Castell Coch and the Taff Trail
From a fairytale castle to a wild, windswept hillside – the new-look valleys at their scenic best.
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 (34km) 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.
Start in the car park at the Forestry Commission sign, head into the car park, and then turn left after 54yds (50m), on to a clear footpath marked by a ‘no horse-riding’ sign. Follow this path, ignoring tracks on both the right and left (two of which are flanked by blue posts), until the posts become blue on your path and you come to a T-junction by a sign forbidding horse-riding. Cross the small brook and turn left to continue steeply downhill, past a turning on the left.
The track eventually swings around to the right and descends to meet the drive for Castell Coch. Turn right up the drive towards the castle.
Walk up to the castle entrance and turn right to walk to a metal information board. Take the path next to this and climb steeply on a good path past a waymark post and through a gap in the fence to a junction of tracks.
Turn sharp left, signposted ‘The Taff Trail’, and follow this broad forest track around the hillside and then down, where it meets the disused railway line close to some houses. Pass through the barrier on the right and follow the clear track for over a mile (1.6km) until you pass a picnic area and come to another barrier.
Go through the barrier then, as you come to a disused bridge, turn right over a stile, signposted ‘Glamorgan Ridgeway Walk’. Take this and follow it for about 76yds (70m) and then around to the right. Ignore one turn left and then turn sharp left to zig-zag back across the hillside, where you turn right again. Follow the main path as it zig-zags up the hillside, aiming at the mast and then, as you reach the field edge, bear right once more. This leads up to a post on a narrow ridge where you turn left.
Climb steeply up the ridge and continue, with high ground to your left, until you reach a clear path that leads left by a post, up to the ridge top. Follow this and bear right at the top to walk easily along, with great views. Keep ahead to drop slightly and then bear left on to a broad track that rises up and carries on along the ridge over Craig yr Allt.
Follow it down through the bracken ignoring the turn to right. Bear right onto the track down to a kissing gate that leads on to a tarmac drive. Turn left and continue past some houses on the right-hand side to a junction by The Black Cock Inn. Turn right and climb up to another junction, where you bear right.
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 back to the car park.
Forest tracks, disused railway line and clear paths, short section of tarmac
Mixed woodland and open hillside with views over residential and industrial developments
Care needed near livestock; not allowed in castle
OS Explorer 151 Cardiff & Bridgend
Fforest Fawr car park
None on route
Walking in safety
Read our tips to look after yourself and the environment when following this walk.