The Wales of Maggie O'Farrell's youth was hot, gritty and spa-free. No wonder the novelist is surprised to find Glamorgan has gone glam

I receive the first shock via e-mail. You will be staying, it says, in a luxury spa hotel in the Vale of Glamorgan. I have to read it twice. A spa? A spa hotel? In South Wales? Not possible, surely. I spent a slice of my childhood in Bridgend in the 1970s and 1980s. In those days, "spa" would have been taken for a misspelling of the supermarket, a hotel was somewhere people got married, and the word "luxury" was only used when someone cracked open a bottle of Blue Nun.

I receive the first shock via e-mail. You will be staying, it says, in a luxury spa hotel in the Vale of Glamorgan. I have to read it twice. A spa? A spa hotel? In South Wales? Not possible, surely. I spent a slice of my childhood in Bridgend in the 1970s and 1980s. In those days, "spa" would have been taken for a misspelling of the supermarket, a hotel was somewhere people got married, and the word "luxury" was only used when someone cracked open a bottle of Blue Nun.

As I drive west along the M4, I begin to sift through my memories of the Vale of Glamorgan. For starters, it wasn't "the Vale" back then. This is a new, rather more aesthetic term for what used to be Mid Glamorgan.

I remember the miners' strike, some disciplinarian schooling, enforced Welsh language lessons, spicy bread called bara brith, and St David's Day celebrations involving fancy dress and much singing. The summers were very long - and I don't just mean in that retrospective, nostalgic way. Warm, balmy weather starts early in South Wales, in April or May, and continues on until well into September. Wales' reputation for rain is based on the mizzling, horizontal slurry you get during the autumn and winter.

There's a new bridge spanning the Severn's flat, estuarial mud. I have to look upstream to find the old one and I am outraged to discover that it has been painted from the familiar glowering grey to a Noughties white. It used to be a landmark in my childhood, its pointed, upright struts appearing on the horizon to tell us we were nearly home. There are multiple brown tourist signs along the road to Cardiff, boasting castles! Museums! Visitor centres! The redeveloped Cardiff Bay receives heavy mention on these signs which, in the 1980s, was a no-go area unless you were a hooker or a drug dealer - or one of their customers. Not any more. These days you can watch the Kirov or listen to opera there. And, looming above the motorway like a cross between Bates' Motel and a prison, is the horribly named Celtic Manor Resort - an immense, concrete explosion of a hotel which will host the next Ryder Cup.

But this isn't my hotel. Mine is new and also called The Vale. It is a short but merciful distance from the thunder of the M4 and near the genteel town of Cowbridge, where I used to be taken for orthodontic appointments. It's down a leafy lane, past a cluster of some rather interesting boarded-up Victorian buildings and up a long sweeping drive.

The Vale Hotel is an astonishing place. It is less hotel, more lifestyle. There's a building in which you sleep, a building in which you eat, another where you can swim, another where you park your children while you do all or any of the above, and several buildings from which you play golf on either of the two championship courses.

I am treated to a massage in the spa and I am so relaxed afterwards I lose my way back to the room. The Vale Hotel is big. It is brawny. It is sporty. It has a Santa Barbara front, with valets and golf carts and porters and a gargantuan car park; the back is all neo-Georgian with terraces and a lawn sweeping down to a lake. It is so unlike the South Wales that I remember that I am relieved when I drive the next day towards Bridgend and I finally see some factories. This is more like it. Maybe South Wales hasn't changed much after all. But visiting the town where I spent so much of my * childhood is an odd experience. Save a nasty conservatory that the people living in my house have had built, everything looks surreally unchanged. Apart from one thing. The whole town, but especially the streets around where I used to live, has sunk two feet into the ground. It must have. Everything is much, much smaller than it used to be. The walls, the houses, the gateposts, my primary school, the kerbs.

My sisters and I used to spend weeks on Southerndown strand, a beach that morphs at high tide from a steep bank of smooth grey pebbles to a vast stretch of sand at low tide. I take my two-year-old son there on a hot day in May and I am gratified that the concrete of the curving path down to the water's edge still feels exactly the same under bare soles: stippled, grainy, pleasurably uncomfortable. There are still rockpools caught in the undulating wave-cut platforms, the cliffs rearing up on either side. You can still buy ice-creams and buckets at a kiosk in the carpark, the sea is still the colour of weak tea, and the stones make the same hollow, ambient sound as you walk over them. I sit with satisfaction on a rock and watch my son, who removes all of his clothes and hurls them, one by one, into the sea, shrieking with glee.

Southerndown has, clinging to the cliff, the ruins of Dunraven House, a mansion inexplicably dismantled in the 1960s. Not much remains of it and sheep graze on its crumbling front steps but, oddly, its walled garden was saved from the bulldozers. I remember this as a forgotten, overgrown wilderness, an exciting secret garden with a tumbledown glasshouse, a turreted salthouse, and an ornamental pond choked with weed. It had the added thrill of an alleged ghost - a lady who was said to appear at dusk, smelling of mimosa. Conservationists have taken it on and cleared the pond, neatened up the borders and refurbished the glasshouses. I don't know if the ghost survived the make-over or not but I felt proprietorial, seeing all these people marching about the gravelled paths. When we used to go there we were the only people among the over-run lawns and dilapidated trellises.

It's true that a large portion of the Vale of Glamorgan is taken up with unappealing urban-industrial sprawl. But between the M4 and the coastline is some lush, green countryside. There are primroses and campions in the verges beside the roads. There are potteries, castles, farms and rivers with ancient, worn stepping-stones over them. Merthyr Mawr is a preposterously picturesque village. I used to go to Brownie camp there. And if you drive further, through the village you get to Merthyr Mawr Warren, a cluster of immense sand dunes with streams and tiny paths through the gorse.

There is even a taste of Hollywood in the area. St Donat's, a castle near Llantwit Major, was once owned by William Randolph Hearst, the American newsprint millionaire. He bought it for his mistress, Marion Davies, sending a cable to his London office which read, simply, "Buy St Donat's Castle". It is now a college but you can still walk around the walls and paths once trodden by Charlie Chaplin, Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, indulging both your medieval and your Roaring Twenties fantasies all at once.

The Vale of Glamorgan is one of the few places left in Britain where it is possible to have a real, old-fashioned bucket-and-spade holiday. You can have sun and sand without the hoards and gastro-pubs which now afflict much of Britain's coastline. And the beaches are clean, beautiful and varied. I'm still annoyed they repainted that bridge, though.

Maggie O'Farrell's new novel, 'The Distance Between Us', is published by Review, £7.99

GIVE ME THE FACTS

Getting There

Maggie O'Farrell's trip was organised by the Wales Tourist Board (0800 915 6567; www.visitwales.co.uk).

The Vale of Glamorgan is served by Arriva Trains Wales (08709 000 773; www.arrivatrainswales.co.uk) from around Wales and First Great Western (08457 000 125; www.firstgreatwestern.co.uk) from London Paddington to Cardiff.

Staying There

The Vale Hotel, Hensol Park, Hensol, Vale of Glamorgan (01443 667800; www.vale-hotel.com). Doubles start at £175, including breakfast.

Quaint Holiday Cottages, Llantwit Major, Vale of Glamorgan (01446 796471; www.quaintholidaycottages.co.uk). A week's rental costs from £490.

Visiting There

St Donat's Castle (01446 799100; www.stdonats.com)

Further Information

Vale of Glamorgan Tourism (01446 700111; www.valeofglamorgan.gov.uk)

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