A day in…Cardigan

By | Category: Travel destinations
coming into Cardigan from the south

coming into Cardigan from the south

Not even its biggest fans would say that there was a lot to do in Cardigan to last a whole day.

The advantage of Cardigan is that it is a centre for some of the best walking, sightseeing and beach holidays that you could find. Within a few miles you will find long sandy beaches on either side of the Teifi estuary, fishing for trout and salmon, heritage sites, spectacular views across the estuary and a wildlife area.

All around this part of Wales there is accommodation to be found from small hotels, pubs, guest houses, B&B’s, caravan and camping parks and youth hostels. What you won’t find are named chains and you won’t see many national names on Cardigan’s main street either. The local council has turned down applications from some chains and you’ll see no Starbucks, Burger King, KFC, Macdonald’s, Costa, Café Nero or Pizza Hut.

the walls of Cardigan Castle

the walls of Cardigan Castle

If you drive into Cardigan from the south then you will drive over a narrow bridge and looming ahead of you will be the castle. Or the few bits that remain of it. After spending nigh on £15 million refurbishing the walls, a Victorian house and adding conference rooms, a restaurant and a visitor centre the castle re-opened in 2015. The site is important, culturally, because it was here that the first recorded eisteddfod was held in 1176 – 840 years ago – and some would like to make it a candidate for a future eisteddfod in a few years’ time.

Off to the left and opposite the castle is a sign for parking. The road takes you down to a large car park and the local Co-op. From here you can have views over the Teifi to the southern side of the river. It can look quite idyllic on a war, summer’s day but be warned. The car park can flood at high tides and in bad weather and there are signs indicating as much. It doesn’t stop a few cars from getting trapped each year though.

Most of shops that Cardigan offers are in a half mile area stretching from the castle up the one road , past the Guildhall and market with its sentry cannon standing outside and up to Victoria Park. Only the local Aldi and Tesco’s with the soon to be closed down B&Q are further along. You’ll find a mixture of shops mingled with cafes, pubs (including one of the oldest in Wales, the Black Lion) and shops selling Welsh art and souvenirs. One you’ll have to hunt for in the small roads running parallel is Mike’s, a shop that locals know very well as if you can’t get something anywhere else, try Mike’s!

Cardigan was one a very important port, the fourth largest in the UK through which was shipped slate, wool, hides and foodstuffs. Today, there are no cargo vessels, not many fishing boats and most activity is recreational. Tourism and agriculture are the big industries around Cardigan.

Barley Saturday in 2015

Barley Saturday in 2015

It’s just a week away to Barley Saturday, one of the highlights for both locals and visitors. The origins go back to 1871, in days when people came to the town to hire staff and some came to display their horses either for selling or for stud purposes. A large procession, sometimes with over 200 horses would parade and there would be celebrations, fun and a bit of drinking in the town. Why Barley Saturday? Because barley was the last cereal crop to be sown so the celebration couldn’t be held until it was in the ground. This year there will be a parade starting at 2pm after the judging of the different categories of horse up in the local school fields where there will also be steam engines, tractors and memories of a bygone age.

If it rains, there isn’t a lot to do in Cardigan apart from seeking respite by heading into one of the many cafes or pubs. You could head north of the village of Tanygroes where you will find the Internal Fire Museum of Power which records the history of the engine. Some will be working to show you how they operated including the oldest working diesel engine in the world.  You will also find telephone, telephone exchanges and radios. What’s a little galling is that one of the very first mobile phones is on display. Just like the one I still have in the attic still. It can make you feel a little old!

But on dry days, locals and visitors will head out to enjoy the countryside. Poppit Sands is an area to the south side of the Teifi and almost at the beginning of its estuary. Here there are miles of sand and, at low tide, you can walk hundreds of yards out. There is a café and the local lifeboat station has already rescued people this year that have been trapped by the incoming tides.

Poppit Sands

Poppit Sands

To get to Poppit, you have to drive (or take the Poppit Rocket– the local bus service from Cardigan.) and you will have to pass through St Dogmaels, a small village known for its mediaeval abbey and the bohemian atmosphere that you find in the pubs at the weekend. it’s still a strongly Welsh speaking community in part (with a very well supported local eisteddfod) even though many people from outside have retired there.  The abbey is in ruins but free to walk around. Go to the adjoining church and there you find some early Welsh standing stones including one – known as the Sacranus Stone – which has one of the most ancient of scripts, ogham (a series of sloping lines) inscribed on it.

After leaving the church walk across to the visitor centre (also a café) and there is a small museum attached where you will see other stones that have been found locally. Held in a famer’s barn are at least another two hundred that locals are trying to find a more permanent home in which to display them. Outside there is a pond and to the right of that you will find some wooden carvings one of St Dogmael that was done only in the last few years. The quality of the carving is yet another reminder of how strong wood carving (ever seen a bardic chair from an eisteddfod?)  has been amongst Welsh craftsmen.

the view over the estuary from Gwbert

the view over the estuary from Gwbert

Instead of turning south to St Dogs (as it is often known by local expats from England) go through Cardigan and follow the signs to Gwbert (pronounced Goobert) and you’ll drive along the northern boundaries of the estuary. Past the marina the river becomes the estuary and there are two small parking areas on the left where you can park and watch as the tides recede. It is quite surprising how much sand you can see at low tide and people will walk past the marooned boats as they exercise their dogs. From some points it looks as though you can walk across to Poppit Sands but that’s an illusion as you will see if you drive to the end of that road and park in the two hotels or the golf course that is there. Having a leisurely lunch overlooking the estuary gives the best vantage point of the views –if you can get a window seat. You’ve little chance of that in the height of summer when the hotels get booked out.

Follow the road around for another half mile or so and you come to the entrance road for Cardigan Island Farm Park. This is a farm with a difference as it overlooks the island which is a nature reserve. Depending on the time of year and luck you will catch sight of seals, (pups from August time until late October) bottlenose dolphins (estimates run up to a thousand in Cardigan Bay) and porpoises. Nearby if you follow signs along some very narrow lanes, you can get to Mwnt – a hamlet really where a small church overlooks the sea and walkers climb the steep hill to overlook the beach and the inlets or to catch sight of basking sharks in the summer. Proclaimed by locals to be one of the most beautiful places in Cardigan Bay, when the winds whip up in winter and spring, you’ll find it hard to stay on your feet!

the entrance to Cilgerran Castle

the entrance to Cilgerran Castle

As an alternative to the coast you can head to the nearby village (about three miles away) of Cilgerran where a castle, painted a few times by J.M.W. Turner is to be found along with the coracle races each August. Also here is the Welsh Wildlife Centre which is found on the Teifi marshes. It can be reached from Cardigan by a path that runs along the river or you can drive to the village and follow the mile long entrance road. There are otters in the Teifi though I haven’t seen one yet but what you will see are a variety of birds ( sometimes red kites) and water buffalo which are brought in every spring to help manage the land. This is a popular attraction for visitors, as it is free to roam around the area, as it is with locals who have get-togethers in the wildlife centre’s café.

As I wrote earlier, what Cardigan lacks are many indoor activities for when the weather turns. It is a place for outdoor activities and the Mwldan Theatre just off the main road through Cardigan is also the site of the tourist office. Here there are hundreds of brochures for places within a forty mile drive in any direction. Elsewhere in much of the UK, that would sound like a long journey. Around Cardigan it is just part of rural life. Here the nearest airport is nearly a hundred miles away, the nearest station, sixteen (you flag down the train as it is request only) and some buses only run on the first Wednesday of themonth.

It is a different world but locals wouldn’t swap it and visitors come back year after year.

For more about Cardigan, click here. 

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