Marks of the Romans on the flat shoreline of Gwent
As the estuary of the Severn narrows towards the road bridge linking Wales with England, the coast sinks below river level, protected from regular flooding only by a long sea-wall. In most of the waterside villages, markers on church walls show how high the waters have reached in freak tidal conditions. Roman townships show that this fertile corner of Wales was settled 2,000 years ago, while elsewhere stand the industrial ruins of more recent times.
Lying well off the main Cardiff to Newport road, this lonely little hamlet seems to cower behind the long, low rampart which protects it from the sea. The wall runs, with only minor interruptions, all the way to Newport and the estuary of the Usk. A carved stone on the church wall records that in 1606 the floods reached a height of almost 6 ft above ground level. After that catastrophe, the church was restored, retaining the 15th-century structure; it was subsequently restored on two other occasions, receiving a peal of six bells in 1722.
The flat, fertile meadows round about are criss-crossed with an elaborate network of drainage ditches and channels to carry rainwater through sluice gates to the sea.
In some ways, Newport seems to have weathered the changing economic and industrial fortunes of Britain with less resilience than Cardiff. Much of the once-thriving dock area is derelict, and warehouses have given way to vacant lots or small workshops along the river frontages which once welcomed cargo boats from all over the world.
There are castle ruins alongside the Usk, and the open space in front of the Westgate Hotel at the bottom of Stow Hill was, in
November 1839, the scene of a pitched battle in which rioting Chartists were shot down by soldiers. Other links with the past include a restored stretch of the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal at the Fourteen Locks Centre on Henllys Road.
One landmark of Newport which can be seen for miles around is the Transporter Bridge which carries cars on a moving platform across the River Usk. The unusual design of the bridge was made necessary by the low river banks and the need to clear the tall masts of ships; an arched bridge would have been too steep and more expensive to build. The bridge was built in 1906, and it is possible to climb the stairs to the towers and walk across the river on the upper deck, enjoying spectacular views of the city from 240 ft above the river. There are only two bridges of this type left in Britain, the other being at Middlesbrough.
On the south-western outskirts of the city is Tredegar Park, a late 17th-century house and park. The estate belonged to the Morgan family for more than 500 years and is now a country park.
In Roman times, Caerleon was to South Wales what Chester was to the North – a legionary fortress which was the military base to hold down a turbulent area of the Empire’s furthest conquests. The biggest difference, so far as today’s visitors are concerned, is that while Chester grew into a modern city, and in doing so obliterated many traces of its ancient past, Caerleon has stayed much the same size as when the legionaries trod its streets.
The Welsh name is a shortened version of Caer-y-Leon, or ‘Fort of the Legion’, and the streets still follow the plan laid down by the Roman army engineers some 2,000 years ago. On the south-western side of the little town, tucked with sound tactical sense into an easily defended loop of the Usk, the original ramparts can still be seen. Inside the Roman wall are the foundations of the orderly lines of barrack blocks which housed the legionaries; outside it is the amphitheatre, which was used for gladiatorial contests, sporting events, arms drill and weapons practice.
In the centre of the town a museum built in the style of a Roman temple contains objects found during excavations of the Roman fortress.
Another of the small villages which hug the low-lying shore of the Severn estuary, Goldcliff, too, has had its share of catastrophe caused by the turbulent waters which are now held back by the stone sea-wall. In the flood year of 1606, the waters reached 2 ft 3 in. above the level of the chancel floor in the parish church. A brass plate records the toll of 22 people drowned and £5,000 worth of damage.
At Goldcliff, large conical baskets are used to catch salmon swimming out into the Severn estuary from the Severn and Wye.
Even in an area which is rich in Roman remains, Caerwent is something out of the ordinary. Because Wales was a frontier zone in Roman times, most of the ruins and sites tend to be military in character – fortresses, small forts, military signal stations, temporary camps and the like. But this southeastern corner of Wales must have been more settled, for Caerwent is a splendid example of a civilian Roman town.
In the 2,000 years or so since its founding as Venta Silurum (’Venta of the Silures’, a local tribe, to distinguish it from Venta Belgarum, ‘Venta of the Belgae’, the modern Winchester) Caerwent has scarcely outgrown its Roman boundaries. Seen across the flat fields where the course of the Newport to Chepstow main road diverges from the old Roman road, the Roman ramparts around the village are unmistakable – a high stone barrier, pierced by the foundations of gates. The roads through the village follow lines laid down by the Romans, and near the parish church is the site of a Roman temple.
The village of Sudbrook stands at the end of a cul-de-sac reaching down to a point where the Welsh shore swings out towards the
Avon bank of the Severn estuary. It is built along both sides of a railway track and is dominated by a huge pumping station. Beneath the village passes the 3I/2 mile long Severn railway tunnel.
The tunnel dates from the 1870s, when the Great Western Railway, desperate to win a bigger share of the rich coal export trade of South Wales, wanted to cut 60 miles off its route to London by building a direct line across the 2 mile wide estuary. A bridge was out of the question, so a tunnel was dug instead. Because the rock through which the tunnel was bored was honeycombed with watercourses, the railway company built a series of pumping stations, of which Sudbrook was the most important.
For almost a century the steam-engines, and their modern replacements, have pumped 60 million gallons of water out of the tunnel and back to the river every day, so that the trains can keep passing beneath.
ACROSS THE USK
More than 70 years after it urns built, Newport’s Transporter Bridge is still an engineering wonder. The carriage can bear loads up to 120 tons and withstand winds of 110 mph.
A lane down to the river bank from the road between Portskewett and Chepstow gives a clear view of the English shore and the Severn Bridge. There is a car park and a picnic area, and a walk along the foreshore.
Of all the castles and minor fortresses built by the Norman invaders of Wales in the early Middle Ages, none has a more spectacular setting than that of Chepstow. The castle sprawls like a sleeping lion on a cliff overlooking a loop in the River Wye. Below, the river surges along the gorge it has cut through the high ground on its way to join the Severn. Chepstow Castle was built by a general named Strongbow, who went on to conquer much of Ireland for the Normans.
The town which huddles next to the castle still has much of its medieval character. Cramped streets twist up and down the hill beside the fortress, and much of the ancient town wall still stands, including the gate where tolls were levied on traders coming in for the town markets.
Chepstow is an ideal base for exploring the Wye Gorge, which winds past cliffs and wooded hillsides to Tintern Abbey and, eventually, to Monmouth.
Before the building of the Severn Bridge, a ferry from Beachley to Aust saved motorists a long detour upriver to Gloucester and back down the opposite bank. Where cars once queued to wait for space on the next crossing, it is now possible to sit and enjoy an unusual view of the Severn Bridge from below, as it leaps from bank to bank in a single graceful span.