IT'S THE WEEKEND: The Great Outdoors - Two million visit Wye Valley every year

South Wales Argus: Credit Linda Wright: Taken from Brockweir Bridge Credit Linda Wright: Taken from Brockweir Bridge

The Wye Valley is one of Gwent's biggest tourist destinations, and the river which runs through it is set to get its first arts festival uniting its town. KATH SKELLON takes a look at its attractions.

LORD HORATIO Nelson spent his only holiday on the Wye Tour, whilst the poet William Wordsworth described its sublime beauty.

The Wye Valley and its spectacular landscape is said to be the birthplace of tourism and has been attracting visitors for over 250 years.

Described as a walkers paradise, it attracts two million tourists a year who enjoy walking, fishing, cycling and visiting Monmouthshire’s historic monuments. Amongst the visitors are some of the 29,300 residents living and or working in the market towns, villages and hamlets of the Wye Valley AONB.

Its limestone gorge scenery, ravine woodlands, wildlife and archaeological remains make it a popular destination for tourists and locals.

As the only protected landscape to straddle the border between Wales and England it is a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) that covers parts of Monmouthshire, including the historic village of Tintern, home to the world-famous Abbey.

The area has long been recognised for its exceptional importance, both as defensive borderland and for its natural resource. During the 16th to 18th centuries the valley saw intensive industrial development using the water-power of the valley-side streams and the rich local mineral resources along with plentiful charcoal from the woodlands. Quays all along the river helped transport goods and people up and down the valley and to markets and ports worldwide.

Tintern, Monmouth and Chepstow sit on the banks of the River Wye, which stretches some 58 miles within the protected site and all have national Walkers are Welcome status. They offer a wealth of walks, which include the Wye Valley Walk and breathtaking views from the Devil’s Pulpit, above Tintern and Wintours Leap, near Chepstow.

The ‘Wye Tour’ evolved from the river trips organised for family and friends by the Rector of Ross, Dr John Egerton in the mid 1750s. The Reverend William Gilpin took this two-day boat trip down the Wye in 1770 and wrote on the notion and depiction of the landscape as ‘Picturesque’.

Many writers and poets, including Tennyson and Thackeray, visited and wrote about the valley leading to guided tours along the Wye by boat.

Today, it is the setting for the first-ever Wye Valley River Festival which begins in Hereford and finishes in Chepstow.

Launched today (SAT) in Hereford, the two week-event will make its way to Monmouth, Llandogo, Brockweir, Tintern and Chepstow, where hundreds of spectators are expected to join the riverside revelries.

Among the highlights are a high-wire walk across the River Wye, a fire and flame spectacular and an illuminated flotilla finale.

Volunteers have been recruited to act as torchbearers at a fire and flame celebration and take part in an operatic performance.

Andrew Blake, Wye Valley AONB Officer explained it has taken more than a year to organise, working with 450 local people and groups.

Mr Blake said that following the success of four events held to celebrate the Wye Valley AONB’s 40th anniversary in 2011, communities felt more could be done to celebrate the river itself and the idea of a festival ‘flowing through’ communities was born.

He said:“The idea was to hold a series of stunning events that provide an opportunity for communities and visitors to celebrate nature, culture, landscape and life along the River Wye.”

“Our vision is that this will be the first of a series of biennial festivals, each one enabling people to experience landscape conservation as never before as art dares to pose questions of environmental concern.”

“Everyone has been working very hard to make sure this first festival is a spectacular success - including the communities along the Wye Valley, artistic directors Desperate Men, professional and amateur actors and performers and hundreds of volunteers.”

“ With their help, we have been able to bring together an amazingly varied programme, featuring lots of innovative ideas, some weird and whacky, some clever and creative and some intended to stimulate serious discussion and debate around the issues threatening the beautiful Wye Valley – but all guaranteed to be superbly entertaining, involving and great fun”

The festival’s artistic directors –‘Desperate Men’ will link the events together and tell the story of Ratty the Water Vole, on the run from justice. He darts between flotillas and fire shows, through riverside towns and villages in an event which brings the landscape to life.

The first stop in Monmouthshire is on the eve of Ratty’s trial on May 9 when there will be a performance from dance duet Chloe Loftus Dance on the steps of Monmouth Rowing Club at 7.15pm. The following day is the Grand Trial and Assizes at the Shire Hall at 10.45am where Ratty is brought for trial for the theatrical centre-piece of the festival.

As the narrative unfolds a torch-lit procession will make its way to Monnow Bridge at 8.30pm, where Ratty escapes the gallows and heads down river to Llandogo, where a community picnic will be held as Chris Bull performs a high-wire walk across the River at 3.30pm on May 11.

As dusk falls, the iconic stretch of the River Wye at Llandogo will be illuminated with torches, flares and a fire sculpture at 9pm.

The festival culminates in a night-time grand-finale in Chepstow, featuring a flotilla, choir, brass bands and fire and illuminations a 9.30pm on May 18.

Other festival events the Wye Oh Wye! Musical at The Drill Hall on May 16 and an evening of ghostly goings-on at Tintern Abbey on May 17

For details of events visit www.wyevalleyaonb.org.uk

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