From a fairy-tale castle to a wild, windswept hillside - the new-look Valleys at their scenic best.
Distance 5.5 miles (8.8km)
Minimum time 2hrs 30min
Ascent/gradient 920ft (280m)
Level of difficulty Medium
Paths Forest tracks, disused railway line and clear paths, short section of tarmac, 2 stiles
Landscape Mixed woodland and open hillside with views over residential and industrial developments
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 151 Cardiff & Bridgend
Start/finish ST 131826
Dog friendliness Care needed near livestock; not allowed in castle
Parking Castell Coch
Public toilets In castle and nearby Countryside Visitor Centre
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1 From the car park, walk up to the castle entrance and keep right to locate an information plaque and a waymarker indicating a woodland walk. Take this path and drop slightly before climbing steeply up to a junction of tracks.
2 Turn sharp left, signposted 'The Taff Trail', by a picture of a viaduct, and follow this broad forest track around the hillside and then down, where it meets the disused railway line. Continue along this for over a mile (1.6km) until you pass a picnic area and come to a barrier.
3 Go through the barrier then, as you come to a disused bridge, turn right over a stile, signposted 'Ridgeway Walk'. Take this up to a junction by a gate on the left and turn right. Turn sharp left to zig-zag back across the hillside, where you turn right again. Follow this around to the left again, aiming at the mast and then, as you reach the field edge, bear right once more. This leads up to a narrow ridge where you turn left.
4 Climb steeply up the ridge and continue, with high ground to your left, to a waymarker that directs you up a narrow track to the ridge top. Bear right and cruise easily along, with great views until it starts to drop. Keep right to drop to another track and bear left on to this.
5 Follow it down through the bracken to an open area with a stile. Cross this and take the track down to a gate that leads on to a tarmac drive. Turn left and continue past some houses on the right-hand side to a junction. Turn right and climb up to another junction, where you bear right.
6 Carry on past the golf club, then fork right on to a narrow lane that drops and bears around to the left. Turn right here to walk past the Forestry Commission sign and then left, on to a narrow footpath marked by a yellow-ringed post.
7 Follow this path, ignoring tracks on both the right and left, until the posts become blue and you come to a T-junction by a sign forbidding horse riding. Turn left here, where the posts are once again yellow, and continue downhill, past a turning on the left to the Countryside Visitor Centre.
8 The track swings around to the right and descends to meet the drive. Turn right to climb up the drive and back to the castle.
A wooded hillside visible from the M4 motorway is hardly the place that you'd expect to find a fairy-tale castle, but at the bottom of the Taff Vale, just a few miles north of Cardiff, is one that will easily rival those of Bavaria. Castell Coch, with its red sandstone walls and conical towers, is worth a visit in its own right, but perched on a cliff top amid stunning deciduous woodland, it's also a great place to start a walk. Conveniently, two waymarked trails run close to the castle and these, together with a labyrinth of forest tracks, provide an invigorating circular route that shows some of the many different faces of the regenerated Valleys.
Every bit as captivating up close as it is from a distance, this majestic building, now managed by CADW (Welsh Historic Monuments), was built in the late 1870s on the site of a 13th-century fortress. Unbelievably, it had no military purpose whatsoever but was, in fact, a country retreat for the 3rd Marquess of Bute, who at the time was thought to be the richest man in the world and based his empire in Cardiff.
Its design, by the architect William Burgess, who also designed St Finbar's Cathedral in Cork, is pure, unadulterated fantasy, with a working drawbridge and portcullis, three circular towers and a dream boudoir that features a lavishly decorated domed ceiling. The grandest of all the castle's rooms has to be the drawing room, three storeys high with a ribbed and vaulted ceiling, further decorated with birds and butterflies. The two-storey chimney piece boasts statues of the Three Fates, which show the thread of life being spun, measured and finally cut. Characters from Aesop's fables are also depicted.
The route away from the woods follows a section of the Taff Trail, a 55-mile (89km) waymarked route that leads from Cardiff Bay to Brecon via the Taff Valley, Llandaff, Pontypridd and Merthyr Tydfil. Most of the trail, including the lower section of this walk, is along disused railway lines, along with forest tracks and canal paths.
From the Taff Trail, this walk follows an airy section of the 21-mile (33.8km) Ridgeway Walk (Ffordd-y-Bryniau). This trail traces a fascinating hill-top line across what was once the Borough of Taff Ely until the local government reorganisations of the mid-1990s. The section followed climbs steeply on to the narrow ridge of Craig yr Allt, a spectacular viewpoint which on the one hand feels as wild as the mountains further north, but at the same time gives a raven's-eye view of the industrial side of the valleys.
For tea, coffee and snacks, there's a decent tea room within Castell Coch. For good pub food, stop on your way round at the Black Cock Inn or alternatively, head easily back there once you've finished. To do this, head left out of the car park and bear around to the left at the top of the hill.
Fforest Fawr is a great place to spot woodland birds and mammals. Grey squirrels are common and have become unpopular in some quarters due to their inquisitive nature, insatiable appetite and ability to destroy bird feeders - they are frequently referred to as bushy-tailed rats. Nevertheless, their acrobatic displays are spectacular enough to bring a smile to anybody's face. They are often blamed for the demise of the smaller red squirrel in this country, but recent research has shown that the smaller, tufty-eared relative has actually declined due to habitat loss, courtesy of development.
For me, the most chilling sight in the Valleys are the arches that mark the graves of the 144 people killed by the collapse of a giant spoil heap in Aberfan in October 1966. The horrific landslide engulfed the Pantglas Primary School, burying 116 children. Some of the inscriptions on the headstones are truly heart rending.