Holidays at home

In 2013 the Welsh government published a ‘Strategy for Tourism’ which, when stripped of corporate-speak jargon, aspirational drivel, happy-clappy wishful thinking, self-boosting puffery and general gobbledegook, boiled down to “We must sell ourselves more aggressively in the West Midlands.” Apparently it is not sufficient that 90% of the 10 million annual visitors to Wales already come from the rest of the UK, and nor is it a problem that Wales has, pro-rata and in absolute terms, the fewest international tourists and lowest international recognition of the UK’s four nations. No; the “GB domestic market” (as government quango Visit Wales calls it) shall remain the sole priority.

On planet Earth this means more bucket-and-spade, low-rent, Sun readers from Stourbridge, bringing their supplies with them from their local Asda and dropping litter on Abersoch beach while their recalcitrant brats whinge in the drizzle; whereas on planet Visit Wales it means photogenic, free-spirit hipsters cavorting in sun-drenched dunes and blissing out on a mountain zip-wire. In order to sustain this toe-curling fantasy, Visit Wales pretends that nobody has ever heard of Wales east of Monnow Bridge and that Wales is some sort of unknown, undiscovered, exotic destination – so flying in the face of time-worn English jokes about wet weekends in Llandudno while accidentally nailing the unrequited and strictly one-way nature of the England/Wales relationship. This approach is dumbly self-defeating: if new punters are wanted it would make more sense to target the untapped pockets of the international visitor, for whom Wales really is a mystery, rather than flogging a dead horse to the austerity-pinched day-tripper from England, for whom Wales is boringly familiar.

Tourism amounts to 10% of the Welsh economy but, as is the case in all impoverished, ossified dependencies, the authorities want much more – the better to cloak the absence of a productive, non-parasitic, sustainable, fulfilling economic life. Putting to one side tourism’s well-documented negative impacts on environment, culture, language, community, wages, skills and land use, it’s clear that chasing this particular fleeting buck is a pretty futile path for any small country to follow, simply because bigger and stronger players will always stitch up the lions’ share of the market. Wales can only ever be a bottom-feeder, scrabbling for the scraps unwanted by the many truly plausible tourist magnets (i.e: places with some guaranteed sunshine and an unequivocal identity).

Visit Wales should go back to the drawing board and concentrate on attracting the one group of people it never attempts to reach, the people who ought to be at the core of the country’s leisure industry, the people who simultaneously are most interested in and yet most in need of discovering Wales: the children of Wales. If we can’t appeal to our own young people then we can hardly expect to appeal to others of any age. With that in mind, and as the annual summer holiday hard-sell reaches its winter crescendo, here in alphabetical order are some cheap, enjoyable, enlightening days out for families with children in Cardiff and the surrounding area:

The Pleasure Park and Butlins have gone (ah, my misspent youth, being sick over a girl from Trebanog on the Waltzer after half a shandy in the Pig and Whistle…), but the golden sands of south-facing Whitmore Bay, the nearest sandy beach to Cardiff, mean Barry Island remains a child’s paradise. The beach has Blue Flag status and is safe for swimming.

Plunge them 300ft (90m) down the mineshaft in a pit-cage for guided underground tours in the National Coal Museum – you won’t hear “it’s not fair” for a few days afterwards. The mountain-top town also boasts the restored 1789 ironworks which give it World Heritage Site status.  Admission: free.

Notwithstanding my usual reluctance to recommend commercial operations, there is undeniable vertiginous fun to be had at this indoor climbing centre in Pengam Road, Tremorfa. Admission: child (under 8) £3.50 (age 8-18) £7.50, adult £8.50.

Including Cooper’s Field and Blackweir to the east of the River Taff, and Sophia Gardens, Pontcanna Fields and Llandaf Fields to the west, this is the great green lung of Cardiff, part of the Taff Trail route for walkers and cyclists which stretches 55 miles north to Brecon. Magnificent trees dot the sweeping parklands where children can roam free, exercise, picnic, explore remnants of the Dock Feeder and pose beneath the dizzy towers of Cardiff Castle.

The biggest castle in Wales, and the 2nd biggest in the UK after Windsor, is fortified to the hilt with ingenious water defences and massive gatehouses, vividly illustrating the military might needed to subdue Wales in the 13th century. The south-east tower out-leans the Leaning Tower of Pisa! Admission: child (under 16) £3.60, adult £4, family (2 children + 2 adults) £11.60.

