SUNDAY saw me catch a train at the relatively civilised hour of 7 am, brimming with boundless excitement at the prospect of three more days of walking in South Wales. My optimism was not diluted by the Met Office’s advisory notices (it was Wales, of course it was going to rain) nor even by the prospect of Newport, a town so lovely that a friend of mine who hails from there chose to move as far away from it as Canada.
‘The glass is half full!’ my optimism shouted.
‘Yes but what is it half filled with?’ queried my cynicism. ‘Three week old yak urine, probably.’
‘Don’t be stupid,’ interrupted common sense. ‘It’s filled to the brim with rain.’
Wending to Wales
I breezed through a London that was full of commuting Olympic volunteers, stuffing my face with bacon roll in the process, and jumped on a train to Newport (Casnewydd).
There, I met ‘Alice’ on the platform, who was surprised and (I think) amused to find me wearing a t-shirt with my Helpful Mammal icon on the front of it.
Returning to Severn Tunnel Junction
Together we jumped on a local service back to Severn Tunnel Junction, a trip that took about twenty minutes but which basically covered the day’s entire walk. Having suitably ridiculed our day’s endeavour, the train then sat at the station, going nowhere.
‘Did we break the train?’ we asked ourselves. The rain, which had held off until now, fell upon our heads. ‘Start as you mean to go on,’ I thought.
We marched off into the misty drizzle of Wales…
The path followed a raised bank alongside the estuary. It was muddy and wet underfoot although not nearly so much as the surrounding Caldicot Levels. In theory we could see across the Severn to Portishead and Clevedon. In practice: not so much.
We passed by Magor Pill, where a small stream meets the estuary. There, the remains of a thirteenth century trading vessel were found buried in the mud in 1994; it was laden with iron ore from Glamorgan.
Magor Pill is named for nearby Magor (Magwyr), whose name means ‘a wall’ and which has been inhabited since Roman times. Magor lies about a mile and a half inland and marked the edge of the estuarine salt marsh before land was reclaimed to make fields.
Alice produced sandwiches from her rucksack while I retrieved a square of plastic sheeting from mine on which we could sit while we ate. We thus paused near to Porton House, an outlying building of the village of Whitson and gazed out across the Severn towards Clevedon, which had emerged from the mists.
Steep Holm & Flat Holm
Setting off again, we were helpfully forewarned that one of the gates we needed to pass through was locked on account of damage. Fortunately, the man who told us this also told us how to get around it by dropping down onto the top of a rocky revetment and then climbing back up again.
It was about this time that my phone, which had been resolutely failing to connect to the network properly for a whole week, exhausted its battery trying. This meant no more photos for the day and also no knowing the time (unless I asked Alice in both cases. Fortunately, she was happy to oblige).
We encountered another blocked gate near Goldcliff Pill but this time it was because the way through it wasn’t the Wales Coast Path. It was quite badly waymarked at this point, which was disappointing as hitherto it had been waymarked very well.
Still, the soggy remnants of my map indicated the way onward quite clearly and we soon found ourselves on the edge of the village of Goldcliff (Allteuryn), where we saved ourselves about a quarter of a mile by missing out a loop through more marshes and heading instead for the Farmer’s Arms pub. There I consumed my customary gin and tonic while Alice
bucked tradition by insisting on hot coffee instead.
Goldcliff has long been inhabited; there are 8,000-year-old footprints hidden in the laminated silts of the foreshore and the village was occupied by the Silures when the Romans arrived six thousand years later.
The twelfth century chronicler Giraldus Cambrensis (Latin for ‘Gerald of Wales’) recorded the actual Gold Cliff — a low cliff of siliceous limestone – as ‘Gouldclyffe’ in 1188.
The Farmer’s Arms
Warmly ensconced in the Farmer’s Arms, we dried out a little and rested our feet and I resisted the urge to buy lunch. The pub was clean and welcoming, having been refurbished sometime within the last couple of years.
