Wild Swimming Walks leads you on 28 adventures into the magical and ancient landscapes of the Brecon Beacons, Wye Valley and Gower. Follow an alluring journey from the mountains, through enchanting waterfalls, along lush valleys to explore the caves and coves of the coast. Packed with all the practical information you need.
JOIN THE ADVENTURE with the best-selling Wild Swimming Walks series and explore South Wales’ spectacular coasts, waterfalls, tarns and river valleys.
- Ascend to south Wales’ highest peak and tarn then descend through a valley of secret waterfalls
- Walk through woodland gorges carved by cascades
- Find secret low tide bays and giant rock pool lagoons
- Follow pretty river valleys dipping as you walk
Combining stunning photography, engaging stories and local history, this is the perfect guide for walkers and swimmers. There are detailed directions, maps, and downloadable route information to print out or take with you on your phone or tablet.
About the author
Nia Lloyd Knott was brought up on the Glamorgan coast and is a Mountain Leader qualified in water safety. She guides walking groups, loves swimming and has two daughters.
The Wild Swimming Walks series now includes:
- Dartmoor & Devon
- Lake District
- London & South East
Contents – the 28 walks
Rhossili and Blue Pool Circular 30
Mewslade and Fall Bay 36
Oxwich and Slade 42
Pwlldu and Brandy Cove Circular 48
Cwm Clydach Circular 54
Twrch Valley Circular 62
Llandovery Circular 68
Llyn Y Fan Fawr Circular 74
Cwm Haffes Circular 80
Tawe River at Abercraf 88
Sgwd Henrhyd and Nant Llech Gorge 94
Sgwd Gwladus Circular 100
Mellte Gorge 106
Penderyn Circular 112
Pen-Pych, Rhondda 118
Fan Fawr Circular 124
Corn Du and Pen y Fan Circular 132
Blaen y Glyn Circular 138
Hay-on-Wye Circular 150
Keeper’s Pond and Blorenge 156
The Wye at Monmouth 168
River Wye at Penallt 174
Clytha Usk Circular 180
River Taff Cardiff Circular 186
Nash Point and Monknash 192
Merthyr Mawr and Newton 198
How best to introduce a part of the world with such variety of landscapes, richness of culture and layer upon layer of history? South Wales is a land of ever-changing scenery, of glacier-carved mountains, ancient forested gorges, lush pastoral valleys, towering cliffs, windswept sand dunes and tidal sands. The water is as varied as the land, with glittering mountain streams, gentle winding rivers, glinting lakes and fairy-tale waterfall pools deep inside wooded gorges, not forgetting the ever-changing waters of the South Wales coastline, gently lapping in sheltered coves or bursting with energy in exposed tidal bays.
I was born in South Wales and have lived here for most of my life. Despite trying to leave several times, an often-intangible sense of home, or Cynefin as we say in Welsh, has always drawn me back. A term that cannot be directly translated to English, Welsh artist Kyffin Williams described Cynefin as, “that relationship: the place of your birth and of your upbringing, the environment in which you live and to which you are naturally acclimatised”. Researching and writing this book has deepened my sense of Cynefin with this wonderful part of the world which I am lucky enough to call home.
Creating a guide book to the best swim-walks in South Wales has been a labour of love. It is a privilege to be able to share some of my favourite swim spots and walks with you through this book. It has been a journey of several hundred miles in the company of wonderful people who have been so generous with their time, willing to come along on walks some of which were very much in test mode! There have been plenty of adventures – and some misadventures – along the way. There were times when I was thwacking my way through overhead brambles with my walking pole while a swarm of midges attacked my face, or taking a short cut through a river, my bag and camera balanced precariously in hands above my head, as a thunderstorm erupted out of nowhere. It was at times like these that I momentarily questioned my life choices. All this was soon forgotten in the excitement each time I discovered another perfect swim spot, and as each chapter began to take shape. Even having worked as a guide leading walks in South Wales for many years, there has been yet more to discover throughout the research process, and South Wales has delivered endless treasures. The result is a collection of 28 beautiful walks with wonderful wild swims that I am sure you will enjoy as much as I have.
Choosing which walks to include in a book about South Wales was somewhat subjective. There does not seem to be a standard agreed definition of what makes up South Wales, and indeed the boundary will differ depending on whom you ask. Splitting Wales in half would leave you with areas that most definitely wouldn’t consider themselves part of South or North Wales. Most agree that there are at least four regions; North, Mid, West and South Wales, though the Senedd – the Welsh Parliament – combines Mid & West, and further divides South Wales into three distinct regions. For the purposes of this book, my South Wales is the area from and including the Brecon Beacons southwards, east to the border with England, and west as far as the Gower Peninsula and Llandovery.
