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My Britain: Wye Valley

BY Alice Gawthrop

8th Feb 2024 My Britain

5 min read

My Britain: Wye Valley
In this month's My Britain we explore the beautiful Wye Valley, from the bookshop-lined streets of Hay-on-Wye to the birthplace of British tourism, Ross-on-Wye
Straddling the border between England and Wales sits the Wye Valley, an area known for limestone gorge scenery, dense native woodlands, and of course the winding River Wye. 
The valley has been inhabited for at least 12,000 years, with caves near Symonds Yat and Chepstow bearing evidence of human settlement dating back to Palaeolithic times. Closely following the River Wye is Offa’s Dyke, the longest archaeological monument in Britain. It was built in the 8th century by King Offa to mark the boundary between England and Wales. 
As well as its lovely people, the Wye Valley is home to rich wildlife habitats, with peregrine falcons and nightjars roaming the skies while shad and twaite swim in its waters. Three sites in the area are of international importance, having been designated as Special Areas of Conservation under the EU’s Habitats Directive: these are the River Wye, the Wye Valley and the Forest of Dean Bat Sites.
The Wye Valley is also known as the birthplace of the British tourism industry: in the early 18th century, John Kyrle developed the Prospect, a public garden in Ross-on-Wye offering views over the Wye. Later, in 1745, John Egerton began taking friends on boat trips down the valley. The Wye Valley attracted poets, writers and artists, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Thackeray. The area drew people in with its picturesque river scenery, and continues to do so today.

James Walton, owner of pub and B&B the Old Black Lion

The Old Black Lion
I’ve lived in Hay-on-Wye for about two and a half years now. It’s such a lovely town, and the area around is just fantastic. We used to live in the southeast of England but we fancied a change, and we just fell in love with Hay. 
There’s a huge independent spirit in Hay-on-Wye—other than the estate agent’s and the Spar, I don’t think we’ve got any chains at all. The big draw is the bookshops, but it’s got loads of cafes and other little shops, all independents. It’s got a castle as well, which is newly refurbished and is fantastic.
"There’s a very deep sense of community"
Around Hay-on-Wye you’ve got countryside, you’ve got mountains, you’ve got Hay Bluff, and you’ve got the lovely River Wye. The Wye Valley is situated right on the border between England and Wales. Hay is actually on the Welsh side, but there are bits of it that are in England. In fact, our house is in England but our business is in Wales. It’s quite quirky—lots of fun around Six Nations!
There are a lot of people that have lived in Hay-on-Wye for a very long time, so there’s a very deep sense of community and everybody knows and looks out for each other. But they also welcome people into the community. We’ve been made to feel extremely welcome, and we’ve grown into the community over time. We support local businesses, all the local businesses help each other out. At the Old Black Lion, we source as much food as we can locally, and we use the local brewery, which is the Lucky 7 Beer Co, and Hay Distillery as well. 
Image courtesy of The Old Black Lion
The Old Black Lion is a 17th-century pub that has a two AA Rosette restaurant, rooms and a bar area as well. We won Best Pub in Powys 2023 and we just received our Gold Seal Good Food Award for 2023, too. We’re known for our food and our great service. It’s lovely to offer this to the community, not just to the people that come and eat here but also to support other local businesses.
Hay-on-Wye has a big outdoor culture. We’re part of the Offa's Dyke which is the old land border between England and Wales, so we have a lot of walkers, cyclists, horse riders. There are some really good horse riding companies in the area. We’ve also got Hay Parkrun now, too. My favourite place in the Wye Valley is the mountains, either cycling or walking the dog. There are some amazing views there!

Caroline Bennett, owner of Country Made Catering

Country Made Catering
I have lived here for 29 years, moving here to live with my now husband. The Wye Valley is unique for its lovely towns along the way of the river from Hay, passing our wonderful cathedral city of Hereford with the Mappa Mundi (the largest medieval map still known to exist) and chained library to Ross-on-Wye, the birthplace of tourism when William Gilpin popularised the Wye Tour in the 18th century (a two-day boat trip along the River Wye).
Being a Wye Valley resident means enjoying all the water has to offer, from fishing to paddle boarding, and the beautiful flora and fauna along the way. The fields along the valley are rich with nutrients growing the best asparagus and soft fruits. Wye Valley spirit is, to me, a wonderful appreciation of this most beautiful river and the life it brings to us. 
"Wye Valley spirit is a wonderful appreciation of this most beautiful river and the life it brings to us"
My catering business provides meals for many of the large houses used as holiday accommodation along the valley. It is a privilege to share this place and my delicious food with tourists from all over the world during their stay. 
My favourite spot in the Wye Valley is The Prospect, a piece of land by the church in Ross-on-Wye, gifted to the town by our most famous benefactor, John Kyrle, from where you can see the horseshoe bend in the river and the countryside beyond.

Caz Holbrook is a self-employed photographer from Ross-on-Wye

Wye Valley © Caz Holbrook Photography
I have lived in the Wye Valley since 1972. We relocated to the area from Yorkshire when I was one for my dad’s job. Although both of my parents have now passed away and my three older siblings and their families no longer live in Ross-on-Wye, I really wouldn't want to live anywhere else now. 
"It's often a feast for the eyes living in such a gorgeous part of the UK"
I love the beautiful countryside—as a photographer, it's often a feast for the eyes living in such a gorgeous part of the UK. I feel very lucky to be surrounded by such a lot of green space. Having lots of places to walk and explore is really important to me. Getting outside is great for your mental health and living in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty like the Wye Valley means that you really are spoilt for choice for walks and lovely views.
There is a really great sense of community in the Wye Valley and especially here in Ross-on-Wye. William Gilpin discovered tourism here (he wrote about it in his book Observations on the River Wye, first published in 1782) and it still attracts a lot of visitors to this day.
Ross-on-Wye © Caz Holbrook Photography
I'm self-employed as a photographer which I have been for over 25 years now. I love the varied nature of my work. One day I might be documenting a wedding and the next photographing an AirBnB or creating branding photographs for a local business. It really does keep life interesting. I love being able to work my own hours. It fits in really well around being a single mum and a lone parent as it means I can often work in the evenings. It also works well for my little business being in a close knit community as that often results in word of mouth recommendations—the best advertisement there is! 
My favourite spot in the Wye Valley is Ross-on-Wye of course! Though Symonds Yat is another stunning spot and there’s an iconic view from the top of Yat Rock.
Cover image © Caz Holbrook Photography
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