Rhondda Valley, Wales (review published 2004)

The legendary Tom Jones once sang about the green green grass of home.
In  truth, the South Wales valleys where he was born and raised were not green at  all when the song went to No.1 in 1966.
They had been scarred by an intensive mining and heavy engineering industry which by then was in terminal decline.
Today, however, valleys such as Rhondda are lush once more and even reinventing themselves as genuine tourist hotspots.
But the locals are proud of their industrial triumphs and the history of South Wales is playing a big part in this revolution.
Heritage Park Hotel – 20 minutes from both Cardiff and the Brecon Beacons –  is an ideal base from which to explore the area.
It was built on the site of the former Lewis Merthyr Colliery which was mined for 133 years until the last coal was raised in 1983.
The Rhondda Heritage Park, next door to the hotel, tells the story of the colliery and the people who lived and worked in the valley.
There’s a village street scene and a cage ride to the pit floor where a former miner will guide you through the underground roadways.
You can step further back in time at Cyfarthfa Castle in nearby Merthyr  Tydfil, built in 1824 by the ironmaster William Crawshay.
Wide lawns sweep down from the castellated mansion to a lake which once supplied water to the immensely successful ironworks.
Founded in 1765, the industry was responsible for making Merthyr the largest town in Wales by the middle of the 19th century.
The castle is now a museum and  art gallery.
Audi-visual techniques are used to tell Merthyr’s 3,000-year history in the basement. While the upper floors are a grand setting for displays of paintings as well as eclectic collections from the ancient world.
Merthyr fashion designer Julien Macdonald has also pledged to donate his favourite dress from each season to the museum.
Already on display is the sparkling silver dress worn by pop star Britney Spears to the UK premiere of her film Crossroads.
And there’s the backless gold outfit which helped Joely Richardson grab headlines at the first screening of Maybe Baby.
Contemporary designs of a different kind can be found at Model House Craft  & Design Centre in the ancient hill town of Llantrisant.
There are a number of specialist shops and you can purchase work directly from the artists in their studios. The centre also hosts about 10 exhibitions a year ranging from glass and ceramics to jewellery and textiles. Admission is  free.
Llantrisant has an interesting history and in the town square is a statue of  Dr William Price, the controversial pioneer of cremation.
 pp
Did you know?
  • Welsh whisky production is being revived at Penderyn – a village in the Brecon Beacons -with a supply of pure spring water. Launched last St David’s Day, the ‘Dangerously Easy to Drink’ Penderyn Single Malt Whisky is the first genuine Welsh whisky in over 100 years. A Whisky Visitor Centre will open at the distillery next year.
  • South Wales has many challenging and picturesque golf courses where you can tee off 1,000ft above sea level. The Celtic Manor course in Newport will host the 2010 Ryder Cup.
  • Caerphilly Castle is one of the largest fortified castles in Europe,  sprawling over 30 acres, with a tower that out leans the one in Pisa.
Travel file

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