MY MOST recent walk was plagued by annoyances which failed to dent my enthusiasm. For instance, I specifically delayed my walk by a fortnight so that various others would be able to join me and none of them did. Now, I’m quite happy to walk on my own but had I known I’d be doing that, I’d not have postponed it. I think in future I’ll just plan for myself and not for the benefit of others.
A train from London whisked me to Bristol Temple Meads, where I waited in vain for another train to whisk me back to Avonmouth. Apparently they’d run out of drivers and so the train was cancelled. Its passengers spilled back out onto the platform, tutting and sighing and looking at the time.
The next train, which was some time later, got halfway there and broke down. This meant not only that the second train was also cancelled but that it was successfully blocking the track to make sure there wouldn’t be a third one. Handy, I thought.
Given that my plan for the day was ticking away and by now I was already starting an hour late, I abandoned the railway and set off to search for alternative methods of transport.
It was an hour and a quarter after I’d planned that I finally returned to Avonmouth, where I found a gaggle of lost-looking souls outside the station, desperate for any information as to when they might eventually see a train. I couldn’t help them at all and so, with a shrug, I set off…
Avonmouth is a port area, sitting in the shade of some giant wind turbines and dotted with warehouses and other industrial buildings. This meant that I couldn’t get near the actual shore of the Severn Estuary on account of the commercial properties occupying the waterfront. Instead, I followed the A403, a long, boring road of exquisite dullness, as it led off through an industrial landscape dotted with derelict buildings.
Old Co-op Flour Mill
The sight of the mix of old and new, working sites and derelict ones, provoked some mental musing on the nature of the economy, boom and bust and the inevitable oscillation of national economic policy between the extremes of rampant all-or-nothing capitalism and command economy socialism. Surely, there have to be other options? Is there not a third way?
St Andrew’s Road
The A403 — named St Andrew’s Road at this point — continued ramrod straight, passing coal silos, St Andrew’s Road Station (opened 1917) and a hot dog van that held no appeal. And then, in what seemed like an otherwise unremarkable set of industrial units, I found a bakery shop, which sold me a jam doughnut and a cold drink.
Jam doughnuts are an awesome foodstuff — they’re sticky, tasty and they bleed when you bite them. What’s not to like? The cold drink was also very welcome as the weather forecast of ‘intermittent rain’ appeared to actually mean ‘scorching sunshine’.
Further along, the A403 became Smoke Lane.
The Severn Way
According to the map I could leave the A403 at this point and take a footpath across another goods siding to join the Severn Way.
A footpath sign pointing towards the river seemed promising but didn’t really seem to lead anywhere except to the track of the siding. And then I espied the next footpath sign, peeking out above a thicket of brambles, although I could see no way to get to it. There was absolutely no direct way from the road to this sign.
Undeterred, I made my cautious way along the edge of the goods siding until I found an abandoned branch from the main track over which I knew the footpath must pass. And in doing so, I managed to get much closer to the sign, certainly close enough to see that it was shoulder deep in undergrowth and that there was no hint of a way through. This was, it seemed, another example of the recurring ‘the sign makes it a footpath, bring your own machete’ approach.
I mentally added ‘impassable footpaths’ to my growing list of annoyances and backtracked to the A403, which I would now be accompanying for a little while longer.
Seabank Power Station
In an apparent effort to be more interesting, it developed a couple of right-angled corners before giving up and offering me a handy cycle path instead. This became quite pleasantly leafy and afforded me a rest on a bench beside a pond full of reeds in the shadow of Seabank Power Station, a gas-fired site opened in 2000.
When I’d rested and applied a ton of sunscreen, I followed the cycle route (NCN 41) as it curved around to dump me back onto the A403. Opposite, I spied what I assumed to be a path leading to the Severn Way and, while this was knee-deep in undergrowth, it was a definite improvement on shoulder-high. I followed it.
The Severn Way (At Last)
The Severn Way path turned out to alternate between glorious leafy tunnels and open fields, with the path being knee-deep in plants and narrowly bordered by brambles in most of the latter.
It wasn’t all that close to the Severn but it was right next to the railway’s Severn Beach Line, which had to be crossed on a pedestrian level crossing (with an admonition to look both ways). I duly looked but was hardly concerned; there’s only one train every two hours between Avonmouth and Severn Beach even when a broken-down train isn’t blocking the line.
The Severn Way carried me over the boundary into Gloucestershire and then opened out to become a concrete embankment, which it shared with NCN 41. This conveyed me to the village of Severn Beach, a settlement named more in hope than reality, unless ‘thick brown mud’ and ‘beach’ are natural synonyms.
Severn Beach was merely a farm until 1900, when the Great Western Railway decided to link Avonmouth to the south and Pilning to the north. A seaside resort started to grow up from around 1922, mostly funded by local entrepreneur Robert Stride. It successfully attracted a constant stream of business, not least because the South Gloucestershire magistrates were rather more lenient about licensing than their Bristolian counterparts.
