Love wine? Love walking? Then you’ll love a break in the Monmouthshire town of Abergavenny, known as the gateway to Wales.
As the third glass of Welsh white wine slipped down, our day of action in the great outdoors was in jeopardy.
Just six miles from the English border, Abergavenny is built close to seven hills like those other great European metropolises Rome, Lisbon and Sheffield. We had left our bed and breakfast full of good intentions, and had set off to climb the highest of the seven, the Sugarloaf.
If you thought Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio was picturesque wait until you see its namesake in the Black Mountains. It may not have a statue of Christ the Redeemer at the top, but it does have a vineyard open to the public at the bottom.
So barely ten minutes into our hike, we stumbled upon Sugarloaf Vineyards , covering five acres of land on the south-facing slope of the volcano-looking mountain.
You may not think Wales has the conditions or the climate for growing grapes, but Sugarloaf Vineyards are located in the perfect spot for shelter, sunlight and drainage. We went on the self-guided tour of the vines to find out more.
It specialises in German and French grape varieties that are suited to a cooler climate. The grapes are not harvested until September, so the fruit was tiny when we visited in late-May. With no grapes to look at, we admired the scenic surroundings, with Abergavenny town centre below and the peaks of the Black Mountains all around us.
Samples are available, along with cakes and cheese or meat platters, from the covered terrace overlooking the vineyards. We had a tasting tray of three small glasses of white and one of rosé. I’m a big fan of bone dry white wine, but the first two samples were too dry even for me. The third, the imaginatively named ‘Abergavenny’ medium-dry white was perfectly palatable, while the rosé was the pick of the bunch for me.
The shop sells bottles to take home so maybe it would make more sense to stop here on the way down the mountain rather than on the way up. As the heavens opened, we stayed for one more glass each and waited beside the patio’s open fireplace for the Welsh weather to improve before continuing our journey to the 596m summit of the Sugarloaf.
The sun was out the next day so we went off to climb another of the Black Mountains – the 486m high Skirrid Fawr. This is about five miles north of Abergavenny – take the B4521 and park in the lay by on the left before The Walnut Tree restaurant.
The first third of the walk was hard going, steep and slippery with plenty of mud after the previous day’s downpour. The National Trust isn’t lying when it calls Skirrid Fawr ‘the mountain of myths and mud’. Apparently there are regular mudslides, and how I didn’t fall on my arse in the really boggy bits is a mystery to me.
But as soon as we were above the tree-line, the walk became much more enjoyable. The jackets came off, the sunglasses were on and we were in danger of getting sunburnt.
The view from the top is well worth the effort, with the top of Sugarloaf, the other mountains in the range and even the Bristol Channel visible.
So what else is there to do in Abergavenny?
Every September, it hosts the Abergavenny Food Festival, but you don’t have to wait until then to eat well. The Angel is a one-stop shop, acting as restaurant, hotel and busy bar. We enjoyed the 3-courses for £25 deal at the hotel’s Oak Room restaurant. Be sure to try the local rump of lamb. When in Rome and all that.
Just over the road from The Angel is the distinctive Town Hall with its bright green spired clock-tower. This is a symbol of Abergavenny and can be seen from miles around.
The ruins of Abergavenny’s Norman-built castle stand to the south of the town centre. Entrance is free, as is entrance to the adjacent museum of Welsh artefacts from the Victorian era and from the two world wars. From the castle grounds, enjoy the views of the Usk Valley and Abergavenny’s second highest mountain, the moody Blorenge, which dominates the town.
If the sun is shining, buy a cake-to-go from For The Love Of Cake (59a Frogmore Street) and take a stroll around the manicured public Linda Vista gardens. Don’t waste your time wracking your brain to remember who Linda Vista was – it means ‘pretty view’ in Spanish.
Find a bench, eat your cake and admire the knitted trees and pretty views of the Black Mountains.
Abergavenny has its own train station – change at Newport for trains from London Paddington, or at Hereford for trains from Birmingham. Driving is a doddle – take the M5, M50 and A40 from Birmingham (90 minutes), or the M4 to junction 24 from London (3 hours).
If The Angel is too pricey and the cottages at Sugarloaf Vineyards are full, do as we did and get on airbnb. There is a smattering of bed and breakfasts around town – I’d recommend this one we stayed at.
With five of the seven mountains still to climb, we’ll be back pretty soon.