Placescape – Caerwent and Lower Wye area
Living on the far left hand margin of the West of England is pretty good in terms of places to visit for a non-urban day out; within a 35 – 40 minute drive we can be amongst sand dunes at Berrow, leaning into the wind on the craggy heights of Brean Down above the Severn, looking down Cheddar Gorge from the top of the Mendips, wandering in the lush pastures of the Chew Valley, paddling in a stream in a wooded, flowery valley on the Cotswold Way, or admiring wading birds in the Severn wetlands at Slimbridge.
These are very roughly south, east and north of home but, within the same time scale, if we go west we can be in another country, and a different world, Wales. We can see the Black Mountains across the Severn from outside our village Co-op and for me they are always alluring. However, we don’t go there as often as to those other places. While the deterrent for us misers might partly be the toll to cross the Severn Bridge there’s another element at work here; the act of crossing that wide expanse of water and rushing tides, with a prospect of mountains also provides the sense of it being ‘Somewhere Else’ so the destination becomes slightly more significant, a bit of treat not to be squandered!
But, you can become over-familiar with your local territory and need to find some new ground to explore now and then. So prompted by a recommendation from a son, we took off in the thin sunshine a couple of days ago with a thermos of soup (and the £6.60 toll) to this borderline Foreign Land and felt suitably replenished by the time we got back. The day’s excursion took us back and forth through time to the Roman era at Caerwent, on to the 12thC at Tintern Abbey via the ruins of an early (Tudor) ironworking valley and ending amongst the Georgian and Regency bits of Chepstow. The tour also included a sighting of the best (probably the only) 20th C curtains I’ve ever seen in a Post Office window.
Here are some camera-phone ‘image notes’ from the day
Caerwent: tidy Post Office/general store and rare sighting of a launderette, good to see such things in a tiny village; Caerwent’s current population is about 1800 people, in the 4thC AD when it was a well established Roman market town, there were around 3000. The launderette building has that distinctive 1930’s petrol station style you often get in Wales and is next to a yard full of haphazard vehicles so perhaps the launderette was once part of the garage that’s still repairing cars and apparently has been since 1917. Some plain but handsome 18th – 19thC buildings in the village, some recently done-up, others on the verge of collapse. The Wagon and Horses is the only remaining pub with a huge deserted garden full of plastic toys and bounded by part of the Roman wall. We asked a builder doing some repairs on the pub what the abandoned industrial buildings were that we could see to the north of the village in a huge area surrounded by a high fence. He told us it was owned by the MoD and was used to make armaments in WW2, with ‘two of everything’ in case essential facilities got bombed. There’s 1,500 acres of it with it’s own railway linked to the national network but it’s now used for military and police training purposes; on the parish noticeboard was a list of anticipated noise levels for the forthcoming week from gunshot, explosions and helicopters – ‘riot training’ the builder said. But it incidentally doubles as a wildlife haven as there’s no access to public apart from a couple of Open Days each year, and the villagers are all quite happy for things to stay as they are, noise and all, fearing that if the MoD sold the site it would be turned over to new housing.
Onwards via a small village, Llanfaches, with a squat, Yew tree-surrounded church whose tower window vents were being invaded by an aerial army of small wasps; a fiendish wood-carver must live in the vicinity too. Up into the hills and woods of Wentwood for soup stop above a half-empty reservoir and in the hazy, far distance the Severn Estuary and mirage view of Denny Island, familiar from our home patch.
The tortuous route we’d selected from the map towards Tintern took us down very narrow, steep lanes with hairpin bends, alongside steeply wooded banks and a fervent stream-becoming-a-river with sporadic clusters of old houses and small, early industrial-looking buildings. A real surprise and an intriguing place but nowhere to stop to take photos until near the bottom of the hill where a car park seemed to have been scooped out of the hillside. It had once, been the site of the Tintern Wire Works (from as early as the 16thC, see photos of interpretation boards below), the Angidy RIver as it rushed down this steep valley provided water power for the forges and wire-making. Eagerly anticipating a return trip to explore on foot soon. Leaving this hidden and unknown (to us) ancient industrial valley and rapidly emerging a few yards further onto the familiar River Wye road where you’re confronted by Tintern Abbey, was an odd contrast.
Finally, following the river downstream and a descending into Chepstow; a strategic town with much charm – shame about the rail-road bridge clumsily straddling the Wye, but there’s plenty of compensation from the 12thC castle on the bend of the river, the ancient town walls and gateway, and some predictably pleasing Georgian buildings easing down the hill to the river (with a hint of competitiveness between residents’ choices of doorknockers), where the Regency bridge crosses to England with significantly more elegance than it’s downstream neighbour.