Severn Beach looked to me to be mostly houses now, although a handy shop sold me a sandwich which I ate on the shore within sight of the Second Severn Crossing.
Second Severn Crossing
The Second Severn Crossing was opened in 1996 to alleviate congestion on the first Severn Bridge. It is over three miles long and carries the M4 motorway but has no pedestrian access.
It does, however, have a monorail underneath it, which is used for maintenance but which had to be embarrassingly shut down in 1996, not long after the bridge opened, due to cracks. It remained out of use for at least six years.
Just past the bridge, near the hamlet of New Passage (named for a ferry that operated there in the eighteenth century), I found a man with an enormous camera and tripod.
He nodded to me as I dealt with a stone in my walking boot and I commented to him that he looked to be carrying some serious photographic equipment. In reply, he waved a hand towards the River Severn and the marshes of Northwick Oaze, which a nearby sign suggested should be covered in birds. It was not.
‘Yes,’ he agreed, ‘shame there’s only empty brown water to point it at.’
Now, this wasn’t strictly true insofar as there were several cows and, further on, two horses and a foal but I guess they didn’t count for him on account of lacking feathers and a beak. He gave me helpful directions and I merrily set off, making for the original Severn Bridge a couple of miles further north.
Opened in 1966, Severn Bridge is actually four bridges in succession — Aust Viaduct, Severn Bridge, Beachley Viaduct and Wye Bridge. The Severn Bridge part is the most obvious, since it has to span the Severn and it is this that most people think of as the crossing between England and Wales. Only it’s nothing of the kind.
At that point the border with Wales is actually the River Wye, while Beachley, despite being on the far side of the Severn, is actually another bit of Gloucestershire (albeit a peninsula with the Severn on one side and the Wye on the other).
Just downstream from the Severn Bridge are two enormous pylons carrying electricity cables across the Severn. This, apparently, is the longest single power cable span in Britain. I eyed the pylons warily. I don’t trust pylons, marching across our fields like giant metal invaders. There’s something a bit too HG Wells about them.
A steep hill carried me up from the ferry terminal through Old Passage and past a house whose garden wasn’t as secluded as its nude sunbathing occupant probably believed (not that there was any way to tell her this without it going badly awry).
Old Passage Road then carried me to the edge of the village of Aust (first recorded in 794 as ‘Austin’) where a side-path led me to the bridge.
Crossing the Bridge
I was anticipating some nervousness on Severn Bridge (Pont Hafren in Welsh). It’s a mile long and 136 m high. It’s also, for some reason, about as scary in good weather as queuing at a bus stop.
I passed over Beachley, home to 1st Battalion the Rifles, and then across the River Wye. I was now in Wales.
Welcome to Wales?
While road traffic across the Severn Bridge roars across it on the M48 (a bit of motorway that used to part of the M4 until the new crossing was built) and passes a ‘Welcome to Wales / Croeso i Gymru’ sign once off the bridge, there is no such welcome for pedestrians. Our only clue that we are now in Wales is the sudden presence of Welsh language place names on the motorway sign at the end of the bridge.
A Question of County
Specifically, I was now in Monmouthshire although noting the Welsh counties I pass through potentially gives me more of a headache than the English ones. In England, while there are a number of unitary authorities that are independent of their county, there is always a ceremonial county to fall back on, which mostly match the historic counties. I’ve mostly used those, although I did consider Sussex as a whole.
In Wales, as in England, there is a bewildering array of unitary and county authorities — the Principal Areas of Wales — many of which (like Monmouthshire) hark back to the thirteen historic counties. But the ceremonial (or ‘preserved’) counties use the eight counties of the 1974 reorganisation, which were totally different.
So, where I was standing was in the principal area of Monmouthshire, part of the old historic county of Monmouthshire but, for purposes of lieutenancy and shrievalty, also the preserved county of Gwent. My head hurt.
To hell with modernity, I say. I shall use the historic pre-1974 counties to mark where I go, only noting their modern or 1974 counterparts if and when I feel like it.
So, Monmouthshire. Sir Fynwy in Welsh.
The actual part of Monmouthshire that I was in was Bulwark, a mostly residential suburb of Chepstow (Cas-gwent), named for its Iron Age fort.
Wales Coast Path
While it may indeed have been mostly residential, the Wales Coast Path (Llwybr Arfordir Cymru), which I now joined, carried me through what seemed to be a neatly manicured business park. This soon enough turned into open fields, one of which was embracing national symbolism by being full of leeks.
The Wales Coast Path is new, having opened on the fifth of May this year, but it incorporates a number of pre-existing paths such as the one I was on. It is well waymarked and carried me easily from Bulwark, through fields, to the tiny village of Mathern (Matharn).
Mathern was originally known as Merthyr-Tewdrig (‘burial place of Tewdrig’) after Tewdrig ap Teithfallt, the sixth century king of Glywysing (modern Glamorgan) and a martyr and saint.
Tewdrig abdicated to become a hermit but was recalled to lead the armies of Glywysing and Gwent against the invading Saxons. Tewdrig won but was mortally wounded and, as his enemies were pagans while his people were Christian, was considered to have died for the faith and was thus a martyr.