Welsh Culture & Identity
The culture and identity of the Welsh is unique.The etymology of the word ‘Wales’ is Wealas, meaning ‘others’ or ‘foreigners’. The name was used by the Anglo-Saxon newcomers, whom the ancient Britons of Wales, Cumbria and Cornwall fought for many years. In Welsh – which derives from Brythonic, the language of the ancient Britons – the name for Wales, Cymru, means ‘compatriot’ or ‘fellow countryman’. It is this same fierce sense of identity and pride that can still be found in these lands of the ancient Britons.
Wales has a reputation as ‘the land of song’ and nowhere is that more evident than in South Wales. The tradition of male voice choirs, which originated from non-conformist chapels in the 18th century, continues to this day, particularly in the communities of the South Wales Valleys. In Cardiff, songs ring out from the national rugby stadium on match days, and continue into the night in the capital’s live music venues such as the iconic Clwb Ifor Bach. The traditions of song and poetry are perhaps best discovered through the National Eisteddfod, a centuries-old event including singing and poetry competitions. The Eisteddfod alternates between South Wales and North Wales each year, visiting different communities each time. Trace the roots of one of Wales’ best-known songs on the Llandovery walk, and spot the landscapes and landmarks from the poetry of Dylan Thomas and Vernon Watkins on several walks in the Gower Peninsula.
South Wales has a long storytelling tradition, with professional bards and storytellers of the past held in great esteem as they travelled the country recounting stories passed down through the generations. The fantastical Mabinogion is a collection of folk tales first recorded in medieval times, the origins of which are thought to date back far earlier, handed down through oral tradition. I have enjoyed weaving some of these stories through the pages of this book. There is, of course, a mention of King Arthur, as well as some of the other myths and legends for which South Wales is so well known, to be found on the Twrch Valley, Sgwd Gwladus and Corn Du and Pen y Fan walks.
South Walian identity can be further explored through the strong traditions of community and socialism. Hints of socialism can be traced back to a system of ancient Welsh Law, known as the Laws of Hywel, in the 10th century. Hywel Dda, King of Deheubarth, an ancient realm comprising much of Wales, established laws that provided for equality and fair distribution of property, as well as some recognition of the rights of women. However, it was with the Industrial Revolution when people of South Wales became members of the working class, oppressed by their industrial masters, that socialism as we know it today took off. The Merthyr Rising and the Newport Chartist movements led, eventually, to improved conditions and rights for working-class communities here and throughout the country. Aneurin Bevan, born in Tredegar, and elected as MP for Ebbw Vale, spearheaded the creation of the National Health Service based on a local model of community healthcare in Tredegar. The Penderyn walk introduces us to a key protagonist of the Merthyr Rising.
The unique flavour of South Wales can be found in the kitchens of some of the many excellent country pubs, restaurants and cafés which I have recommended alongside each walk. Swim-walking tends to work up a great appetite, and it has been no hardship researching the very best places to both refuel and absorb local culture! Welsh food is perhaps best defined by the outstanding quality of the ingredients, the flavours of which need little embellishment. With room to roam on the salty marshland of the peninsula, Gower Salt Marsh Lamb has a distinctive taste that has earned it protected status; try it at the Beach House at Oxwich. With our extensive lush pastures, it is perhaps no surprise that cheese features heavily in Welsh cuisine; visit the International Welsh Rarebit Centre at Defynnog near Llyn y Fan Fawr to try the dish of the same name, or head to the Three Golden Cups in Southerndown, near Merthyr Mawr, for Glamorgan Sausages – a tasty cheese and leek mixture cooked in breadcrumbs – served in South Wales since at least the 1850s when George Borrow tells of it in his book Wild Wales. If you have more of a sweet tooth, then be sure to pick up a slice of Bara Brith, a kind of fruit loaf flavoured with tea, or some fresh welshcakes, available in any café or bakery worth its salt – unless they have sold out, of course.
