Chris Gutteridge's Romans & Castles blog February 2017

We've just been to South Wales, partly to see Jayne's Mum, but also to visit the area around Newport.

We started off with a day in Cardiff, the main highlights of which were lamb cawl in Madame Fromage followed by apple crumble and tea in Wally's – two excellent delicatessens, situated in two of the many splendid arcades that Cardiff has retained in its modern shopping centre.

We didn’t visit Cardiff castle as we have done so in the past, nor did we visit Lord Bute's other Pre-Raphaelite fantasy castle, Castel Coch, which was the venue of our wedding.

From Cardiff we moved on to Caerleon, a quaint little town on the site of a massive Roman encampment. We pulled up in the car park outside the Roman baths, I read the notice threatening dire consequences for those who failed to pay & display, and found the ticket machine. It was tied together with sticky tape, and its display screen was blinking with strange, alien writing. As I was contemplating this, a car drew up beside me, and a cheery local wound down his window, saying, “You don't have to pay – it's broken – been like that for about two years!”

After touring the (free) museum we went for lunch in the Hanbury Arms - one of the many pubs in the town. It was quite early, and we were the first customers for lunch, so we sat in the bay window overlooking the River Usk. Others started to arrive, and so did our meal. We were just settling down to enjoy it when we became aware of a young couple standing behind us. They then sat at the table next to us briefly, but didn't like it. The barmaid pointed out there was more seating in the other bar, so they tried a window seat in there, but it didn’t seem to suit, as they got up and left without ordering. We got the distinct impression that they felt they should have had our place!

After lunch and booking into our B & B, we returned to Caerleon, timing our visit, on our hosts' advice, so that we arrived between the arrival and the departure of parents collecting children from the school – a tiny window when the roads were clear enough to get to the car park avoiding the complete gridlock. We visited the baths (free). A very imaginative son et lumiere gave the impression of swimmers in the main pool. We then toured the impressive amphitheatre and the remains of the barracks, where you can see exactly how little space eight men had to each room. All of which was free.

Still in the mood for exploring, we set off to have a look at Usk, where we pulled into the castle car park, which was nearly full. We discovered that the castle was privately owned, and the cars were resulting from a function being held in the tithe barn at the foot of the castle mound. We put our £2 each in the honesty box at the gate and climbed up the steep motte to the castle ruins. We had a good poke around and admired the views, avoiding trampling the daffodils and chickens, and then made use of the toilets built into one of the towers. They seemed very busy, and then it dawned on us that all the attendees of the function down in the barn had to scramble up here to use the toilets! A delightfully eccentric place. We had a little picnic in the car park, and after that we looked at the prison, built in 1841 (specialising in elderly sex offenders, apparently), had a look at the rood screen in the parish church and then retired to the Nag's Head for a drink before returning to our B & B.

We had three things on our list to visit in the vicinity of Newport – the Newport Medieval Ship, Tredegar House and the Newport transporter bridge – so we started the next day with a walk in the Newport Wetlands RSPB reserve. It was quite misty, giving the reed beds a mysterious appearance. We saw few birds, but heard a lot. Reaching the East Usk lighthouse at the mouth of the river, we saw a couple of cargo ships loom out of the mist and sail up the river. The reserve had an excellent café, and having had an enormous cooked breakfast, we were ready for coffee, with a couple of welsh cakes for me.

By this time, the Medieval Ship was open to visitors. Most of the ship is actually away in York being freeze dried, but there's a model, and pictures, and a band of cheery volunteers eager to tell you all about it. The ship was discovered when piling was being carried out to build a new theatre on the riverbank. There's more of the hull surviving than there is of the Mary Rose. It was a Spanish merchant ship, and was being repaired in an inlet on the river, propped up with timbers, and fell over at low tide. Unable to right it, the shipbuilders stripped it out and left it to sink into the mud.

There are two working transporter bridges in the UK. The one in Middlesbrough is still being used as an everyday method of crossing the Tees, and we have ridden on it. The other one is in Newport, but it is only open occasionally, as a tourist attraction. The idea of a transporter bridge is that you can carry people and vehicles across a navigable river without obstructing shipping. It consists of a gondola suspended on wires from a high gantry and pulled across by an electric motor on one bank. The Newport one will take up to six cars and has a rather elegant little kiosk on the gondola for the “driver” – probably because it was designed by a Frenchman. However, it wasn't working when we visited, and the visitor centre was closed. Having pulled in off the main road, we found that our exit was controlled by traffic lights, and we wondered whether we would be allowed out again, but after sitting for a couple of minutes, our light turned green and the traffic on the dual carriageway ground to a halt to let us out again.

We had visited Tredegar House before, when it was under the control of Newport City Council, and were taken round by an excellent guide who showed us the untouched Victorian servants' quarters and passageways behind the scenes, as well as the more formal parts. It has now been taken over by the National Trust, which is doing an enormous amount of remedial work on the building. As this was the first open day of the year and the first day of half term, they were not charging admission, so the place was swarming with people. Another visit is called for once things have calmed down and more of the house is open to the public. From our previous visit, two things stick in my memory – the story of the massive 12' wide guest bed, now sadly destroyed, in which Lord Palmerston lost his wife, and had to ring for a servant to help him find her; and the weird mind of Lord Tredegar who, during the 1920s and 30s was a papal envoy and a follower of Crowley, and had a crucifix on his bedroom wall that he could turn upside down after he'd said his Catholic prayers and then worship Satan. Do have a look at this page about him: I can't wait for the book to come out!

