Darren Calpin sets off on the South Wales stretch of the M4. His mission? To use this teasing conveyor belt as a gateway to the region’s hidden gems
Did you know that South Wales is less than 150 miles from both London and Nottingham? Indeed, most people living in central and south east England can easily drive to this lesser-visited part of the UK in under three hours, and still have time to stop at a soulless Moto Services along the way.
This is something I’m mulling over as I motor past the bilingual ‘Welcome to Wales/Croeso i Gymru’ sign on the A40 heading south west towards Cardiff. Thankfully, the incessant wind and rain that’s battered my little Fiesta relentlessly since I set off two hours ago has retreated, allowing some very welcome, yet still rather tentative rays of sunshine, to come out and play. The verdant Wye Valley sprawled before me looks just as delighted to see them as I do.
Driving along with that curious kind of excitement that always seems to pop up whenever the final furlong of a road trip kicks in, I start to go over everything I know about South Wales. Ten seconds later and I’m done, my extensive powers of recall throwing up the Severn Bridge, Cardiff, mining and the Brecon Beacons. This can’t be right. How can I know so little about a part of Britain that isn’t that far away? I’m rightfully ashamed and immediately vow to use my time here – only a few days, sadly – to right this heinous wrong.
A showcase corridor
Extending just over 65 miles from the Severn Estuary in the east to Swansea in the west, the South Wales stretch of the M4 is effectively a showcase corridor for the entire region’s wares. Thus, taking a casual drive along it is a great way to get an overview of all the area has to offer. And, judging by the number of brown tourist attraction signs visible at nearly every single junction, there seems to be an awful lot of offerings to choose from.
My first stop, Tredegar House, is only a mile from junction 28. Set in 90 acres of landscaped gardens and picturesque parkland, this stately red brick country house is one of the best examples of a 17th century Charles II mansion in the whole of Britain. Strolling around the main building’s grand, Carolean-style exterior, it’s easy to see why it was described as ‘The most splendid brick house of the 17th century in Wales’ by noted architectural historian Peter Smith. The vast stables, which are almost as big as the main house, are very impressive too.
It is however, the house’s owners – the immensely influential Morgan family (later Lords Tredegar) – that make the greatest impression of all. As well as being one of the most powerful landowning families in the area, the Morgans were a notoriously eccentric dynasty and, as such, the house’s alluring interiors are filled with tales of adultery, debauchery, Satanism, treachery and even piracy.
Our knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide brings all of this to life wonderfully well as he tells us, with evident delight, how various family members, including the notorious pirate Captain Henry Morgan, courted scandal on an all too frequent basis, flying in the face of the conservative attitudes of the day with their eccentric tastes, decadent desires and endless ambitions.
Learning about such clandestine details and, in many cases, seeing the rooms in which many of the actual events took place, makes a tour around this historic National Trust property far more thrilling than you might initially expect.
Rolling green valleys
Back on the teasing conveyor belt of attractions that is the M4, my eyes are drawn to a small yet rather romantic looking castle nestled on a wooded hillside above the village of Tongwynlais near junction 32.
This is Castell Coch (the Red Castle) and, with its turreted towers and bucolic setting, it’s fair to say it has quite a fairytale air to it. It turns out junction 32 is the turn off for the A470, a 300km long road linking Wales’ north and south coasts which, thanks to its abundance of natural beauty, glut of historic industrial sites and wealth of tourist attractions, has drawn favourable comparisons with Scotland’s North Coast 500.
Even a short drive north into the rolling green valleys of the Rhondda reveals the region’s strong association with mining. The viscerally fascinating Rhondda Heritage Park, also known as the Welsh Mining Experience, is just a short detour away at the former Lewis Merthyr Colliery.
A little further north along the A470 is Aberfan, a former mining village which will forever be associated with disaster. It was here, at 9.15am on 21st October 1966, that 116 children and 28 adults died when a landslide caused by the collapse of a colliery spoil tip completely engulfed the local junior school, effectively wiping out an entire generation in moments. If it had happened just half-an-hour earlier then it’s likely no children would have perished at all.
The A470 continues north past Bike Park Wales, one of the world’s best mountain bike parks, and on to Merthyr Tydfil (the Town of Steel) and the Brecon Beacons. Though I’d happily carry on all the way up to Llandundo, my journey takes me east to facilitate an eventual loop back down to the M4. After passing through more small, post-industrial towns characterised by rows of terraced houses and, in some cases, some rather moving sculptures, I eventually stop at Bedwellty House in Tredegar.
A true legacy
Once owned by those ever lively Morgans, this attractive Grade-II listed Regency villa is known for its strong associations with Chartism, local industry and social welfare. Indeed, Bedwellty House became a centre of the labour movement in Wales when, in 1900, the house and park were given over to the people of Tredegar.
Moreover, it was here that Aneurin Bevin, the eventual father of the National Health Service, cut his teeth as a politician and learnt his oratory skills in the on-site debating chamber. After seeing free occupational healthcare develop – and work – in and around Tredegar, Bevin was inspired to say “All I am doing is extending to the entire population of Britain the benefits we had in Tredegar for a generation or more. We are going to ‘Tredegar-ise’ you.”
The property itself is a delight, with historical exhibits, beautiful gardens (replete with Edwardian bandstand), a charming tea room and even the world’s biggest lump of coal – 15 tonnes – all on hand. But it is the well preserved debating chamber, where a film of Bevin’s childhood struggles, experiences and inspirations plays on a loop, which is undoubtedly the standout feature.
What a legacy this part of Wales has left to Britain… and the world!