Five years after the Emperor Vespasian’s forces razed the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, the legion he once commanded in England moved to pacify the population of another small country: Wales. The military camp it set up in Caerleon on the River Usk may have been bad news for the locals, but it left some of the finest Roman remains in Europe, including the most fully excavated amphitheatre in Britain where you can still make out the pens where fighters were held before they entered the arena.
Just a few miles away, a gladiatorial contest of a rather different kind will take place in October: the biennial Ryder Cup, golf’s most eagerly awaited tournament, is coming to South-East Wales where the Europeans plan to recapture it from the Americans.
It is being staged at one of Wales’s few five-star hotels, the Celtic Manor Resort, outside Newport, Gwent. A few minutes’ beyond the Severn Bridge, the hotel rises into view over the M4, commanding the ridge of a hill like some palace in Lhasa. This is a golfer’s Eden, boasting three championship courses. As well as the new Twenty Ten (the first course especially created for the Ryder) there is the Montgomerie, designed by the European Ryder skipper and opened in 2007, and the Roman Road course, venue of the Welsh Open.
The average Sunday afternoon cricketer will probably never have the experience of hitting a four off the square at Lords, or the weekend footballer of smashing the ball into the net at Wembley. But the ordinary golfer can get to chip on to the same greens where Tiger Woods — his personal transgressions hopefully behind him — will putt for glory in autumn: among the packages offered by the hotel is an overnight stay with two rounds of golf.
For the non-golfer, the Celtic Manor is an ideal place from which to explore some of the surrounding country, its proximity to the M4 putting many historic attractions within a half- hour drive.
If you have a child learning about the Romans, you can’t do better than Caerleon. Apart from the amphitheatre, where kids can mimic Russell Crowe with plastic swords, there are two museums, one on the occupying Roman legionnaires, the other built over the unearthed remains of the bathhouse: on display are some of the amethysts, jaspers and other gemstones found in the drains.
Another worthwhile excursion is to Big Pit, the National Coal Museum in Blaenafon. Here, donning a miner’s hat with lamp, you descend 90 metres in a cage into the dark, subterranean world of a disused coalmine. Forty minutes east of Celtic Manor, you can enjoy the beauty of the Wye Valley around the ruined medieval abbey at Tintern. Wordsworth composed some of his most famous lines nearby, recalling the scenery that helped lighten “the weary weight” of the world.
Wales is rich in castles with two fine examples in touring distance: in the east, Chepstow, towering over the waters of the Wye at the border with England, and to the west, Caerphilly, which has a moat and full-size replica siege engines and is the second biggest castle in the UK. You can watch a traditional blacksmith hammering away at the open-air National History Museum at St Fagan’s or use a bow at the model medieval village at Cosmeston.
Cardiff is an easy motorway hop, too. Thanks to Dr Who and spin-offs like Torchwood, which are filmed there, the city has become the extraterrestrial capital of the UK and though some children may be disappointed not to see Cybermen stalk the streets, the Dr Who exhibition in Cardiff Bay packs quite a lot into a small space, including suitably sturm und drang Daleks.
The regenerated docklands also features shops, restaurants, the Millennium Centre, home of Welsh National Opera, the Techniquest science centre for children and the National Assembly, Richard Rogers’ Welsh parliament building. You can treat yourself to a freshly cooked Welshcake or a Cadwalader’s ice cone.
Across the bay, El Puerto offers good value and a generous fish selection in the Penarth marina. In the city centre, there is Cardiff Castle and a handsome Impressionist collection at the National Museum.
For gastronomes, a half-hour drive will take you to the market town of Abergavenney, whose annual food festival in September is one of the best-known in the UK. One of the country’s premier literary festivals takes place in the bookshop-filled town of Hay in the Brecon Beacons in late May/early June, and just 70 minutes’ from the hotel.
The original Celtic Manor belonged to a Victorian mining millionaire, Thomas Powell, who was killed on safari. A century later, it was opened as a four-star boutique hotel by Sir Terry Matthews, chairman of the resort. He completed his £140-million, five-star, modern extension in 1999 with its grand atrium. Its golfing facilities are formidable: a training academy with a 28-bay driving range, two clubhouses and four pro-shops. There are also two health clubs and superb spas. Children are especially well catered for with a large games room and the Hideaway Club for tots, including ball pond and mini-cinema.
The five restaurants include the fine-dining Crown with three AAA rosettes. We savoured the view from Rafter’s, the restaurant at the smart Twenty Ten clubhouse, overlooking the 18th hole, where a little hill will offer a natural grandstand to watch the climax to this autumn’s heroics.