Visit Merthyr Mawr on a hot summer’s day and you’d be forgiven for thinking you were wandering the deserts of Oman rather than exploring a nature reserve just north of the Welsh village of Ogmore. A comparison not lost on English film director, David Lean, who used the area as a stand-in for the landscapes of Asia in his classic 1962 adventure film Lawrence of Arabia.
There’s certainly a sense of the dramatic here, with scene-stealing views of the arid, serene region hiding around every curve of the walking trails that crisscross the coastal plain. The star of the show, however, is the Big Dipper, a roughly 800-foot-tall sand dune that stands as the largest in Wales, and one of the tallest in Europe. Ramblers come from all over to trudge to the top of it for the impressive views out into the Bristol Channel, while a selection of hardy folk run up it each December, as part of the annual Christmas Pudding Race. (Competitors receive a traditional British Christmas cake as a prize at the finish line.)
But the dunes are just one of the sights on offer in the 840-acre reserve. The area is an important habitat for wildlife, with scatterings of wildflowers like rock sea lavender and burnet rose that are abuzz in springtime with butterflies and bumblebees, while rabbits hop through the thickets of woodlands and grasslands. There is also a beautiful, quiet sweep of beach to picnic on, and the remains of the 14th-century fortified manor, Candleston Castle, to nose around.
While there are no desert oases to speak of, the culinary-focused Forest Feastival pitches up for a few weekends during the end of summer, serving up an eclectic selection of street food dishes to weary wanderers.