Driving across the Severn Bridge spanning the river of the same name, which separates England from Wales, you are met with the sign Croeso i Gymru – “Welcome to Wales”. Josh, 14, and Tani, 11, loved another Welsh phrase, Gwlad hud a lledrith – “The land of magic and enchantment” – as Pembrokeshire in West Wales is known. This legendary home of King Arthur was to live up to its name as we travelled its length and breadth.
Just over the Severn Bridge, we turned off to Chepstow Castle, the first of dozens of ancient strongholds we explored. Dating from 1067, this grand castle, high on a cliff above the Wye River, has a tumultuous history. We were lucky enough to visit on a Sunday, when local re-enactors, dressed as mediaeval knights, thunder amid the ruins on equally grandly dressed horses.
Following the road running parallel to the Wye River, we visited Tintern Abbey, founded in 1131. The lovely abbey has terrific audio tours, which enthralled the children as, wandering among the ruins, they learnt about the austere lives of long-dead monks.
The nearby village of St Briavels is home to St Briavel’s Castle, voted by the kids as their all-time favourite YHA hostel. Originally built as a hunting lodge for King John in 1205, the castle has 70 dormitory beds in rooms that echo with the past.
We discovered many more gems, like Dore Abbey, founded in 1147, in the village of Abbey Dore, and Arthur’s Stone, a Neolithic tomb in the hills surrounding the Golden Valley.
In the village of Pembridge, we strolled among a breathtaking array of Tudor buildings, like dolls’ houses, in a main street that hasn’t changed for centuries. Driving through the tiny town of Bredwardine, we happened on a country fair, where people dressed in Victorian clothes watched old-fashioned Punch and Judy shows and played quoits. Smiling locals served “cream teas” (scones, jam and cream) at the Norman church, and chatted to the children.
Tretower Court and Castle, situated amid rolling green hills in the beautiful valley of Usk, provided another fascinating history lesson. You can touch the Middle Ages on the oak beams of the 14th century manor, one of Wales’ best-preserved mediaeval buildings.
Equally well-preserved is the ancient town of Caerleon, which in AD 74 was the main administrative centre for the Roman army in Wales. You can see the remains of the settlement – one of Britain’s most important Roman sites – including baths and a 6000-seat amphitheatre. King Arthur is believed by many to have arrived at Caerleon in the late 5th or early 6th century AD, with the amphitheatre being the site of his “round table”. The Legionary Museum (free entry) has a terrific display of Roman artefacts.
In the northeast, the ruins of Castell Dinas Bran in Llangollen are so magical you can believe the truth of one of the legends – that the Holy Grail was actually here. If you close your eyes at spectacular Raglan Castle in Monmouthshire, you feel whisked away to the days of knights, while the romantic ruins of White Castle, near Abergavenny, are so peaceful, they seem suspended in time.