After all that, we decided to move on to Caerwent – a village on the site of a Roman town. It has most of the town walls intact, and the ruins of shops, houses, forum and basilica – all very low-key in a small and sleepy village, and again, entirely free! We walked part of the very impressive walls and visited the parish church and the pub. It's amazing what you can get through in one day!

When sneaking into Wales via the back door to avoid the Severn Bridge toll, we often drive through Chepstow, but had never stopped to have a look, so for our last day we decided to rectify this. Away from the main road, it's a pleasant little town, especially on a Sunday. Waiting for the castle to open, we walked round the town, which is built on a steep hill. It retains most of its town wall and its main gate.

The castle is massive! And as the CADW website says, a history lesson in itself, dating from the 11th to the 17th centuries. It’s built on a large rock outcrop hanging over the River Wye. Of course, one can’t resist climbing every set of stairs to admire the views of the town and the surrounding countryside, so what with that and the steepness of the town, my knees were starting to complain.

It was getting towards lunchtime when I had to visit the public convenience. Sitting there minding my own business, my eye casually scanned the graffiti on the door in front of me:

“Gay cock fun”
“the older the better”
Time to move on!

So we did. Our hosts had told us about a community shop and café in the little village of Brockweir, just north of Tintern on the River Wye, so we thought we’d try it for lunch. Crossing the river, one is confronted by a large 16th century house, apparently blocking the road, and having negotiated our way round it we managed to grab the last parking space in the village and went to explore. We discovered a pleasant river walk, a pub, a Moravian Church and an interesting monastic building, but no shop, so we enquired of a man who was up a ladder, pulling the ivy off his garage roof. “It's up the hill”, he said. “Ah, at the top of the hill, right, thanks.” “Oh, no, not at the top.” “Ok, thanks very much.”

After a stiff climb, we came to a sign that said, “Village Shop 1Km”. We debated going back for the car, but decided to press on. It was a very long and a very steep 1Km! We soon left the village behind us, and the sun came out to warm us. The views were very pleasant, but by the time we got to the shop I was feeling hot, tired, aching and possibly a little tetchy. However, after a bowl of parsnip and apple soup, I felt better, and was ready to climb back down to the car.

We got out the maps to see what else we could do, and I spotted St Briavels Castle and Clearwell Caves, so we headed back up the hill past the village shop. The man in the village had spoken truth – the shop was nowhere near the top of the hill, which carried on for several more miles of increasingly narrow and tortuous lane.

Jayne says she stayed in St Briavels when she was youth hosteling in her teens. When we got there we found the castle is the youth hostel, but Jayne was adamant she didn't stay there. Later research showed that the youth hostel opened in the castle eight years before she was born, so that mystery went unsolved. The castle looked very impressive from outside. We were going to look in the church, but there was a buzz of animated conversation coming through the door, so we decided not to intrude. Cars kept arriving as we were wandering around, and one elderly lady asked if we were going to the concert – so that explained all the cars and people. No idea what sort of concert as it didn't appear to be advertised anywhere.

So onward we went to Clearwell Caves, which turned out to be an iron ore and other minerals mine which started as natural caves where people started mining 2000 years ago. We only visited the top level, which was a self-guided tour. There are two more levels which you can apply to visit with a guide, but involve what amounts to potholing, and another that is now permanently flooded since they turned the pumps off when mining ceased. It was all very interesting, with abandoned machinery and antiquated trucks and such like lying around. There were graphic descriptions of what life was like in the 18th and 19th centuries, especially for the children who were expected to crawl with 20 kilos of iron ore balanced on their back from the seam to the nearest cart, possibly 50 to 100 yards away, over and over all day long.

At the deepest point – 100 feet – was an old air compressor, parts of which had been tuned to different notes, and a pair of beaters to play it with, so of course I had to have a go. There were shallow man-made pools throughout the caves, designed to catch the dripping water from above and provide drinking water for the miners, and indeed the local villagers. At the biggest of these was a projection installation which gave the impression that the waters were alive with prehistoric fish and ammonites, the bones and shells of which, in their millions, had produced the limestone all around us at this point. Fascinating and very life-like.

Having got this far north, we decided to head to Monmouth for a meal. On the way there, we passed the road to The Kymin – a viewpoint looking out over Monmouth – so turned off to have a look. The single-track road led steeply up the hill, and was quite busy with cars as there were houses all the way up, clinging to the escarpment. We eventually reached the top, and were rewarded with splendid views. There is a Georgian banqueting house on the top, and also a naval "temple", erected in 1802 and dedicated to all the British admirals involved in the Napoleonic wars. Apparently Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton used to enjoy visiting the spot to enjoy the views. I’m sure that he didn’t go there just to look at his name and the picture of the “Glorious Victory of the Battle of the Nile” on the monument!

Descending cautiously as dusk began to fall, we continued our journey to Monmouth and a meal at the Robin Hood pub. What is Robin Hood doing in Wales, you ask, and I’m afraid I can’t help you with that.

So ended our brief but very busy break in South Wales.

Text © Chris Gutteridge 2017
Photos © Jayne Gutteridge 2017