheese platter to accompany your tasting. Look out for: the grade II listed 16th century barn which acts as a doorway to the vineyard.
Cost: £15 for 1.5 hours
Lunch here: Award-winning High Tea | The Angel Hotel
Heavenly in looks, Georgian in physique, the Angel Hotel in Abergavenny was built as a coaching inn back in 1829 – and is seriously hard to miss. This impressive listed building commands pride of place in the middle of the town, just a short walk from Abergavenny Castle and Museum in the Usk Valley and only 15 minutes from Raglan Castle.
From its vast windowed front, you can tell that there are plenty of gorgeous rooms inside along with the dining and drinking facilities to match, which there are. The hotel boasts beautiful spaces to eat or relax with a drink, including the Foxhunter Bar with its leather sofas, dark-wood and old-world charm; the Oak Room restaurant headed up by a talented culinary team; and the Wedgewood room where the hotel’s award-winning High Tea is served, on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 2.00pm – 5.00pm.
High Tea at the Angel Hotel is an impeccably experience, delivered by courteous staff; and we must give special mention to the maitre d’ who served us with a wide smile and a cheeky quip throughout the afternoon, making us feel truly welcome.
As you might expect, the tea, savouries, sandwiches and cakes are fabulous – the pickled cucumber and vegan cheese sandwich was divine for such a simple combination – and even when we asked for more, the staff were very happy to assist.
We never felt rushed or too greedy asking for more (which we did a coupleof times) so it came as no surprise to learn that The Angel Hotel holds The Tea Guild’s top national award, the Oscar of the tea world. It’s clearly well-deserved and the ideal way to bring your Wye Valley weekend to a sophisticated close.
Cost: £32.00 per person.