Unsurprisingly, Mathern’s church — St Tewdric’s — is dedicated to him. It is from a much later period though, having been mostly built in the fifteenth century and heavily restored in the 1880s.
St Pierre Pill & Red Cliff
After Mathern it was all fields again, through which strode a veritable army of electricity pylons. I crossed another railway line, looking and listening more carefully this time, and found my way onto a raised bank running along the Severn shore near to an inlet called St Pierre Pill. There were a few boats moored in the pill, which was overlooked by a low, red cliff, of which I completely failed to take a decent photo.
I charged along the grassy bank, looking out over the Severn and increasing amounts of mud, and practically stepped over a couple of teenagers who were either a tad amorous or had suffered some terrible accident involving their faces and glue.
I paused for a rest at a place called Black Rock (Craig Ddu) near to the village of Portskewett (Porthsgiwed).
Black Rock used to be the western terminus of the ferry from New Passage and has been in use on-and-off as a handy crossing point since Roman times. It is also the last place in Wales where locals fish using traditional lave nets, which are held on Y-shaped willow staves and placed into the outgoing tide to catch fish swept up in the Severn’s tidal rush. This is only done at certain times during the year and, although the tide was going out, I sadly didn’t see any fishermen.
Also, on the subject of fast-moving water, nearby Portskewett was traditionally where King Caradog Freichfras of Gwent held court in the sixth century, having moved from Caerwent to take advantage of its strongly-flowing freshwater spring. The spring kept going for centuries, finally ceasing to flow in the 1880s in consequence of the construction of the Severn Tunnel, built to carry the railway under the river.
A little further downstream from Black Rock was the village of Sudbrook, built as Southbrook in the nineteenth century to house workers building the Severn Tunnel.
It remains dominated by river crossings to this day as the Second Severn Crossing towers overhead, the roar of the traffic a constant background noise. A disused railway branch leads to the Severn Tunnel pumping station, cutting the village in half.
Sudbrook Hill Fort
I crossed this track and passed by Sudbrook Non-Political Club before returning to the riverside atop a small hill. This was the site of an iron age hill fort, most likely built by the Silures in the second century BC but later occupied by the Romans between the first and fourth centuries AD.
I became unsure of the path at one point and so asked a woman out walking her dog who not only confirmed that I was still on the Wales Coast Path but that I next had to climb a steep slope and then duck. I took her at her word and she was right. A short, steep slope up was followed by coming back down again but the path was overhung by low branches under which I had to stoop.
For some reason, this amused me greatly and I chuckled merrily to myself as I headed off out of Sudbrook and under the western end of the Second Severn Crossing to the marshy area of Caldicot Pill.
The path continued between the river and the M4 for a little way and then crossed the motorway by means of a footbridge, carrying me onto what I took to be a private road just south of Caldicot (Cil-y-coed).
Cil-y-coed means ‘corner of the wood’ and refers to Wentwood (Coed Gwent), a forest lying to the northwest. Caldicot has a rather extensive Mediaeval castle which I totally failed to see, since the road led me past Caldicot Station and away from the town.
I followed the road for some time, pausing only to allow a farmer to pull out from a field in an enormous tractor towing a trailer full of hay. Or straw. Or something. The tractor’s massive wheels mostly didn’t care about the state of the road, or if there was road at all, and he tore off at a rather faster rate than I thought tractors were capable of.
Severn Tunnel Junction
The road surface became better and then excellent and I passed a peeling, faded ‘private road’ sign and found myself back on the public highway a stone’s throw from Severn Tunnel Junction Station (Cyffordd Twnnel Hafren). This station was built in 1886 to serve the new Severn Tunnel and provides the nearby tiny village of Rogiet with a station all out of proportion in terms of size and importance.
Rogiet’s name is of uncertain derivation and numerous historical spellings. Apart from the station, its main claim to fame is the Rogiet Hoard, a hoard of 3,778 Roman coins dating from 253 to 296 and discovered in 1998.
Plan A Accomplished!
Despite having started out an hour and a quarter behind schedule, I had made up all the lost time without really trying. Instead of following Plan B and catching the later ‘fall-back’ train, I had actually made the intended Plan A train with ten minutes to spare.
This gave me a chance to sit and rest and be oddly delighted that the Welsh word for ‘tunnel’ is twnnel.
Train Troubles II
My train soon arrived and whisked me back to Bristol, where my train back to London was naturally subject to delay. I eventually returned to the metropolis far too late to make my connection out of Charing Cross but made my way there from Paddington anyway, as that’s also where I can catch the night bus.
And Train Triumphs!
To my surprise and delight there were still Kent trains running, extra services having been provided for the duration of the Olympics. I thus caught one and headed home.
En route I discovered that my phone refused to find the network, and indeed still does so three days later. I’m not sure if it’s a fault with my SIM card or if the network’s too rammed by the Olympics. But it’s surprisingly disconcerting when your phone doesn’t work.
This time: 18½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,030½ miles