The Welsh Language
You cannot talk about Welsh culture and identity without mentioning the Welsh language, Cymraeg. Welsh is a thriving language, having been brought back from the brink after deliberate suppression. Today, as an official language, Welsh has recovered and is growing in daily usage. Even in South Wales, where the use of the language has generally not been traditionally strong, Cymraeg can be heard in all parts of daily life, in shops, cafés and business meetings, at school gates and in classrooms. If you are a visitor, fear not, you will get by without a word of Welsh, but it may enrich your experience if you pick some up.
To the uninitiated, reading Welsh place names on road signs and maps is daunting. If you make the effort though, it can help you to unlock the landscape and give you clues to the past. More often than not, the Welsh names tell a story about the place, and you’ll see I have included them throughout the book. Pronunciation is not immediately straightforward, though once you know a few key rules it makes things a lot easier. At first glance, it appears that the Welsh language is not fond of vowels. In fact, Welsh has more vowels than English: ‘y’ and ‘w’ are both used as vowel sounds. Equally perplexing to non-Welsh speakers are the double letters. These are treated as one letter in the Welsh alphabet. Here are a few general rules, to help you make sense of
Ch – a soft, aspirated sound, as in the Scottish ‘loch’.
Dd – similar to the ‘th’ of ‘these’.
Ff – pronounce as an English ‘f’.
F – pronounce as an English ‘v’.
Ll – particularly difficult to master for non-Welsh speakers, put your tongue in the same position as you would to pronounce the ‘l’ sound in the word ‘clean’, but blow out slightly around the sides while saying it.
U – pronounce as ‘ee’.
W – when used as a vowel, it usually sounds similar to the English ‘oo’ in ‘pool’.
Y – changes, depending on position. If near the beginning it is usually an English ‘u’, and ‘i’ if near the end of the word.
Using the rules above, you can see that the pronunciation of the word for mountain, mynydd would be ‘munith’; ddu, meaning black, is ‘thee’; and sgwd, waterfall, is ‘sgood’.
The Shape of the Land and Water
The actions of ice and water over the millennia have done much to carve the land of South Wales into the forms we see today. The characteristic escarpments, ridges and valleys with corrie lakes of the Brecon Beacons were shaped by glaciers during the last ice age. Our walks in the western Brecon Beacons explore this distinctive landscape. A band of limestone crossing the National Park has been weathered away by huge underground rivers, forming a labyrinth of cave systems below, with limestone karst and shake holes above, as seen on the Cwm Haffes walk. Mountain streams carve through layers of mudstone and limestone to create deep gorges, with waterfalls pouring through ancient Celtic rainforest, on several walks in the south of the Beacons.
A layer of coal and substantial occurrences of iron ore across what is known as the South Wales Valleys, had the most significant impact on human activity. During the Industrial Revolution, humans changed the shape of the land forever through blasting, mining and quarrying. Trace South Wales’ industrial past on the Twrch Valley, Pen-Pych and Blorenge walks.
Rivers that rise in the mountains to the north wind their way southwards through wide, fertile river plains, with the Tawe, Ogmore, Taff, Usk and Wye reaching the sea at the Bristol Channel, and can be enjoyed on a number of walks. The estuarine waters of the Severn Estuary also flow into the Bristol Channel, which later meets the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The tidal range here is staggering, widely considered to be the second highest in the world, with between 12 and 14 metres range. Where the land meets the water, the limestone reaches an abrupt conclusion, carved away by the sea, studded with fossils and whipped up into the sand dunes and tidal beaches of our seaside walks.
South Wales has history around every corner, in every town and village, and on every expansive mountainside. Look closely at the landscape and you’ll discover the annals of human history, from the Mesolithic to the Industrial Revolution. Today, nature has begun to reclaim some of these sites from the ancient past, although modern human pressures remain evident. Many of the walks in this book take in one or more historical sites.
The history of South Wales is long and complex, with written records only starting from Roman times. The oldest burial remains in Britain were discovered at Gower on the South Wales coast, dating back 33,000 years. Traces of Mesolithic human activity have been found at Burry Holmes on Gower as seen on the Rhossili walk, at Waun Fignen Felen in the Brecon Beacons, and
at Goldcliff at the mouth of the river Usk near Newport.
From the Neolithic period, clues to South Wales’ ancient past become more tangible, with stone circles, burial chambers and standing stones still visible in the landscape, such as Maen Mawr on Walk 8. From the Bronze and Iron Ages we have yet more evidence of how people lived. There are hundreds of hill and promontory forts dating from this time, of which we meet a good number.