With its drum towers and conical turrets rising through the trees on the sheer slopes of the Taff Gorge where the valleys meet Cardiff at Tongwynlais, Castell Coch will delight children reared on the enticing mock-medieval fantasies of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. It’s the archetypal fairytale castle, concocted by two child-like Victorian eccentrics: the more-money-than-sense third Marquis of Bute (1847-1900) and his romantic dreamer architect William Burges (1827-1881). Their supreme achievement was Cardiff Castle itself, where the Council runs a year-round programme of children’s events. But Castell Coch is actually more child-friendly, being less demanding, less regimented and less beholden to a twee, varnished version of history. Kids can roam at will, get lost on spiral staircases, delve into nooks and crannies (beware the ghostly cavalier!) and have their tiny minds blown by the lavish, hallucinatory interiors. There are mythical beasts, scenes from Aesop’s Fables, bird and animal carvings galore and extravagant fireplaces to ogle. When that begins to pall, picnic areas, cool glades and steep forested climbs outside will shut them up. Admission: child (under 16) £3.40, adult £3.80, family (all children + 2 adults) £11.

Unleash the chauffeured darlings onto the Wenallt on a summer morning and tell them to be back at the car park (off Heol-y-Wenallt) by tea-time. They will enter another world: 44 hectares of native woodland on the high ridge above Cardiff, an entirely natural land of adventure minus the dead hand of organised play. Previous generations of kids have bequeathed plenty of tree-houses, tyre-swings, climbing ropes and thundering trails. Deep in the often impenetrable forest woodpeckers drum and ravens croak, and to the south, through the thickets of oak and hazel, there are glimpses of the whole city from vantage points used for thousands of years.

Now a mini-industry in Cardiff with many opportunists, I mean entrepreneurs, trying to cash in on the perplexing popularity of the BBC TV series (OK, I admit it: this entry is an excuse to offload some snarky put-downs). The official BBC exhibition at Roath Basin, opened in 2012, is where Whovians on day-release get their fill of Daleks, Tardises, Cybermen and Billy Piper’s discarded knickers. From there it’s a short knuckle-drag round the Inner Harbour to the (invisible) Torchwood ‘rift’ and the (risible) ‘memorial wall’.  Admission: under 5s free, child (age 5-16) £11, adult £15, family (2 children + 2 adults) £46.

A choppy and exciting 50 minute crossing from the Barrage between April and October (tide dependent) lands you on Cardiff’s very own island, set five miles out in the turbulent Severn estuary. Called Ynys Echni in Welsh, Flat Holm is the southernmost point of Wales (neighbour Steep Holm belongs to England and can only be reached from Weston-Super-Mare). There are up to six hours to explore before the boat departs, and the time will fly. Home to a large gull colony, oystercatchers, slow-worms and rare butterflies, Flat Holm is today a nature reserve seeping with atmospheric history. Welsh saints used it as a retreat in the 6th century, Danish marauders seized it in the 10th century, and it was a smugglers’ hideaway in the 17th century and a fortified garrison in the 18th century. In the 19th century it was home to a lighthouse and foghorn for the busy shipping lanes, the site of a lonesome isolation ward for cholera patients, and where Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937) sent the first ever wireless message in 1897. Admission: child (age 4-17) £12, adult £24, family (2 children + 2 adults) £65.  Booking: 2087 7912.

The last remnant of the Great Heath, once common land held by all, is now a busy, multi-purpose showcase park where the Council’s Parks Department has its HQ. There are 37 hectares of soccer and rugby pitches, tennis courts, cricket squares, grassland, woods, picnic areas and playgrounds. Add the pitch-and-putt golf course, miniature railway, newt-filled ponds and weird vegetable garden, and it’s unlikely anyone will be moaning “I’m bored”.

Ten-pin bowling involves physical activity and keeps them occupied for hours, so at some point the tacky Red Dragon Centre down the Bay will have to be endured. Bring Odor-Eaters and Paracetamol. Admission: child (under 16) from £3.95, adult from £4.95, family (2/3 children + 2/1 adults) from £16.50.

Even the most sugar-wired child will become hushed and awe-struck on first setting foot in the cavernous, echoing entrance hall and visibly shrivel under the giddy piers, balconies, landings and ionic columns of the National Museum in Cathays Park. The marble floor, shimmering in shafts of pink light, will cry out for a serious skid – but a withering look from one of the uniformed wardens hovering with muted menace in the middle distance will instantly banish such thoughts. The little monster will become a paragon of virtue oblivious to possessions and brand-names in various fascinating labyrinths where the geological evolution of Wales can be followed through time, Welsh landscapes explored from seashore to mountain top, and the plants and animals of Wales encountered, from dinosaurs to four-leaf clovers. In addition, the Clore Discovery Centre is a hands-on space aimed at children, and there are special activities throughout the year. The National History Museum three miles west in St Fagans is an open-air museum set in 40 hectares of beautiful wooded parkland and is ideal for a family day out. Wandering through the grounds, you come across over 40 carefully re-erected original buildings from all strands of Welsh history, as well as the Tŷ Gwyrdd ‘house of the future’, traditional craft workers, picnic sites, play areas and, if the weather turns, absorbing indoor galleries (currently closed for major refurbishment).  Admission free (donations boxes)

