Activities, Destinations, Hostels

A tri-hostel tour of the Welsh Marches

History, geology, magic and industry – the Welsh Marches have it all, and YHAs make the perfect bases for a jam-packed family holiday as the Parkyn’s found out last Easter! Over three days, the family – Sally, Brent, Theo and Max, along with grandparents Jack and Pat – travelled from their home in Cumbria to take a whistle-stop tour of the region, starting with the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire.

“There’s absolutely masses to do for families in the Forest of Dean – you could spend a whole week there!” says Sally. Being pushed for time though, the family went for Clearwell Caves to tie in with Max’s interests in geology. Formed over 4,500 years ago, these natural caverns were greatly extended by miners searching for iron, leaving a labyrinth of underground passages. The boys particularly enjoyed testing the acoustics with former mining machinery fashioned into musical instruments!

At the Norman Castle of YHA St Briavels however, it was time for a history lesson. “It was amazing to stay in a really old castle and to know that someone from history had probably been in that very same room” says Theo. The family enjoyed exploring the grounds for traces of the five resident spirits, and the boys were able to test their skills at archery. “People also let us into their rooms to have a look round” says Sally. “It was particularly interesting to see the graffiti in the prison”.

Next day, the supernatural theme continued with a visit to Puzzlewood. Reputed to be J.R.R Tolkien’s inspiration for Middle Earth, this ancient woodland is a maze of secret passageways. The exposed limestone cave system is an enchanting place for intense hide-and-seek games. “It was really cool because you knew they had filmed loads of things there like Star Wars, Merlin and Dr Who,” says Theo. Afterwards, the family found more natural wonders (and a fab kids play area) on the Forest of Dean Sculpture Trail at Beechenhurst Lodge.

Their accommodation that night also seemed worlds apart from the modern grind: YHA Wye Valley, a former manor house set within 25 acres in blissful isolation inside a picturesque bend of the River Wye. “It was barbecue night and we had a glorious time eating al-fresco in the sunshine, watching the canoeists go past,” says Sally. Besides water enthusiasts, the area is also ideal for walkers and cyclists, with miles of paths and trails to explore. A popular spot is Symonds Yat Rock, which the family visited the next day for the panoramic views over the River Severn and to try and catch a glimpse of the resident peregrines.

Back on the road again, Berrington Hall, a National Trust Mansion whose gardens are Capability Brown’s final creation, made for a cultural lunch stop. Despite being a flying visit, the beautiful parkland still made an impression. “If only it had a trampoline, I’d rate it 10 out of 10,” says Theo.

Later on, the family explored wilder landscapes as they climbed up the Wrekin, a prominent hill within the Shropshire Hills AONB. Unfortunately, the normally spectacular view was obscured by cloud but the boys enjoyed using the trig point to identify the landmarks they could see.

After so much activity, it was time to head to YHA Ironbridge Coalport for the night. As one of the original factory buildings of the Coalport China Works, it was a perfect base to introduce the boys to the Industrial Revolution. The next day, after a visit to the famous Iron Bridge over the River Severn, the family made for Enginuity – an interactive design and technology centre. Packed full of hands-on activities and with a programme of interactive shows and workshops, it’s a fantastic attraction for inquisitive minds. “We spent three hours there, it was so fun and Theo still has the catapult he made,” says Sally. “My favourite part was a huge model of how a steam engine works where you could make balls fly into the air depending on how much power you generated,” says Max.

Although it was then time to head home, with so many things still left to explore it’s likely the Parkyns will be back! And in the meantime, what could you find on a YHA holiday? Secret woods, ancient caves, medieval castles – it’s all waiting!

Sally’s top tips:

As it’s an ancient castle, YHA St Briavels Castle is understandably very popular so make sure you book well in advance. The meals at YHA Ironbridge Coalport also sell out fast so do reserve your place!

The Forest of Dean can be very muddy in the spring – so make sure you have some wellies and over-trousers!

The road down to YHA Wye Valley is incredibly steep so it’s a good idea to book a meal or take your own food. Once you get down it, you won’t want to go out again!

If you visit Enginuity, you may want to take a packed lunch as there isn’t a café on site.

Why stay in YHAs?

“They make it so easy now, even making the beds – it’s like staying in a hotel! The boys always have other kids to play with and you get to stay in some amazing locations. It would normally cost a fortune to stay right by the River Wye or in an ancient castle!” – Sally

“There’s always something going on and you can make new friends whether you’re a child or an adult. I’ve got new Skype friends now who I met when staying at YHAs.” – Theo

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