When we felt ready we climbed to our feet and returned to the banks of the Severn, now heading for the mouth of the River Usk (Afon Wysg), which rises in the Brecon Beacons National Park. As we walked the concentration of electricity pylons grew ever greater, converging on Uskmouth Power Station.
East Usk Lighthouse
Uskmouth Power Station
There are actually two power stations at Uskmouth (Aberwysg). Two coal-fired stations were built there, one in the early 1950s and a second in 1959. The earlier of the two — Uskmouth A — was closed in 1981 and demolished in 2002. A new gas-fired station now stands on its site, having been completed in early 2011.
The second coal-fired station, Uskmouth B, remains operational, its late fifties brick chimney and exterior somehow evincing that combination retro-futuristic feel that only something from that period could achieve.
Perhaps for this reason Uskmouth B’s interior is no stranger to science fiction television, having thrice been used as a filming location for Doctor Who, specifically the Age of Steel / Rise of the Cybermen two-parter and The Doctor, the Widow & the Wardrobe.
Insufficient Water Error
It was more or less as we passed the power stations that I discovered that I had once again managed to mislay my bottle of water during a stop. You’d think I’d learn… although ‘old dogs, new tricks’ springs to mind. I also discovered that Alice was only carrying carbonated water, not still, to which I could mostly only say ‘bleurgh!’
Fortunately, the path, which now twisted around on itself in a manner which must have warped space and time, spat us out into a car park near the Newport Wetlands, where signs pointed to a visitor centre. There I hoped I could find some water.
The Newport Wetlands is a wildlife reserve established in 2000 in an attempt to mitigate any adverse effects of building the Cardiff Bay Barrage across Cardiff Bay (further downstream the Severn). The waymarks appeared to be pointing back the way we came but I decided to trust them. They led us directly to the visitor centre, although this was in the opposite direction to the sign in the car park.
Gift Shop Hero
There, inevitably, we found that the café had closed fifteen minutes earlier and the young man in the gift shop was not empowered to sell us a bottle of water. Being a kind soul, he did so anyway, vowing to repay the café the requisite pound in the morning.
I sincerely hope he didn’t get into any trouble for doing so because it was kind and helpful and I was very grateful; he could have simply insisted that we were too late to buy water and that was that.
Now that I was re-equipped with water, we now found that the path became very strange. It crossed a series of low-lying waterlogged fields and, wherever there was a particularly boggy bit (such as a drainage channel or ‘grip’ leading to a larger ditch or ‘reen’) a platform of wooden decking had been erected.
We thus flitted across the mud from one platform to another, feeling vaguely like participants in a very primitive platform game on a late 1980s computer. I say late 80s because the sun had come out now and my pale, overly-sensitive skin was starting to catch it; this made me a sprite in colour rather than black and white one. Thus I’m saying Sinclair Spectrum rather than ZX81.
After we had collected all the blips and levelled up twice, we found ourselves on a road, more or less skirting straight past the village of Nash.
Nash is a brilliantly-named village as its name is thought to derive from a contraction of ‘an ash’. Its name in Welsh, Trefonnen, also means town of the ash tree.
St Mary’s Church
The village has a twelfth century Grade I listed church which at one point it looked we were heading for until the path got other ideas.
We next traversed a series of meadows full of waist-high wild flowers. This would have been delightful had it not been for the presence of some persistent insects that saw us as dinner.
By dint of determined vigilance, swatting and not being a woman (hormones usually make women favoured targets over men) I managed to escape harm — I like my blood to stay inside where I put it — but Alice got munched on three times. Judging from her yelp of surprise and pain, the insect’s appearance and the swelling produced in the bites I’d say they were horse flies or their close relatives. Horrible things.
A couple of walkers passed us going the other way and we duly warned them to put on long sleeves and take care as they crossed the meadow.
The meadows gave out to a path running alongside an industrial site, a chemical plant belonging to Solutia UK Ltd.
With Uskmouth having put me in mind of Doctor Who I was now reminded, by all the pipes, tanks and silos, of that other BBC science fiction classic, Blake’s Seven, in which every Federation base down to which the eponymous seven teleported resembled a contemporary chemical plant or refinery. Mostly of course, because that’s exactly what it was.
