Explore the Valleys: the best days out in South Wales

View over the Valleys South Wales

A couple of weeks ago we headed off to the Valleys in South Wales for the weekend.  Despite living very close to South Wales we hadn’t visited it before!  We found so much more to do in South Wales than we were expecting, so we will definitely be back, especially now that the Severn Bridge is toll free!

Read on to find out about the best days out in South Wales!

The best days out in South Wales’ Valleys: a weekend itinerary

We spent a weekend in South Wales and so we didn’t have time to see everything the region has to offer.  We kept to the Valleys region which is a picturesque, mainly rural area around the town of Pontypridd, not far from Cardiff and Caerphilly.

I think that the attractions that we did see were a good balance between exploring the outdoors and discovering the history and culture of the Valleys.  And of course, we’ve left plenty to come back for!

Rhondda Heritage Park, Trehafod

Rhondda Heritage Park is one of the best days out in South Wales

The search for black gold, or coal, has been a huge part of life in the Valleys for centuries, and there’s plenty of reminders left in the region today.  While the mines are now closed, the Rhondda Heritage Park celebrates the people who lived and worked in this difficult industry.  The Rhondda Heritage Park is on the site of the former Lewis Merthyr Colliery at Trehafod which operated between the 1880s and the 1980s.  This attraction makes for one of the most interesting days out in South Wales, and it was our first stop on Saturday morning.

Black Gold Experience Tour

You definitely want to book yourselves onto a guided tour when you visit Rhondda Heritage Park.  The Black Gold Experience is an absolutely fascinating look into the conditions and travails of the generations of miners from this part of Wales.  And as the tours are run by former miners, you’ll get a really personal look at this important industry.

Before we took our tour, we spent a while admiring the mining equipment from the outside.  The enormous chimney stack looms high over the rest of the buildings and machinery, and the mines went almost four times as deep as the tower is tall.

Victorian mining equipment at Rhondda Heritage Park

We met Peter and Phil, our two guides.  Peter worked in the mines for many years and so he had an in-depth knowledge of contemporary as well as historic mining.  Our tour started by taking a look at some of the original mining equipment which dates from Victorian times, and still works!  Brightly painted, the enormous pistons would have brought the coal up to the surface.

Ready to go into the mines at Rhondda Heritage Park

From here we moved inside to a display where Peter told us more about the history of the mine and the man who opened it.  The kids were fascinated to hear about the animals who worked in the mines, especially the pit ponies – once the animals were taken into the mines they never saw daylight again.  However they were very well treated (as replacing them was expensive).  The same went for the mine canaries – they were also well cared for and every effort was made to revive them if they were overcome by any gas.  There were also plenty of cats about – they were needed to catch all the rats that ate the ponies’ food!

Finally we were given hard hats and it was our turn to descend into the mines.  My small kids weren’t as keen on this bit as of course it’s very dark, and the boy wasn’t really sure what it was all about.  But for kids aged about 5+ and for adults, it’s fascinating to explore the mines.  The girl was horrified to learn that in the early days of mining kids aged 4 and up would have worked in the mines, opening and closing gates for the pit ponies.  Women also worked underground, helping their husband to load coal into wagons to be dragged back up to the surface.  It was a tough and dangerous job for the whole family.

However, both the kids enjoyed the ride back up to the surface on a virtual reality wagon ride.  The verdict: neither of them are going to be miners when they grow up!

Rhondda Heritage Park Museum

Upstairs inside the main building there’s a museum with large displays of Welsh mining history.  These cover some of the better known mining disasters, as well as photographs and accounts of working in the mines and life in the Valleys area.  This museum exhibit is more suitable for older kids and adults but our kids made a beeline for the colouring table and were kept occupied while us adults looked around.

There are also other activities that you can book in advance, especially for kids during holidays and at weekends.  Check on the website (listed below) to see what’s on for your visit.

Lunch at Caffe Bracchi

Caffe Bracchi at Rhondda Heritage Park the Valleys

After your tour grab some lunch or a snack at the on-site cafe, Caffe Bracchi.  This lovely cafe serves wonderful cakes and biscuits as well as hot and cold lunches and a variety of drinks.  There’s an Italian feel to the place, as an homage to the strong Italian community in the Welsh Valleys.

