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IN fewer places are the outdoors as truly great as in unspoilt, undulating Wales. Certainly we East Anglians are about the best people to appreciate it, coming from a landscape that’s mostly below sea level, so it was with hungry eyes that I took in the dramatic, rolling hills and sheep-filled valleys of Mid-Glamorgan, South Wales, on my first visit to the land of daffodils, scenery and song.
Ok, so the industrial south coast may not sound like the most idyllic of all the regions, but you’d be surprised how many hidden gems it yields: from romantic, crumbling castles to friendly pubs.
Keen to breathe as much country air as possible, I settled myself in the tucked-away village of Ogmore-by-sea. Situated just below Bridgend, Ogmore is dominated inland by the ruins of a Norman castle and further out, by a silvery sweep of beach bordered by the largest sand dunes in Europe. It’s quiet, too, lending a magical, undiscovered charm to the land, which seems to lie as it has done for centuries, untouched by time.
Getting back to nature in the land of scenery and song
Families or groups looking to get back to nature can stay in one of the ready-constructed tipis set up in the lee of Ogmore Castle, by the river. For those of us raised on Famous Five stories, that sense of excitement at building camp fires and exploring mysterious ruins never really goes away, so a night in one of these impressive dens was not to be missed. After cooking (well, partially anyway) a couple of jacket potatoes on the fire and sharing a few ghost stories, it was time to bed down, the gentle grunt of distant horses the only indication of life outside.
I continued my outdoor adventure the next morning by saddling up one said horses (hopefully not the one that came snuffling round our tent in the small hours) at Ogmore Farm Riding Centre, situated just a stone’s throw away.
The school offers exhilarating hacks across nearly every terrain imaginable: having mounted my steed (the lovely Ringlets, pictured there on the right), we set off, wading through the swollen river by the castle then breaking into a trot as we crossed the fields in the sunshine.
The group was made up of riders of various abilities, with chances to join the faster riders for a canter or hang back and enjoy the scenery. Though I’d ridden for years as a kid, it was a good decade since I’d last been on four legs. But, under the confident eye of ride leader Rob (not to mention getting swept away a little by the rousing fresh air) I fell back into it quicker than you can say ‘Hi-ho, Silver’ and was soon tearing along forest paths and across the gleaming sands, my old teenage fearlessness not quite gone. There’s surely no more exciting, more organic way to explore the countryside than from the back of a beast – especially one like Ringlets who had a definite glint of adventure in her eye.
When all that nature gets a bit much, the region has plenty of more civilised activities to offer, and Hazelwood Guest House just outside Bridgend is a perfect base from which to explore the cities of Cardiff and Swansea (both around 20 miles away in opposite directions).
Run by Anne and Tony Gallagher, it has six immaculate en suite rooms and a friendly home-from-home feel: the huge, hearty Welsh breakfast served up in the mornings, along with a friendly smile and a chat, lived up exactly to my expectations of the welcoming Welsh.
As well as the two big cities, there are lots of fabulous restaurants to discover nearby. I called in to Leicester’s at The Great House Hotel, Laleston, for an evening meal and was impressed by the food, service and enchanting atmosphere of this 15th century former coaching house.
The pre-dinner nibbles – bites of beetroot in goat’s cheese and breadcrumbs – and herb-crusted cod main were especially innovative and delicious, presented with flair yet not lacking in substance. Feeling satisfied, yet still drawn to the desert menu, we rounded off our visit with an Eton mess to share, featuring a muddle of seasonal berries, crispy meringue and cream. uncompromising contours.
Full of fresh air and good food – and having rekindled my love of horseriding – I waved a fond farewell to Wales: still, I know when I next get my bike out I’ll be glad of Cambridge’s steady, uncompromising contours.
> First published by Cambridge Newspapers Ltd.