When a Cardiffian has something good to say about Newport, do pay attention. There are only eight Transporter Bridges left in the world and Newport’s superb 1906 specimen, engineered by Frenchman Ferdinand Arnodin (1845-1924), is the largest and most elegant. A gondola pulled by an electrically powered cable carries vehicles and pedestrians across the River Usk without obstructing shipping. Open: April-September, Wednesday-Saturday; October-March, weekends only.  Admission: vehicles £1; pedestrians, bikes and motorbikes free.

During the summer the Waverley, the last seagoing paddle-steamer in the world, and the motor cruiser Balmoral depart from Penarth Pier across the Severn on breezy day-trips to various resorts on the Somerset and Devon coasts. Phone 0845 130 4647 for itinerary and current prices.

This two-mile dog-leg of a park, following the course of the Nant Fawr through Roath, has delighted Cardiff children for over a century. It’s got everything: a wide open recreation field; landscaped gardens full of mature trees and hiding places; wild areas to explore; a network of zigzag paths with gentle gradients ideal for skateboarding; a spectacular man-made lake complete with row-boats and pedal-boats for hire, a mock lighthouse and five little islands teeming with water birds; a precipitous grassy slide down the lake embankment; and, through it all, the brook, rushing down towards the River Rhymni via cataracts, steep banks, pebbly shallows and fish-thronged backwaters.

The sandy beaches at Porthcawl and Southerndown on the Glamorgan coast have the perfect south-western aspect to catch rolling Atlantic swells. Trainee beach-bums should start here before graduating to nearby Ogmore (unpredictable estuary currents) and Llanilltud Fawr (high cliffs and concealed rocks).

An educational charity in a converted engineering works down by the old graving docks in Stuart Street, founded in 1985 with a mission to engage young people with science, Techniquest avoids the trap of over-worthiness with 160 interactive exhibits that are irresistible to children, from firing a rocket to playing a giant keyboard to crawling through a wormery.  There are special toddlers’ days and it can be booked for parties (2047 5475).  Admission: child (age 4-16) £4.50, adult £6.30, family (3 children + 2 adults) £20.70. 

An amazing 6,000 year-old neolithic tomb with a 40 ton capstone, the biggest in the UK, set in peaceful countryside near St Nicholas just west of Cardiff and mercifully lacking the dreaded ‘interpretation centre’ or people trying to sell you stuff. There’s an easy one mile saunter along bucolic footpaths to another remarkable cromlech, Gwâl-y-Filiast (the lair of the greyhound bitch), at St Lythans.

Urdd Gobaith Cymru (Welsh League of Youth) has 50,000 members between ages 8 and 25 in 1500 branches across Wales.  Founded in 1922 by Ifan ab Owen Edwards (1895-1970), the Urdd holds an Eisteddfod each year for six days at the end of May. Having progressed through local and regional eisteddfodau, 15,000 children compete in over 460 competitions at the biggest youth festival in Europe. It is a travelling event, coming back to the Urdd’s base at the Wales Millennium Centre (WMC) every 4th year, and has proved a hot-house of talent over the decades. The Urdd has multi-activity residential centres at Llangrannog on the Ceredigion coast, Pentre Ifan close to the famous cromlech in Pembrokeshire, Glan Llyn by the shores of Llyn Tegid near Bala and, since 2004, the WMC. There are 150 en-suite bedrooms where individuals or groups can stay on a ‘city sleepover’, mix with other Welsh speakers and learners and take specialist performing arts courses. Price: £60 per night (minimum two nights). 

Classic Cardiff park restored recently to its earnest High Victorian splendour. The grounds include a bandstand, a pavilion, gaudy flower-beds, plenty of open grassland and the ever-popular paddling pool. A statue of Billy the Seal, adored by previous Cardiff children during a 27-year residence here from 1912 to 1939, stands guard over the warm knee-high waters which seethe with younger kids in the summer.

Over 200 handsome birds of prey, from buzzards to owls, inhabit scenic parkland off Waycock Road in Barry. Flying demonstrations begin every day at noon. This is the nearest place to Cardiff where children can interact with wild animals (discounting Cardiff City Stadium – tee-hee).  Admission: child £4, adult £6, family (2 children + 2 adults) £16

No child will be able to resist the last Welsh pit ponies and rescued horses cared for at Fforest Uchaf Farm at Pen-y-coedcae on Graig Mountain above Trefforest. Open: May-October (not Saturdays). Admission: child £2, adult £4, family £10. Book first: 01443 480327.