Caffe Bracchi is managed by Chocolate House, who also hold chocolate making workshops, kids parties and tasting sessions opposite the cafe.  Click here for more information.

If you’ve got small kids with you then there’s a large playground at the far end of the Heritage Park with loads of equipment for kids to burn off excess energy.

Rhondda Heritage Park: Know before you go

Tickets for the Black Gold Experience need to be booked in advance; adults pay £6.95 and children £5.75 (family ticket £19).  Click here to book your tickets.

The Welsh Mining Experience is closed on Sundays in October through March, and is also closed every Monday.  Opening times on Tuesdays to Saturdays are 9.30 to 4.30.

Llancaiach Fawr Manor

Llancaiach Fawr Manor, the Valleys, Wales

When we heard that Llancaiach Fawr Manor was one of the top 10 haunted houses in Britain we couldn’t resist visiting!  So after our morning at Rhondda Heritage Park we headed for Llancaiach Fawr Manor, which is only about 20 minutes’ drive away.

Llancaiach Fawr Manor is a large manor home that dates from 1550 and was built for Dafydd ap Richard.  It looks a little tougher than many other houses built at this time – it was designed to be easily defended and is partly fortified.

This manor house makes for an immersive visit – once you arrive you step back in time to 1645 and the time of the Civil War.  The whole of Llanaciach Fawr is laid out as it would have been during the time of the Prichard family, and you’re issued with formal entry papers which must be given to the servants on arrival. . The staff are all in costume and character (based on real life inhabitants of the house) and speak using 17th century language, which really adds to the realism!

Guided tour of Llancaiach Fawr Manor

Guided tour at Llancaiach Fawr Manor

Although you’re free to look around the house by yourself, I really wouldn’t recommend going it alone.  You want to talk to the staff and listen to what they have to say about life in the middle ages – even small kids will be drawn in to their stories. Our son and daughter listened, rapt, to all sorts of gruesome tales of 17th century life.

Kitchen at Llancaiach Fawr Manor, one of the best days out in South Wales

Our tour started in the kitchen where the kitchen maid explained how the servants would have used dead rats to ferment their cider.  The kids had a go at turning the spit in the enormous fireplace- the kitchen boys would have sat there for up to 12 hours at a time roasting the household’s meat.

The tour then took us upstairs to look at some of the reception rooms, the Parlour and Great Hall, where we found out more about Edward Pritchard and his life, and heard more stories about children sweeping chimneys and being dangled into toilets to remove any blockages (Llancaiach Fawr had two indoor toilets in 1645 which was a sign of the family’s wealth).  Again, my children were not keen on 17th century job opportunities!

Master bedroom at Llancaiach Fawr Manor

The manor house had several bedrooms on the highest floor and the kids had a great time looking at and playing with some historic kids’ toys.  They also had a go at holding some of the weapons in the armoury, where we had a talk about the Civil War and the household’s role in hosting King Charles.

This was a fascinating visit and we all learned a huge amount!  But, I hear you ask, did we see any ghosts?  Sadly not, but you can visit Llancaiach Fawr Manor in the evening on a ghost hunt if you like…

More things to see at Llancaiach Fawr Manor

Outside, Llancaiach Fawr’s gardens are lovely for a stroll and they include a lovely physic garden and carefully kept topiary.  There’s also a visitor centre which explains much more about the history at the time of the Civil War, the house and its inhabitants.  This has interactive games for kids to play on.

There’s also a cafe on site which serves meals, drinks and snacks, although we didn’t eat here as we’d already had lunch at Caffe Bracchi.

Llancaiach Fawr Manor: Know before you go

Entry costs £8.50 per adult and £6.95 per child (kids under 5 go free).  Opening times are 10am to 5pm Tuesday to Sunday (closed Mondays).   The Manor is closed over the Christmas and New Year periods.

If you want to book a ghost tour then you need to book in advance – more information on the website.