However, it has to be said that the two enormous modern wind turbines that towered over the Solutia premises were far more ‘futuristic’ than anything the Blake’s Seven set designers imagined. The wind turbines were erected in 2008 and supply the chemical plant with about a third of its electricity.
We soon found ourselves navigating an industrial estate, which was spookily deserted on a Sunday afternoon.
The Welsh Coast Path waymarks eventually led us to the Newport Transporter Bridge, an engineering marvel and Grade I listed structure.
Transport Bridge Concept
The transporter bridge is a slightly bizarre late Victorian concept, intended to get around the problem of spanning a river while allowing headroom for what were then high-masted ships. It involves a high bridge-like structure from which hangs a gondola that shuttles to and fro at riverbank level. This makes it a strange mixture of bridge, ferry and cable car all-in-one and indeed the concept’s inventor, Charles Smith, originally christened it a ‘bridge ferry’.
There were only ever about twenty of them built and only half a dozen remain in use (not counting a small human-powered one built in Germany in 2003).
Newport Transporter Bridge
The Newport Transporter Bridge (Pont Gludo Casnewydd) was built in 1906 and, like a number of other great British engineering works, was designed by a French engineer, in this case Ferdinand Arnodin. The bridge is the lowest point at which the 63 mile long River Usk can be crossed and a transporter bridge was chosen because shipping needed high clearance while the riverbanks were too low for an ordinary bridge to achieve this without excessive approach ramps. The obvious alternative of a ferry would only have run at high tide.
Sadly it doesn’t run on weekends and so was closed when we got there.
Heading into Newport
From the bridge it was just a case of following the roads out of the industrial park and deeper into Newport (Casnewydd).
The New Port
Newport is the third largest city in Wales but labours under a reputation for being more than a little grim. In fairness this is because the city is more than a little grim.
It’s not that it lacks for history — the port was new in 1126 when Robert, Earl of Gloucester established it as a rival to the ex-Roman port of Caerleon, which lies further upstream.
It had a castle, which gives it its Welsh name (Casnewydd is a contraction of Castell Newydd ar Wysg — ‘New Castle on Usk’) and which was taken amid fighting and the burning of the town by Owain Glendŵr’s forces in the Welsh Revolt of 1402. The castle’s remains have largely been obliterated, with only the ruins of its east side remaining.
Successful Port, Eventual City
Newport gained its town charter in 1314 and seems to have been a successful port — the wreck of an unusually large fifteenth century merchant ship was uncovered in 2002 — but even so it remained fairly small until the nineteenth century.
It then expanded into a thriving coal port, becoming Wales’s leading coal port by 1830 when it was larger than Cardiff. Even so, it didn’t gain its charter as a city until 2002, long after its prowess had declined.
Newport Rising of 1839
Moving from charters to Chartism — an early working class labour movement — Newport was the scene of the last large-scale armed rebellion in Great Britain in the form of the Newport Rising of 1839.
Armed Chartists were confronted by militia, leading to deaths of at least twenty marchers, which event is commemorated by a drab-looking mural in the city centre.
At an appropriate point, we broke off from the Wales Coast Path and headed into the city centre,
The Vision of St Gwynllyw
This splendid statue attempting to brighten a city centre street is titled The Vision of St Gwynllyw:
Gwynllyw was king of the mediaeval kingdom of Gwynllwg, between the Usk and the Rhymney. A rampaging pirate and warmonger, he apparently repented his sins under the influence of his son, St Cadoc.
Gwynllyw built himself a hermitage on the spot where he spotted an ox that matched one he’d seen in a vision. The city’s cathedral is dedicated to him under the name of St Woolos.
Cadoc eventually retired to his own hermitage on Flat Holm (Ynys Echni), where he was visited by Gildas, who appears not to have quite understood the concept of ‘hermit’.
The Parting of the Ways
In the city centre, we found ourselves drinks and dinner before Alice caught a train home and I tracked down my hotel.
This time: 17½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,048 miles