The abolition of tolls in early December on the two Severn Bridges has been estimated to be worth £100m a year to the Welsh economy. If that’s enough to entice you across the border you’ll soon find that you don’t even have to travel far into Wales to see what the country has to offer – it’s a remarkable fact that many superb sites and activities can be reached in well under an hour of crossing the bridge. Here are 10 places to visit on an easy day trip across the River Severn.
The historic county and market town of Monmouthshire, Monmouth enjoys a picturesque setting with its heart set back just a couple of hundred yards from the banks of the River Wye. Monnow Street is the place to wander, enjoy a coffee and perhaps visit the Nelson Museum, which has a fine, if unexpected, collection of memorabilia related to the eponymous vice-admiral. Take a stroll across the fortified Monnow Bridge, capped with a sturdy gate tower.
Simply put, Tintern Abbey is one of Britain’s most dramatic ruined buildings and is even more evocative when you visit than in the photographs (or indeed, Wordsworth’s poem) that may have inspired you to come here. Founded in the 12th century, this Cistercian abbey sits hard by the river Wye where its arches, abbey and cloisters glower over the border between Wales and Gloucestershire. A 3-mile return walk upstream can see you change countries up to half a dozen times.
Located at the confluence of some important trunk roads, Abergavenny is an easy place to skirt around rather than linger: that would be a mistake, for this old market town has plenty of appeal.
Architecturally and historically it is of great interest with a ruined castle. A traditional high street hosts independent shops offering an eclectic range of music, model-making and books. Be sure to explore Castle Meadows, 20 hectares of grazing land that abuts the River Usk.
Once past the (now removed) bridge tolls, you simply cannot miss Caldicott Castle. Above all, this looks like the genuine article, with a near-intact wall linking gate house and towers with almost seamless brickwork to encircle a green motte to create a stirring medieval fortress. Climb the battlements for superb views.
Tredegar House and park
The red-brick Tredegar House, on the western edge of Newport, is a 17th century mansion and regarded as one of the finest Restoration properties in Britain. The parkland is one of Newport’s green lungs and much loved amid a post-industrial landscape. Wander down the park’s last surviving oak avenue, hug a giant redwood and look out for grebe on the lakes.
Positioned dramatically by the River Wye, Chepstow is the archetypal border town with a magnificent castle at its heart. Close by, you will find the High Street of Victorian and Georgian buildings well worth exploring (‘Chepstow’ translates as ‘market place’ in Old English), a fine museum and 11th century St Marys church. Don’t overlook the Old Wye Bridge, a Regency splendour of wrought-iron arches.
Located to the south of Abergavenny, the Blorenge (561m) is a magnificently crumpled mountain that resembles a sagging Christmas pudding. Even so, its moorland flanks are easy on the eye and inviting for walkers. The summit is popular with hang-gliders, its western flanks with cyclists, its wooded glacial cwm with green woodpeckers while ring ouzel and (in summer) wheatear nest on its upland heaths.
One of the most iconic and easy climbs in Wales, Sugar Loaf’s conical summit towers 596m above the valleys, to the west of Abergavenny. Named for its perceived resemblance to a traditional cone of sugar, the mountain can be climbed from all sides, though the two most accessible approaches are from Llanwenarth. One involves a gently ascending route that arcs in a clockwise direction towards the summit from the southwest; alternatively take the more direct – and acutely steep – ascent via a magical valley – due north from the car park.
One of the great unsung wildlife reserves of Britain, the Gwent Levels seem to shiver in the shadow of the second Severn Crossing (they are clearly visible as you head across the bridge into Wales). Yet visit here and a landscape reclaimed from the sea in Roman times emerges, one where a marshland of grazing pasture is annotated by lines of woodland. Look out for the shrill carder, a rare bumblebee along with a sizeable winter starling roost and flocks of goldcrests.
Yes, Symonds Yat is emphatically in England rather than Wales but, unless you’re coming from the north, the original Severn Bridge crossing saves you a long detour via Gloucester. High drama is always available at Symonds Yat Rock, which sticks it jaw out into thin air more than 150m above the river Wye, right at the point where the river performs a screetching u-turn. The viewpoint is a good place to look out for peregrine falcon while the keen-eyed may spot a heron on the marshy banks far below. Work your way down to the water’s edge for a delightful wooded walk.