Parc Slip Nature Reserve

The countryside around the Valleys area is beautiful.  You’ve got mountains and wooded fields and the coast isn’t far either!  On Sunday morning of our weekend in South Wales we decided to visit Parc Slip Nature Reserve, a former coal mine that has been returned to its natural state.  Parc Slip is near Bridgend.

The history of Parc Slip Nature Reserve

Parc Slip Nature reserve, South Wales

Parc Slip Nature Reserve is on the site of a former coal mine, the Parc Slip Colliery.  This covered an extensive area and many local men and boys worked here.  Tragically, there was an enormous explosion in the pits in August 1892 and more than a hundred miners were killed.  The mine itself didn’t last much longer, and closed in 1904.

The mine stayed abandoned until the 1980s when work began on filling in the old pits and returning the land to a natural state.  Parc Slip is now unrecognisable from its mining days, although there are a few signs of its past here and there.

What to do at Parc Slip Nature Reserve

Playing at Parc Slip Nature Reserve, best days out in South Wales

Parc Slip is full of walking and cycling trails, and so you don’t need to have anything in particular organised – just pick a trail map from the visitor centre and see what you find!  The area is filled with wildflower meadows, boardwalk paths and dotted with lakes and ponds, perfect for attracting all sorts of wildlife.

If you’re interested in bird watching then there are several hides at Parc Slip, all overlooking different habitats where you might catch a glimpse of some rare birds.  There’s a list of recently spotted species at the visitor centre so check this out before you go on your walk.

My children enjoyed finding sculptures around the reserve – we found giant animals and other sculptures themed around Parc Slip’s mining past.  There’s also a memorial to the 112 men and boys killed in the Parc Slip disaster which we passed – it’s made up of one stone for each miner who died.

Looking for snakes under hides at Parc Slip Nature Reserve, South Wales

We took a guided walk while we were at Parc Slip, and as well as looking out from the bird hides, we were able to hunt for other kinds of wildlife too.  Our guide, Megan, showed let the children peep under large metal tiles which are left out as shelter for small creatures.  We were hoping to see some grass snakes or adders, but the day was probably too warm for the snakes to be under the tiles, and so we didn’t find any.  But we did manage to find a rare Great Crested Newt, which we weren’t allowed to photograph due to their protected status.  This was a fun hands on activity for the kids and they really enjoyed this part of the walk!

Parc Slip Nature Reserve: Know before you go

Parc Slip Nature Reserve visitor centre

Parc Slip is administered by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales.  The nature reserve is free to explore – happy days!  There’s an onsite cafe at the visitor centre which is set by a small lake and serves drinks, sandwiches and snacks, and has and more information and colouring activities for the kids.

Parc Slip also puts on events regularly – these range from seasonal events like Easter Egg hunts to guided walks and specialist wildlife spotting.  These events usually cost about £2 each, and details can be found on the Welsh Wildlife Trust website.

Woodlands Bistro at Tondu House Farm

Woodlands Bistro at Tondu House Farm South Wales

After our visit to Parc Slip Nature Reserve, we headed five minutes up the hill to Woodlands Bistro at Tondu House Farm, set in picturesque countryside with far reaching views across the Valleys.

View over the Valleys South Wales

Tondu House Farm is home to STEER – The Enterprise Academy in the week, a charitable organisation where vulnerable people in the local community are supported through a variety of employment training and volunteering opportunities.   Also on the site is a Men’s Shed, a UK wide initiative which is a place for people (usually but not restricted to, older men) to meet and learn practical skills.  A forest school is also being built for children with learning difficulties, and STEER will soon be offering Forest School Training courses.

Garden at Woodlands Bistro Tondu South Wales

The kids, however, were most interested in the lovely garden with its huge tree covered in rope swings, and it was hard to tear them away!  However, Sunday lunch was calling so we headed into the Bistro for lunch.  This Bistro is part of STEER and provides employment for vulnerable people.

Sunday lunch was absolutely delicious – I had a nut roast and veggie gravy with all the trimmings (including a fabulous cauliflower cheese) and the husband went for roast beef.  This was the best roast we’ve had for ages and the Bistro itself is really lovely with great views and a cosy feel.

