It is not only coal that Southern Wales should be known for. One of the best places to discover the beauty of the region is Brecon Beacons National Park, with its rich natural and historic significance. Many fascinating historic sites can be found in the Welsh hills, ranging from a Bronze Age stone, medieval castles and remains of past industrial glory. Hay Castle and Tretower Castle are ruins that should be on everyone’s to do list, while Big Pit is one of the most impressive coal mining museums in the country, with visitors able to go down deep underground to the former mining shafts.
So what are you waiting for? Discover the very best what Brecon Beacons National Park has to offer with our selection of the 10 best historic sites.
1. Brecon Cathedral
Brecon Cathedral was founded by the Normans in 1093. It is believed that the current cathedral stands on an earlier Celtic church. It survived the dissolution of the monasteries in 1537 and continued to thrive as Brecon’s Parish Church. In 1923 the building was finally granted the status of Cathedral. Many of the former monastic buildings are still standings and are used as administrative centres, accommodation for priests and restaurants.
The cathedral is an active place of worship, but they are happy with anyone coming to admire the beautiful building.
2. Carreg Cennen Castle
The dramatic 13th century ruins of this castle can be found 90 metres above the River Cennen, north of Swansea. Towering above the surrounding countryside, the medieval fortification was most probably built by baron John Giffard, a loyal supporter of English King Edward I. There is archaeological evidence that points towards the site being inhabited during Roman and pre-Roman times. The first castle built onto the hill was by a Welsh prince, though nothing remains today from this earlier structure.
Carreg Cennen Castle is open to the general public who can enjoy a stroll through the scenic ruins. There is also a cafe / tearoom nearby, which will make sure that no visitors will go hungry.
3. Maen Llia
In the middle of the Welsh countryside one can find the standing stone of Mean Lila. Its exact age is unknown, though it is believed that its origins are from the Bronze Age. The stone is 3.7 metres high and has become a popular tourist attraction. The original purpose of the site has been lost to time, leaving us to wonder why it may have been erected.
Explorers can find Maen Llia lying just 30 yards off a minor road running north from the village of Ystradfellte.
4. Brecon Mountain Railway
With its origins lying with the Brecon and Merthyr Railway constructed in 1859, the Brecon Mountain Railway is a unique railway devised to be home for heritage locomotives from around the world.
Construction and restoration of the current railway began in the late 1970s and continued into the 80s and it is now home to locomotives from the UK, USA, Germany and beyond. The first locomotive ‘Sybil’ a 0-4-0 saddle tank loco, built in Leeds in 1903 still runs and visitors can get a glimpse of a bygone age as well as immerse themselves in the beauty of the National Park.
5. Blaenavon Ironworks
Found near the town of Blaenavon, the former industrial site played a crucial part in the development of iron working during the Industrial Revolution. The complex was built in the late 18th century, helping to make Southern Wales a worldwide centre for iron production. In 2000 Blaenavon Ironworks were awarded World Heritage Site status.
The site is open to visitors who can immerse themselves in the history of past industrial prowess.
6. Hay Castle
A castle was erected in Hay as part of Norman efforts to invade Wales after 1066. The original ringwork castle was located near St Mary’s Church and the motte, known as Hay Tump, remains visible. The castle that can be visited today was built in stone in the early 1200s and is associated with the de Braose family. In the 17th century, a Jacobean mansion house was built alongside the medieval keep and the property was lived in as a private home. Severe fires from 1939 to 1977 gutted the castle, and despite repair attempts in the 1980s, by the 21st century much of it was derelict.
Since 2011, the castle has been owned by the Hay Castle Trust who have restored the property as a centre of arts, literature and learning. Following a National Lottery Grant of more than £5m, the castle re-opened to the public on 26 May 2022.
7. Tretower Castle
The massive circular tower has been a fixture of the surrounding countryside for around 900 years. Built by the Norman invader Roger Picard II, the family became soon powerful Welsh lords. The castle was created not only for protection, but to also show off the family’s new elevated social position. During the 14th century residential buildings were constructed away from the original fortification, causing the tower to fall into disuse.
The ruins of Tretower Castle are open to visitors who can explore its fabulous Great Hall and have a stroll around the rose garden, which symbolised the family’s strong Yorkist sympathies during the Wars of the Roses.
8. Dinefwr Estate
Dinefwr is an 800-acre National Trust estate in Carmarthenshire home to the grade II* listed mansion Newton House and parkland home to a herd of iconic White Park cattle. The cattle have called Dinefwr home since at least the 10th century, with their presence there described by Hywel the Good in 920 AD.
Dinefwr is now a National Nature Reserve. Visitors can explore the Deer Park, tour the historic Newton House and participate in seasonal events in the grounds.
9. Big Pit National Coal Museum
The first record of a mine called Big Pit exists from 1881, at which time it was a working coal mine. Its name derived from the pit’s elliptical shape and vast proportions, measuring 18ft by 13ft, making it the first mine in Wales big enough to allow two tramways. Over the next few decades the mine was expanded to reach deeper coal seams, and at its peak in 1923 had 1,399 men working there. The mine produced House Coal, Steam Coal, Ironside, and Fireclay, and at one point was exporting as far as South America.
A tour of the Big Pit National Coal Museum offers a real insight into this world, allowing visitors to walk through the old mining buildings and even take an underground tour 300 feet down into an old mineshaft. Tours are run by former coalminers, who provide personal interpretations of the site’s history, while above ground there are also exhibits about coal mining history, dealing with issues such as nationalisation, trade unions and safety.
10. Abergavenny Castle
The ruined Abergavenny Castle was first established from 1087 by the Norman Lord Hamelin de Balun. It was the site of a massacre of Welsh noblemen in 1175, and was later attacked during the 15th-century Glyndŵr Rising. No lord took up residence at the castle after the 15th century, and during the English Civil War, Charles I ordered it be slighted so that it couldn’t be usefully occupied by the Roundheads. It quickly became known for its pretty ruins.
The museum was founded in 1959 and is located in a Regency building that was built on top of a Norman motte within the grounds of the castle. It houses a fantastic collection of artefacts, permanent displays and temporary exhibitions that detail the history of the town and wider area.