Llangollen is one of north Wales’s main tourist honeypots. On a busy weekend, its streets are choked with visitors shuffling between the steam train and the famous aqueduct, the ice-cream shops and the many pubs. But two miles over the hill to the south is a pristine rural valley that seems to have escaped mass tourism altogether.
The Ceiriog Valley isn’t on the way to anywhere, and seems to be protected by a happy lack of visitor attractions. It is ringed by mountains but they aren’t as high or jagged as Snowdon, just to the north. There used to be a famous tree – the 1,200-year-old Pontfadog Oak – but it blew over last year. What there is – farms, hills, sheep, a pretty river and a delicious sense of peace – is harder to market.
We found it by accident. It was half-term and I’d left arranging our holiday until the night before we were due to leave. Snowdonia was booked solid but increasingly frantic Googling eventually threw up a pretty-looking converted chapel a few miles from the village of Pontfadog.
A few hours later we were passing the vast bulk of Chirk Castle (completed 1310), which guards the valley’s entrance. The road narrowed, the hedgerows starting to brush both sides of the car at once, the trees closing in overhead. Young pheasants kept popping out from the undergrowth, and soon we were driving at walking pace, shepherding a procession of small birds too silly to move out of the way.
Eventually, we emerged from the leafy tunnels to find ourselves in a sort of pastoral cliché. At its centre was Plas Pennant, a beautiful 17th-century manor house on the side of a hill, looking out over gardens, then sloping fields. We parked beside the stable block, hens pecking around our feet as we unloaded the luggage. A sheepdog came out to greet us, then rolled on its back for a tickle.
The house and outbuildings belong to Nick Davies, inspector of historic buildings for Cadw, the Welsh government’s heritage body. He bought the estate in 1997 and began a painstaking restoration, using traditional lime mortar on the stone walls, for example, so that today it looks much the same as when it was built.
Davies lives in the main house, renting out several of the outbuildings. We stayed in Capel Pennant, now a retreat for two. It’s small but stylishly done – the Shaker kitchen, column radiators and exposed rafters painted in Farrow & Ball tones, the stairs up to the bedroom in the eaves covered in natural sisal. The living room has a deep sofa, big fireplace, the odd ecclesiastical hint (numbers on a hymn board show today’s date) and lots of cosy Welsh blankets.
We stayed for three nights, eating out one night at The Hand, a delightful pub in the village of Llanarmon at the far end of the valley, but mainly staying in and enjoying the silence. Our last day coincided with the valley’s big show and in fields beside the river Ceiriog, we watched sheepdog trials, sheep shearing contests and tiny children riding in a gymkhana. We didn’t see another tourist.
Plas Pennant is four miles west of Chirk station (trains take 29 minutes from Chester, two hours 40 mins from London). However, a car is pretty much essential for exploring.
Hot holidays: family adventures
Children as young as 10 can join KE Adventure’s 16-day Himalayan trip. It involves eight days walking through the Khumbu region, passing through the Sherpa capital Namche Bazaar, enjoying views of Mount Everest and reaching the monastery at Thyangboche (3860m). It’s a group trip, with a minimum of four, maximum 13 people. From £2,075 for adults, £1,645 for children; keadventure.com
For the ski-mad family, this has to be the ultimate treat. Canadian Mountain Holidays, the company that invented heli-skiing almost 50 years ago, is running three special family weeks next season. Even getting there is an adventure – two of the three wilderness lodges used are only accessible by helicopter. Children must be 12 or over to ski. From C$4,385 for four days; purepowder.com
A five-day cycling trip takes families through the Highlands, from one shore of Scotland to the other, via canal tow paths, forestry roads, Land Rover tracks, footpaths and quiet country roads. It’s a private, rather than group trip, with luggage transferred between hotels each day. The route covers up to 31km daily; recommended for children over 11. £600 per person; wildernessscotland.com
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