It was the perfect end to a fantastic weekend in South Wales!

Woodlands Bistro: Know before you go

You should book your Sunday lunch at Woodlands Bistro before you go – check their Facebook page for more details.  Tondu is just five minutes from the M4 so it’s very accessible, although you’d have no idea looking out over the peaceful valley!

More things to do in South Wales

Caerphilly Castle

Dragon at Caerphilly Castle
Photo copyright: The Valleys

We really wanted to visit Caerphilly Castle but ran out of time on our way home, so this will be first on our list for a return visit to South Wales!  It’s the second largest castle in Britain, and it’s also home to a dragon or two, which is guaranteed to please small girls and boys (and adults!).

Caerphilly Castle is surrounded by elaborate moats, and parts of its 13th Century structure are in ruins, but you can look inside the Great Hall and other rooms.  There are regular events put on throughout the year, and most are suitable for kids of all ages.

Caerphilly Castle is open throughout the year (check opening times on the website as they vary).  Entry costs £8.90 per adult and £5.30 for kids aged 5 and up.

The Royal Mint

The Royal Mint makes coins for the UK and 60 other countries, making it the biggest exporter of coins in the world.

At the Royal Mint you can take a 45 minute guided tours which explain how the coins are made, and even gives you the chance to strike your own coin (at extra cost).  There’s also an exhibition area which is self guided.  The exhibits are family friendly and events are put on throughout the year, so check the website before you go to see what’s on.

The Royal Mint is open 7 days a week and is located just 12 miles from Cardiff.  Tickets cost £13.50 per adult, £11.00 for kids aged 5 and up, and family tickets cost £40.  Booking your tickets in advance online is recommended and it will save you money.

Adventure activities in the Valleys

The Summit Centre South Wales
Photo Copyright: The Valleys

There’s plenty to do for older children who are into adventure sports in the Valleys too.  The Summit Centre (pictured) has a range of indoor and outdoor climbing and adventurous activities.

Some of the best days out in South Wales can be found along its coastline.  The sandy beaches in Porthcawl are fantastic for walking, picnicking, and hiring Fat Bikes (sadly our kids were too small for this activity!).  Hire them from Porthcawl Bike and Surf.

Walking in the Valleys

Four young female walkers (resting and looking over Ogwr Valley) Ogwr Valley Bridgend County South Walking Activities & Sports
Photo copyright: The Valleys

There are numerous hiking trails through the Welsh Valleys and the views make the effort worth it!  You can also trace some of Wales’ history and myths along these paths – for more details see The Valleys website for the trails and more.

If you’d like to read more about some of these extra activities then take a look at this post from Heather on her Travels.

Where to stay in the Valleys, South Wales

Tondu House Farm AirBnB

There’s a lovely AirBnB at Tondu House Farm, just above the Woodlands Bistro.  This is ideal for families and groups as it can sleep up to 12 people.  Onsite there’s a pizza oven, the Woodlands Bistro and the lovely gardens and grounds.  It’s perfect for accessing all of the above attractions.  Click here to book.

You could try out some glamping at Under The Oak campsite – they have ensuite safari tents and hot tubs!  We were keen to stay here during our Valleys trip but sadly we were too early and the season hadn’t started.  Next time!  Click here to book.

We ended up staying in the ever reliable Premier Inn.  There are several hotels in the area to choose from – click here to book.

Disclaimer: We were invited to South Wales by the Valleys.  We received free entry to the above attractions.  All opinions are my own.

I hope you’re inspired to visit the Valleys in South Wales.  There are so many amazing days out in South Wales, and we can’t wait to get back to explore more of this beautiful and historic area.

Pin this post for later!

The Valleys are a beautiful area in the heart of South Wales. Take a look at the best things to do in South Wales, including discovering the area's mining history at Rhondda Heritage Park; learning about life in the Civil War at the Haunted Llancaiach Fawr Manor; and exploring the beautiful scenery at Parc Slip Nature Reserve. #familytravel #ukdaysout #southwales #thevalleys #travelguide #travel #uktravel

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