The beautiful and tranquil Afan Valley and Vale of Neath offer dramatic waterfalls, spectacular countryside and forest parks, meandering rivers and peaceful canals, just perfect for walking, cycling, orienteering, and camping.
Standing stones and cairns high on the sides of the Afan Valley are evidence of human occupation over thousands of years. Coal mining fuelled the development of the many villages in the Afan Valley but fortunately none of the environmental damage associated with mining remains and the valley has been returned to a heavily wooded and green landscape known locally as ‘Little Switzerland’.
Active Afan and Neath
Afan Forest Park stretches over 64 square kilometres with 30,000 hectares of forest. With five mountain bike trails, a low level cycle route and 14 walks there’s many ways in which you can discover the spectacular valley and forest views. Afan Forest Park is a very popular destination for walking, cycling, orienteering, and camping. The mountain bike trails are world class, voted the only UK destination to feature in What Mountain Bike magazine’s, ‘ten places to ride before you die’ list, and was also featured in the Sunday Telegraph’s top ten UK forests. At the heart of the forest is the surprising Theatre Tymaen, a unique 200 seat amphitheatre with wooded hillsides as a natural backdrop for open-air performances. Afan Forest Park is served by two Visitor Centres with full facilities, including the all-important reviving café and bike washing areas!
The deep gorges of the rivers Mellte, Hepste and Nedd Fechan, between the villages of Pontneddfechan and Ystradfellte, provide varied opportunities for both the casual and more experienced walker and are home to the aforementioned waterfalls for which the region is famous. Many of the falls are spectacular, and the colours of the beautiful surrounding countryside mean that they are well worth visiting several times through the seasons as the natural backdrop changes colour dramatically.
One of the most famous waterfalls is Sgwd yr Eira which attracts more than 160,000 visitors a year. The dazzling waterfall has captured the hearts of thousands of visitors who are able to walk the path behind the waterfall which has been used by sheep farmers for centuries. In 2004 this area was designated as an SAC (Special Area of Conservation) primarily for its old sessile oak and ash woodland habitat which is considered to be one of the best examples in the UK. The humid atmosphere in the steep shaded gorges provides an ideal environment for rare ferns, lichens and mosses to flourish.
Slightly more accessible but no less impressive is the eighty foot high Melincourt waterfall which falls from a tributary of the River Neath near Resolven, into a verdant forest glade. Melincourt is particularly awesome after heavy rainfall! In fact, the Melincourt Falls are so spectacular that Turner chose to make them the subject of a painting in 1794.
Historic Afan and Neath
Equally well-known is Aberdulais tin mine and falls, where you can see Europe’s largest electricity-generating water wheel set amongst historic remains and the backdrop of a magnificent waterfall. For over 400 years, the thundering power of Aberdulais Falls provided the energy to drive the wheels of industry, from the smelting of copper in 1584 for coins to the later tinplate. Today, it is the only survivor of a small powered tin works. The waterwheel generates electricity, which makes the site self-sufficient in environmentally friendly energy – truly a green attraction!
A little more formal than Afan Forest Park, Margam Country Park, set in 1000 acres, not only offers splendid landscapes, architecture, rich heritage and a cultural past but is also host to many events throughout the year – from craft and country shows to literature days. The park is home to one of the best deer herds in Britain, dating back to Norman times. The magnificent 18th Century Orangery and the Tudor-gothic style Victorian Mansion House, 12th Century Chapter house and ornamental gardens are enjoyed by young and old alike.
Coastal Afan and Neath
Of course, in Swansea Bay you’re never far from the sea and the stunning Aberavon seafront has two miles of flat promenade, a wide sandy beach and views across Swansea Bay to the Gower Peninsula. A wonderful, expansive, beach that’s safe for swimming, kayaking and boating it is very popular with surfers, windsurfers, jet-skiing and kite-sailing enthusiasts. Indeed on a day with the right conditions the colourful displays of the latter can be a spectator sport in their own right!