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Explore Celtic heritage on a one-week road trip from Wales to Ireland

Getting behind the wheel is the perfect way to discover West Wales and Ireland’s ancient east — starting in Carmarthenshire, Wales and driving through to the historic Irish city of Waterford.

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The majestic castle of Carreg Cennen is located a few miles southeast of Llandeilo in Carmarthenshire.

Photograph by Celtic Routes
By Kerry Walker
Published 14 Jun 2022, 18:00 BST

On a road trip through Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion, Wexford, Wicklow and Waterford, you’ll feel the irresistible tug of nature and history, whether at an Iron Age hill fort, a castaway bay or in a waterfall-laced forest of fairy lore. The Celts called these ‘thin places’, where the gap between heaven and earth is small. Hop in the car to explore romantically ruined abbeys, churches and monasteries that scatter the countries’ wild mountains, moors and wave-battered shores.

Day one: Carreg Cennen to Laugharne

Begin with a deep dive into history at medieval Carreg Cennen, whose ruins slung high on a limestone crag swirl in the myth of a prince sleeping in the castle’s cave. Afterwards, stop for coffee in artsy Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire’s pin-up town, with its brightly painted Georgian houses, before driving west along the A40 as it shadows the looping Towy River.

Stop for a Welsh deli-style lunch at Wright’s Emporium, then head slightly south to the National Botanic Garden of Wales for an afternoon immersed in rare flora, Regency lakes and Norman Foster’s Great Glasshouse. Round off the day with an estuary sunset in castle-crowned Laugharne, where poet Dylan Thomas lived, loved and wrote until his death in 1953. He was a regular at Brown’s Hotel, an 18th-century boozer turned boutique hotel, with rooms full of period character and a much-lauded farm-to-fork restaurant. 

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The 12th-century St David's Cathedral is located in St David's, the smallest city in Britain.

Photograph by Celtic Routes

Days two and three: St Davids to Aberaeron

As you head west into Pembrokeshire, drive on past surf-bashed Newgale to reach lovely St Davids, Britain’s smallest city — an early start beats the crowds. You’ll want to see the almighty 12th-century cathedral, where for centuries pilgrims have flocked to the relics of St David.

Refuel with a foraged foods-focused lunch at the Really Wild Emporium, then hike out to St Non’s Head, where the saint was born in AD500. The drama ramps up as you drive north to lighthouse-topped Strumble Head, where you feel the full brunt of the Irish Sea as it smashes against rocks, gulls riding the updraft. From here, push on to Dinas Head for an uplifting three-mile walk through kissing gates and over gorse-clad cliffs, looking out for seals, porpoises and puffins. In nearby Newport, artfully converted Georgian coaching inn Llys Meddyg has chic rooms and a restaurant riffing creatively on garden-grown, locally farmed and foraged ingredients.

On day three, strike east into the Preseli Hills, one of the sources of the sarsens at Stonehenge. Walk the Golden Road through bracken-draped moor and over bluestone crag, ticking off Bronze Age cairns and stone circles steeped in King Arthur legends. North of here, follow a narrow lane that nearly nose-dives into the sea to Mwnt, where cliffs embrace a perfect scoop of golden sand, capped off by the 13th-century Church of the Holy Cross, once a beacon to pilgrims. Cross the Teifi River to St Dogmaels to visit its ruined Benedictine abbey, bed down in chapel B&B Bethsaida, and eat boat-fresh seafood at the estuary-facing Ferry Inn.

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The beautiful village of Avoca is home to Ireland's oldest functioning mill.

Photograph by Celtic Routes

Day four: Fishguard to Avoca

Drive slowly along the coast in time to catch the 1pm ferry from Fishguard to Rosslare, which arrives at 4.30pm. Once docked, drive north to Ferns, which taps into the Welsh-Irish Celtic connection at St Mary’s Abbey, founded by St David’s protege, St Aidan, in the seventh century. On the coast-skimming drive north, revive with a wander on Kilgorman Strand’s vast dune-fringed beach, fizzing into the Irish Sea.

From here, it’s a half-hour drive to the mysteriously beautiful, thickly wooded Avoca Valley. The river-hugging, pastel-painted village of Avoca is an insanely photogenic base for the night. It’s home to Ireland’s oldest working mill (Avoca Handweavers), a cool craft brewery and stylishly revamped coaching inn — the Woodenbridge Hotel & Lodge.

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Wicklow Mountains National Park, located in County Wicklow, is the largest national park in Ireland.

Photograph by Celtic Routes

Day five: Glendalough to Enniscorthy

It’s a quiet, half-hour drive on country lanes through field and fairy-like forest to Glendalough, where you can feel the pulse of the past at spectacular monastic ruins evoking the early Christian settlement founded by St Kevin in the sixth century. St Kevin was no doubt touched by the raw beauty of the glacier-carved crags, heather-brushed moors and corrie lakes of the Wicklow Mountains, just as you will be. Hikes are many and varied, but you’ll get a taster on the 45-minute ramble up through oak woods to the wispy plume of Poulanass Waterfall.

Retrace your route south to Enniscorthy, which reclines handsomely on the River Slaney, with a Norman castle and a cathedral designed by Augustus Pugin of Houses of Parliament fame. The rambling, bric-a-brac-crammed Old Bridge House is a gloriously old-school place to stay.

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The lighthouse in Hook Head is the oldest in the world still in operation.

Photograph by Celtic Routes

Day six: Hook Peninsula to Waterford

Rise early for the breezy drive south to the Hook Peninsula, stopping at spirit-lifting beaches like the cliff-rimmed butterscotch sands of Booley Bay, with 500-million-year-old rock formations, and Dollar Bay, where a ship returning from Spain capsized in 1765 and mutineers scarpered with 250 sacks of gold. Legend has it treasure still lies buried here.

After a bowl of seafood chowder at the Templar’s Inn in Templetown, medieval HQ of the Knights Templar, drive until the road ends at wild, wind-whipped Hook Head with its huge stripy lighthouse (the oldest in the world still in operation), which looks out over raging seas that have wrecked many a mighty ship. Clamber up 115 steps for views that reach for miles. After a day of bracing seascapes, treat yourself to a posh stay at 16th-century Waterford Castle, on its own private island.

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In 2015, the Copper Coast Geopark in Waterford became a UNESCO Global Geopark.

Photograph by Celtic Routes

Day seven: Copper Coast

Hugging a bend in the River Suir, elegantly Georgian Waterford is Ireland’s oldest city, founded by Vikings in AD914. Go for a coffee and stroll in its centre, which sparkles with crystal and history in the Viking Triangle cultural quarter.

Driving south, you hit the wild beach of Kilfarrasy, with its dark fangs of ancient rock. This is the start of the 16-mile Copper Coast UNESCO Global Geopark, which for all its beauty and 460-million-year geology has bafflingly slipped under the tourist radar. You’ll want to stop at every bend, promontory fort and ravishing, cliff-backed bay. At Knockmahon, glimpse polygonal columns of rhyolite — the coast’s very own Giant’s Causeway — as well as in nearby Bunmahon, the Geological Garden, with its ‘cursing stone’ and Ogham stones recalling the ancient language of Celtic saints.

Snug against the walls of Dungarvan’s medieval castle, The Moorings is an atmospheric harbour-side spot for a cracking fish lunch before you pootle back along the coast to catch the early evening ferry from Rosslare to Fishguard. Stand on the breezy deck to watch the coast of Ireland fade and Wales slide gently into view.

For more information on Celtic Routes, which unites the landscapes, history and culture of Ireland and Wales, visit: celticroutes.info

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