36 hours in Mid Wales

[Originally posted on http://blog.visitwales.co.uk on September 17, 2010] Presteigne, Offa’s Dyke, Llandrindod Wells, Elan Valley, Montgomery…

After spending two nights in Mid Wales, straddling the border with England, this has become one of my favorite areas of Britain. It’s certainly easily accessible by car from London, Manchester and Birmingham airports – all with direct routes from the United States.

Milebrook House hotelSnag two nights at Milebrook House hotel. The location is exceptional, surrounded by farmland and its own beautifully manicured gardens. In the restaurant, if the ingredients aren’t from the chef’s kitchen garden, then they’re from local farms.

A world away from my usual New York soundtrack, I awake here to the bleating of sheep and birdsong. The hotel’s location is perfect for exploring the surrounding historic market towns, stately homes and stunning scenery…

PresteigneArriving in Mid Wales mid-afternoon, I set the sat-nav to direct me to Presteigne, a pretty town not far from Milebrook. With rows of characterful shops well worth ambling into, the town is a picture postcard. Be sure to visit the Judge’s Lodging. Unlike some stuffy stately houses, here is one which you literally “explore” at your own pace. Just imagine that the judge has nipped out for a moment, about to return. I loved pushing open doors – – a truly authentic recreation of Victorian life without any barriers or signs saying “do not touch.” The best part was descending to the kitchen and servants’ hall, dimly lit by gaslight just as it would have been in the Victorian era. Then seeing the damp dark cells before carefully climbing the stairs to appear in… the dock! Yes you really do walk up from the cells into the center of the courtroom, literally following in the footsteps of criminals. Peer up into the magnificent courtroom, one of the most authentic in the country.

Presteigne has a history almost as turbulent and changeable as the weather this week. Located on the English side of Offa’s Dyke, the town is still in Powys, most definitely in Wales. Besieged by Prince Llywelyn (1262) and pillaged by Owain Glyndwr, it was once the county town.

View along the Offa's Dyke PathOn the way to Milebrook House, I deviate to check out parts of the Offa’s Dyke footpath – – the long distance walking route which runs the border between England and Wales. Even between rain showers, there are some great photo opportunities across rolling farmland and gentle hills – all painted an enchanting vibrant green.
The Hall at Abbey-Cym-Hir The next day, I drove out towards Llandrindod Wells to visit a very special country house. The Hall at Abbey-Cym-Hir is most unusual in a good way: two-hour-long tours are given by family members and absolutely no part of the family home is off-limits; you see every room. The Gothic style architecture and cluttered interiors immediately feel warm, welcoming and lived-in. Take your shoes off at the door and it feels as if you’re visiting relatives while you tour the 52 rooms.

 

The Hall at Abbey-Cym-Hir The gardens are equally impressive, the perfect setting for such a special residence, complete with a beautiful walled garden.

Here’s a tip: be sure to visit The Hall at Abbey-Cym-Hir between November 1st and January 6th to see all 52 rooms decorated for Christmas. It’s got to be one of the most remarkable Christmas experiences in Britain.

Shops in Llandrindod WellsFor lunch, I headed into Llandrindod Wells, the present county town of Powys. The resort feel today is down to its earlier prominence as a Victorian spa town, featuring stately promenades, the original chalybeate water and a boating lake and park on the edge of town. Spencer’s Brasserie at The Metropole hotel offers a comprehensive menu and a delicious Welsh Llangloffan and Caerfai Cheddar sandwich. The hotel also boasts 120 rooms and a spa, making this another great bet for a Mid Wales vacation base.
Reservoir in the Elan Valley A short drive west took me to the Elan Valley. Set against the backdrop of the Camrian Mountains, the valley houses reservoirs which were constructed in the late 19th century featuring massive dams. I recommend stopping off at the visitor center to pick up a map before driving north up alongside the glistening reservoirs. Moody clouds interspersed sunshine providing dramatic views looking down on the vast expanses of water. This is an area popular with walkers and birdwatchers as well as those of us who prefer to drive the reservoir circuit making use of the many stopping and viewing points along the route.
The town of Montgomery Before retiring to my hotel, I stopped by the town of Montgomery. It had been recommended by my old friend Emyr who heads up the Welsh hotel collection ‘Welsh Rarebits’, and I’m glad I went out of my way to visit. Montgomery is a pretty town dotted with historic buildings, a couple of cafes and a local history museum. But the town’s crowning jewel is Montgomery Castle; walk up from the town square for awesome views down over Montgomery and surrounding landscapes. The castle itself is a ruin, yet the imposing stone walls combine with the fast-moving sky above to create a powerful setting as I stand looking out over Mid Wales. I’ve just had an incredible couple of days exploring a part of Wales which I didn’t know very well. I now know it slightly better, but I also know there are many attractions I’ve missed and that I’ll be back again soon.

About Paul Chibeba

Paul Chibeba now lives in London and works for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew after having spent nine years living and working in New York City.
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