With the Romans came the first real infrastructure that we know of: roads, fortresses, amphitheatres, bath houses and marching camps. It is also the time of the first written accounts of South Wales and, although very likely biased, the texts do tell us much more about the people of South Wales than we would otherwise know. The Roman Empire departed in the 5th century, but their occupation left a lasting impact.
In the centuries that followed, a rich blend of Christianity and Paganism gave rise to the ‘Age of the Saints’ and early monasticism. Many church sites across South Wales had their beginnings during this time. It was also during this time, the early Middle Ages in which the legends of King Arthur and the tales of the Mabinogion are set.
The Normans arrived next and sent a fierce army to the borders between the Welsh kingdoms and England, known as the Welsh Marches, establishing castles and taking the divided Welsh kingdoms as they went. They were initially more successful in the south, though the sheer number of castle ruins such as that at Llandovery, on Walk 7, attests to the fierce opposition from the Welsh. The Normans also promoted the advancement of churches, and many of the structures we see today were built by the Normans on the site of earlier churches. A Welsh uprising in 1400, led by nobleman Owain Glyndŵr, aspired to achieve independence for Wales, but eventually failed. The Tudors then ascended to the English throne and brought about the Act of Union in 1536. Wales grew relatively peaceful in the post-medieval period, characterised by local industry and traditional agriculture. But rural life was hard, and on the coast of South Wales smuggling and shipwrecking were rife, as you will discover on the Brandy Cove and Nash Point walks.
Soon, the beauty of the country began to attract a different kind of attention, not simply somewhere to be invaded and exploited, but to be appreciated for its inherent beauty.
Romanticism is almost ingrained into the national psyche within Wales. The very essence of the landscape, both natural, historical and industrial, conjures up the sublime: the grandeur of the mountains, the mysticism evoked by countless ruins, myths and legends and the power and destruction of industry. Romanticism in art was already emerging in the 1700s in the works of Welsh artists Richard Wilson and Thomas Jones. This was before the English Romantic artists and poets of the 18th and 19th centuries came to South Wales in search of the Picturesque, which had its very origins in the Wye Valley. In Walk 24, Penallt, we discover that the likes of Turner and Wordsworth famously undertook Grand Tours of South Wales in the late 1700s, producing Romantic paintings and poetry which capture the scenic beauty of the area. On his second visit to the Wye Valley, Wordsworth wrote:
“Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur.—Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.”
Edward Williams, better known by his bardic name Iolo Morgannwg, was perhaps one of the most influential figures in Welsh Romanticism. Inspired by his homeland of Glamorgan, South Wales, Iolo Morgannwg revived and often reinvented Welsh culture and traditions using his immense knowledge of Welsh history, combined with a hefty dose of Romanticism. The impact of his work on the concept of Welsh culture and heritage cannot be overstated, even though
he remains controversial amongst scholars who prefer that stories do not get in the way of
As wild swimmers and walkers, we are undoubtedly the modern Romantics; revelling in the beauty of the landscape, the forces of nature that surround us, marvelling at castles, standing stones and burial chambers, swimming under the full moon and inventing our own stories. I unashamedly consider myself a Romantic; the natural world needs its Romantics now more than ever.
South Wales was the global centre of the Industrial Revolution. An abundance of the highest quality natural resources, along with pioneering breakthroughs in industrial methods, made South Wales one of the biggest exporters of industrial products in the world. The South Wales Valleys were home to coal mines, iron works and limestone quarrying, giving rise to rapidly growing urban communities. Coal Barons and Iron Masters made fortunes at the expense of their workers, who lived impoverished, shortened lives of hard labour and poverty. Child labour and dangerous working conditions were standard, which were to lead to the social revolutions noted earlier.
A particularly efficient way of producing iron and steel, known as ‘The Welsh Method’, pioneered in the Valleys, became widely adopted. The world’s first steam locomotive journey took place in Merthyr Tydfil, and railways and canals followed, across South Wales, from the Brecon Beacons, through the South Wales Valleys and to dockyards along the coast. Signs of industrial legacy recur throughout many of the chapters of this book, from canal paths, railway bridges, disused tramroads, and abandoned mines and quarries all featuring.
Following the decline in industrial activity, South Wales emerged as a forward-looking region, albeit with the long-lasting scars of the Industrial Revolution impacting both nature and society. Despite the relatively high population density, certainly in the southernmost belt, ‘wild’ spaces are plentiful and within easy reach. Through the pages of this book you’ll discover a National Park, two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a Heritage Coast, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. South Wales makes an unforgettable destination for walking and swimming.