It’s one of England’s (and Wales’s) most beautiful regions. Here’s why to go Wye.
The snaking River Wye is the fourth longest river in the UK and forms a long stretch of the England-Wales border. It’s also an absolute beaut, meandering between steep hills, past ancient ruins and towering trees. The Forest of Dean begins on its eastern bank, covering much of the land between the Wye and the Severn.
This is prime walking and kayaking territory, with plenty of cultural centres to explore. Having recently visited on a family holiday, here are our top 10 recommendations. Most of these can be done in a half-day, so consider pairing up two nearby attractions on any given day.
1. The view from Symonds Yat Rock
Tell someone you’re heading to the Wye Valley and (if they’ve been) they’ll nod sagely and say: “Ah, you have to try Symonds Yat”. It’s the Wye equivalent to the London Eye — the one thing that every first-time visitor must do, and with equally impressive (though very different) views.
Symonds Yat is a village that straddles the Wye but, more importantly for tourism, it also sits beneath one of the most astonishing viewpoints in western England. The rock, with its sweeping panoramas, has been attracting humans for at least 12,000 years. From up here, you can see for miles, but you also gain an excellent view of peregrines, buzzards and other raptors who nest in the rockface.
Handily, there’s a car park right on top of the rock, and driving up the narrow, extremely steep lanes is a memorable experience in its own right. Back down in the valley, you can try your hand at kayaking or cross the Wye on the famous hand-pulled ferry.
2. A fiendish hedge maze
In the shadow of Symonds Yat lies one of England’s most famous hedge mazes. The aMazing Hedge Puzzle was set up by brothers Lindsay and Edward Heyes in 1977 and the pair still personally greet visitors to this day. Once you’ve cracked the labyrinthine attraction, a small Maze Museum awaits.
The site includes several other diversions, which can be paid for individually or as a combined ticket. Try your hand at the mini-golf, fire up the laser tag, or enjoy an altogether more relaxed visit to the butterfly zoo.
3. The sylvan allure of Puzzlewood
“Please put your pens back into Darth Vader’s helmet when you leave the woods.” That’s the deadpan request made of every visitor to Puzzlewood — a Forest of Dean attraction with extra-galactic connections.
You’ve probably seen Puzzlewood without realising it. The woods here are so eye-catching that they’ve been scouted for numerous Hollywood and BBC productions. The first standoff between Kylo Ren and Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, for example, happened here. Doctor Who has made repeat visits.
The woods are a maze (truly) of gullies, mounds, overhanging roots, rock formations, stepping stones and walkways. You’ll be given a sheet of natural features to look out for, which makes exploring the woods even more alluring.
Those visiting with children might also consider popping over the road to Perrygrove. Its star attraction is a small heritage railway, which chugs around a few acres of woodland. The site also contains two playgrounds and a play barn. Puzzlewood and Perrygrove together make an excellent family day out.
4. The ruins of Tintern Abbey
Arguably the most famous landmark along the valley is Tintern Abbey. This medieval ruin on the Welsh side of the river was a magnet for poets and painters of the romantic era. The ivy-shrouded ruins in a deep, woody valley were the very embodiment of the picturesque. Sadly, the ivy was long ago stripped away to protect the stonework, but this grand survivor from the monastic age is still deeply impressive.
Once you’re done with your tour (it takes about two hours), the neighbouring Anchor Inn offers quality food and drink, with a large beer garden and family play area. Numerous other options can be found a short walk away in the village of Tintern.
5. See a world-famous map
All of the towns along the Wye Valley reward exploration, but the cathedral city of Hereford is unmissable. Its handsome buildings and ye olde network of alleys (not to mention the pubs) will keep an urbanist happy for hours. But its chief treasure lies in the cathedral.
This is the Mappa Mundi, a 13th century chart of the known world at that time. You can easily spend half an hour studying this unique work of art. Like all good maps, it fascinates on a number of levels. This is not just a map of the world, but a map of a worldview. Jerusalem is placed at the centre, a mark of its importance. The surrounding lands are populated with creatures of myth and legend, as well as more realistic fauna. The supporting exhibition is excellent, and especially well aimed at children. Be sure to also spend time in the ‘chained library’ (where all the tomes are secured to the shelves with chains) — the largest surviving example in the world.
While you’re in Hereford, consider a bite to eat in the cafe of All Saints church where, up on the mezzanine level, you can view one of the naughtiest medieval sculptures in existence (NSFW).
6. The towering Goodrich Castle
The borderlands between England and Wales contain numerous castles and fortifications. One of the more impressive is Goodrich Castle, which overlooks a particularly twisty bit of Wye near Symonds Yat. This brown, verging on terra-cotta keep commands the landscape for miles around and, save for a crumbly corner or two, looks strong enough to hold out in a siege to this day.
It’s here that you’ll find “Roaring Meg”, the largest mortar of the English Civil War. It was constructed by the Roundheads specifically to pummel Goodrich Castle, whose Royalist inhabitants soon capitulated. Remarkably some of the cannon balls from that siege have survived and are on display alongside Roaring Meg.
Other highlights include the tower-top view, the wall walkways, the dry moat (ideal for an unusual picnic spot) and, unexpectedly, the wildlife. On our mid-summer visit, hundreds of house martins were nesting within the building only a metre or two above head height. A warden also disclosed that all-but-two of the UK’s bat species have been seen in the surrounding woods, and parts of the castle are decorated with bat droppings.
7. Forest of Dean Sculpture Trail
There are many places within the forest where you can simply walk or park up and freely explore. One popular option is the Forest of Dean Sculpture Trail (parking charges apply), where you can combine an amble in the woods with a spot of art appreciation. Word of warning: the 20 or so sculptures are very spread out, so be prepared to do a decent hike if you want to catch them all. And you’ll need to acquire or download a map if you want to be sure of navigating — this is a very big site.
The area also includes an excellent cafe and visitor centre, as well as a sizeable play area. A Superworm trail for children is a little disappointing, with simple notice boards rather than any kind of worm-themed sculpture — but is still an attractive walk.
8. Dean Heritage Centre
Not far from the sculpture trail is a heritage centre devoted to the history of the area. If you’re new to the Wye Valley and Forest of Dean, this might be a good place to head on day one to give you an overview of what to expect. Alternatively, leave it till the end of your trip, by which time some of the exhibits of local history might be more meaningful. As well as cultural displays, the centre also has a small area of woodland to explore, which features a Gruffalo trail for the younger visitor. Just don’t open the outside toilet!
9) Get active
The Wye Valley is an excellent destination for anyone seeking a more active holiday. This is prime kayaking (or canoeing/paddleboarding) country, to the point where many holiday cottages come with dedicated kayak storage space. The gently flowing Wye is ideal for a spot of scenic paddling, especially around the bends of Symonds Yat. Numerous activity centres along the river cater for all ability levels and age groups. The Environment Agency has produced a booklet with tips on where to kayak, along with safety advice.
Of course, this is also a fine region to go hiking, with a winning combination of hills, valleys and woodlands to explore. You’ve got infinite options here, but a good starting point is this downloadable series of routes from the Wye Valley AONB.
10) Hay-on-Wye, the “book town”
And finally, perhaps the place most people would mention if asked to name a town on the River Wye. This pretty Welsh community is well noted for its annual book festival, which attracts some of the most famous speakers in the world. But Hay is a bibliophile’s dream at any time of year, thanks to the two-dozen bookshops (this in a town of just 1,600 people). The town is also the place to go if you love castles — the remains of two can be seen here.