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A beautiful spot on the Welsh border that became Britain's first tourist destination

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The Wye River's source is high in the Welsh mountains. From here it flows 300 kilometres south, making it the 5th longest river in the UK. At times, the Wye forms part of the border between England and Wales. At its very end, the water flows through an area called the Wye Valley, before emptying into the River Severn. This lower section of the river is an official Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and easily one of the prettiest places in Western Britain.
In fact, the Wye is so attractive that in a sense, it invented tourism! This was during the 18th century, when the valley became the first part of Britain to be recognised for its exceptional beauty. Lords and ladies from all corners of the land would make long, tiring journeys just to see it. The valley was also popular with painters, writers and poets, who all paid tribute to it with their art. 1782 saw the publication of the country's first illustrated tour guide, entitled "Observations on the River Wye". Visitor numbers carried on increasing, through the century and beyond.
It's no wonder that everybody liked the place so much. The Wye Valley is full of show-stopping sights, from limestone cliffs to dense woodland. Scattered throughout are quiet villages and charming little cottages.
It's worth noting though, that the area also has an industrial past. The Romans were making iron here 2000 years ago, and in the 16th century it was the first place in Britain to produce brass. Wood and timber was exported in huge quantities, mostly for shipbuilding. Many other industries sprang up over the years, and you can still stumble across old forges, cider mills and limekilns.
The Wye Valley's various towns and villages have also grown throughout the years. The biggest settlement on the river is the cathedral city of Hereford, although it stands just a little outside the official Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The only town that's actually within these borders is Ross-on-Wye. Its shops and market stalls have been selling to tourists since they first started coming here, all those years ago.
However, the Wye area's biggest landmark is undoubtedly Tintern Abbey, at the opposite end of the valley. It was built in the 12th century, for a group of the notoriously disciplined Cistercian monks. Despite being only the second such abbey in Britain, Tintern's ruins are relatively well preserved. Most of the exterior is still there, with its gothic columns and arches. You can wander freely in and out of this stone skeleton. There's no roof, and the ground is covered in grass, but the stark atmosphere hasn't disappeared. The Cistercians stayed silent for the majority of the day, and spent most of their time praying. These strict rules no longer apply, but it's strange to see how many people will still whisper when they're inside the abbey ruins.
Throughout the Wye Valley there are plenty more buildings and villages to visit. Even so, the undoubted highlight of any visit is the valley itself, and its landscapes and vistas. Thanks to the surrounding hills and cliffs, there are dozens of great vantage points. Many of them were established early on by the 18th-century tourists. Some were even specially built, like the Kymin tower at the valley's mid-point. Nelson visited here in 1802, and described the view as the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. Of course, you don't need to limit yourself to doing what Nelson did. You can explore the valley for yourself, and find your own perfect spot.
Visitor Information
Tintern Abbey is open daily from March to September, 10am to 5pm (6pm in high summer). Entry costs around £3.50 for adults, £2.00 children. Tintern, Chepstow, Monmouthshire,  NP6 6SE. Tel: 01291 689251
Kymin Tower is open April to October on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, 11am to 4pm. Entry costs around £2.50. The Round House, Monmouth, NP25 3SE. Tel: 01600 719241

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