Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Wales: more than pubs and poets, castles and celebrities

Sure, Wales has plenty of incredible pubs - there's at least a couple in every village (and many dotted around the countryside not even near what you could call a hamlet.) 

Of course, the country can certainly lay fair claim to its share of poets, too, the most famous being native son Dylan Thomas.

And don't forget all the castles. As for celebrities ... who hasn't heard of Catherine Zeta-Jones or Tom Jones?

But there's a wild side to Wales that is often overlooked.

It's not a place that comes up early on in most discussions about world-class ecotourism destinations. Yet it has quite a few wonderful wild places, full of wildlife.
Kenfig Pool, Glamorgan's largest lake.

Take for example Kenfig National Nature Reserve, within a stone's throw of the south Wales coast.

It's a sand dune reserve that extends right down to the seacoast.

When I visited there, I could only spend about an hour - but I would have loved to have spent the day. However, our schedule would not allow it.

We explored a few of the trails that criss-cross the 70-acre reserve, but the highlight was Kenfig Pool, the largest lake in Glamorgan County. While there, we were fortunate to see a pair of mute swans as well as some coots.

Avid bird-watchers may also see bitterns, scaups, goldeneyes and several duck species while visiting.

It's also a great place to visit if you're a wildflower enthusiast, boasting several species of orchids and helleborines.

A mute swan calmly grooms on Kenfig Pool.

For a very different type of environment, there's AfanForest Park, not far from Cardiff, Wales. Whereas Kenfig is open, Afan is very thickly forested - including some ancient oaks within its boundaries - with a large network of trails for hiking and mountain biking.

As you have probably guessed, it is much more developed than Kenfig. There are even 4X4 jeep safaris to help you explore the park (although that's not exactly an environmentally-friendly way to visit, no matter how it's spun) which, at 48 square miles in size (120 square kilometres or greater than 30,000 acres), dwarfs Kenfig.

Like Kenfig, it also offers some good bird-watching opportunities. Woodpeckers and nightjars are fairly common.                                                                                               
The gnarly trees of Afan.

In addition to birds, the very lucky may spot a fallow deer or brown hare - both of which call the park home.

Walking along the trails through the ancient trees, I could almost picture the druids of long ago, who held oaks to be sacred, walking its paths.

But if they were there, they were as invisible as the woodpecker I could hear drumming on a tree somewhere, but never could locate.

Some of the gnarly trees also brought to mind Mirkwood of Middle Earth fame. (And rather fittingly, nearby Lothlorien Cottage offers accommodations for visitors to the area. There's no word on whether or not you have to share rooms with a hobbit, though. But they can more than likely offer you a full pint.)

Again, the time we had to spend there was far too short. 

A few hours is nothing compared to a few days - the park actually has developed two-day itineraries for visitors, complete with guide maps, to help them explore the area.

Really, I've only scratched the surface when it comes to adventuring in wild Wales. If this has whet your appetite for more, Visit Wales can certainly help you plan your adventures or point you in the right direction, whether you want to hike, bike, paddle or bird/wildlife watch.

When you are out enjoying nature, remember to try to be as low-impact as possible, practise "no-trace" hiking or biking as much as you can, for as Dylan Thomas wrote:
"I think, that if I touched the earth,
It would crumble;
It is so sad and beautiful,
So tremulously like a dream."

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