The Wye Valley
A misty Autumn morning on the River Wye
The River Wye, the fifth longest river in the UK, rises in the Plynlimon Hills in mid Wales (the welsh for the river is Afon Gwy) and passes through some of the most dramatic and scenic landscape in Britain. The upper part of the river flows through Rhayader, Builth Wells and Hay-on-Wye, but the area just south of Hereford to Chepstow, where it empties into the Bristol Channel, is designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). It covers 126 sq miles (326 sq km) surrounding this 45 mi (72-kilometre) lower stretch of the river, and covers parts of the counties of Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, and Monmouthshire. It is internationally recognised for its limestone gorge scenery and dense native woodlands, as well as its wildlife, archaeological and industrial remains. It is also historically important as one of the birthplaces of the modern tourism industry.
The Wye Valley witnessed the birth of British tourism in the 18th century. The earliest known appreciation of the area's spectacular beauty can be dated to the beginning of the century, when John Kyrle developed the 'Prospect' at Ross-on-Wye (which is still there), a garden that offered superb views of the Wye Valley. In 1745, John Egerton, later Bishop of Durham, started taking friends on boat trips down the valley from the rectory at Ross. The area became more widely known following the publication of works by the poet Thomas Gray, and ‘Observations on the River Wye’, by the Reverend William Gilpin, which was published in 1782. The first illustrated tour guide to be published in Britain, it helped travellers locate and enjoy the most ‘picturesque’ aspects of the countryside. Regular excursions began to be established from Ross, the boat journey to Chepstow taking two days.
The 'Prospect' Gardens
From an early tourist guide to the River Wye
Some of the most famous poets, writers and artists of the day made the pilgrimage to the great sights of Goodrich, Tintern and Chepstow – among them Coleridge, Thackeray, and Turner. Wordsworth was also captivated by the area, writing ‘Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’ in 1798 (often shortened to ‘Tintern Abbey’, although the poem never actually mentions the Abbey).
John Constable's Tintern Abbey
A railway poster from the 1930s encouraging visitors to the Wye Valley
Poetic influence continued to be felt and the many guidebooks, engravings and paintings ensured a continuing steady stream of visitors. Viewpoints were specially constructed, including ‘The Kymin’ (now owned by the National Trust) above Monmouth, with its round house giving panoramic views across the town. Another highlight for travellers was the cliff ascent and walks at Piercefield House (now a ruin), near St. Arvans in Monmouthshire. However, most of the truly 'Picturesque' scenes were sketched from river level, with the shimmering water as the foreground for the forests and cliffs behind, and castle and abbey ruins.
The view from Symonds Yat
The Monnow Bridge
Today’s visitor should certainly visit Ross-on-Wye and Monmouth, both historic market towns. Monmouth has the Monnow Gate and Bridge, which is the sole remaining mediaeval fortified river bridge in Britain where the gate tower stands on the bridge. Goodrich Castle is a Norman medieval castle ruin north of the village, which controlled a key location between Monmouth and Ross-on-Wye. It was praised by William Wordsworth as the ‘noblest ruin in Herefordshire’. Symonds Yat Rock (‘yat’ is an Old English word that means gate, as in the entrance to a gorge) is a viewpoint which overlooks a spectacular gorge through which the River Wye snakes. Finally, where the waters of the Wye lose themselves in those of the Bristol Channel, stands Chepstow Castle, the oldest surviving post-Roman stone fortification in Britain.