When I moved to the country in 2012, I never intended to end up living on the edge of a market town. I sought wild challenges and self-sufficiency but after six years of moderate triumph and major disaster, I had to retreat to a terraced town house in 2018.
But that town is Abergavenny and, 18 months on, I consider the retreat a lucky break. It is one of the most charming places to live in Britain. Best of all, sitting where the River Usk carves a gap between the Black Mountains and the central Brecon Beacons, the town welcomes river, wood, hill and meadow into its heart.
There are great walks in every direction and even a Norman castle.
Paul Bishop of Rawlings Butchers in Abergavenny ©Oliver Edwards
Food is also a vital part of that connection to landscape and the shops of Abergavenny offer a fantastic taste of not just the local area but Welsh specialities in general, from cheese and beef to new potatoes and beer. As well as the shops on the high street, the grand market hall offers a wide selection of stalls – cheese, bread, vegetables, fish and meat. The celebrations culminate in September’s internationally famous food festival (see box), when the entire town seems full of stalls groaning with extraordinary wonders. All this is music to the ears of anyone looking for a picnic feast or post-walk refreshments.
Let’s start with the basics: bread and cheese. Anyone driving through the town on the A40 will spot the grand façade of The Angel Hotel. The owners have recently opened a magnificent bakery in the tiny street beside the hotel, with baguettes, croissants, sourdough breads and supremely delicious cakes.
Every picnic needs a few sweet treats and The Angel Bakery should not be missed ©Oliver Edwards
There is a great cheese stall in the market – only there on Fridays and Saturdays – but I am addicted to the cheese sold in The Marches Delicatessen on Nevill Street. Sourced from across Wales and with a huge map on the wall to show you where, the cheeses are sensational. The shop is crammed with other Welsh products: meat from local smokeries, salt from Halen Môn, whisky from Penderyn in the Valleys and much more.
There are two brilliant butchers in the town centre. If it’s pies, Scotch eggs and cold meats you’re after, head to HJ Edwards, which has a counter The Famous Five would be proud of. But for sausages and bacon, you can’t beat Rawlings on Market Street. Paul the butcher there showed me the wall of gold awards and medals he’s won for his work.
Take your time exploring the newly pedestrianised town centre, gather your treats, then set off on a lovely four-hour walk, taking in some beautiful countryside on the Sugar Loaf mountain just north of Aber.
1. Country lanes
You can either drive to the small car park on Chapel Road just north of the town, or walk from the centre. If you choose the latter, cross the A40 outside Tesco at the end of Frogmore Street and head up Pen y Pound. Turn left up grand Avenue Road and follow it for a mile until it becomes Chapel Lane, and then a kissing gate takes you on to Chapel Road. Ignore Pentre Lane to the left and head north uphill for about half a mile until you reach a car park. There is a wonderful view back towards Abergavenny and the Blorenge behind it.
The lower slopes of Sugar Loaf hide a number of unspoiled wooded vales that the crowds seem to miss ©Oliver Edwards
2. Farm to fields
Take the path left along a densely hedged lane and through a farmyard. The footpath breaks left into woodland and pretty meadows – cuckoos and redstarts dominate in spring.
Follow the clear, broad track as the trees open out into sheep-grazed parkland with stands of bracken and foxgloves. The path takes you gently upwards with a thickly wooded valley to your right and more open land ahead and to your left. You’ll see the summit of Sugar Loaf mountain ahead but you’re not climbing it today.
3. Wild vale
Cross a couple of stiles in a small patch of woodland (there are usually a few dens here, built by children) and continue straight ahead on to open grassland with fenced woodland to your left. At the end of the fence, take a lazy right turn through scattered trees and pasture. Keeping the fence to your right, wander uphill until you reach a broader track. This path will take you east-north-east into a beautiful oak and hazel woodland, home to bluebells, wood warblers, redstarts and pied flycatchers in spring. Few people come to this part of the valley as most like to press on to climb the peak, but there is much more wildlife to be found here.
The perfect picnic spot to look back on the two to the south ©Oliver Edwards
The gentle woodland stroll undulates from glade to glade. Ignore side tracks until you come to a steep downhill path on your right. Take this and follow the stream through a narrow wooded valley until you reach the sheep pastures of Parc Lodge Farm. There are some enticing duck ponds here but don’t be too distracted as you’ll miss the footpath, which skirts the farmyard through fields (I missed it once and was gently told off by the farmer).
5. Usk meander
From here the track takes you through meadows and woods. If your car is in the car park, follow this for about a mile. If you are wandering back to town, take a left-hand path up into the woods just before the main track crosses the stream. This gives you an extra adventure on the Deri, a foothill of Sugar Loaf. When you reach a big house called Sunny View, follow the lane south back to town.
There are many lovely options for tea and cake, but Bean & Bread, The Chapel and Fig Tree Espresso cafés are all perfect. And if you can handle an evening stroll, meander along the River Usk through Castle Meadows and Linda Vista Gardens. I’ve found 100 picnic spots along here alone.
Click on the map below for an interactive version of the route