Thursday – Caerleon – The village of Caerleon lays a few miles to the north of Newport in South Wales. It contains one of the most important Roman military sites in Europe. It was the headquarters for Legio II Augusta from about 75 to 300 AD. The Romans called the site Isca after the River Usk, which is a Brythonic word for a river, Wysg in Welsh. The name Caerleon may derive from the Welsh for fortress of the legion, indeed around 800 CE it was referred to as Cair Legeion guar Uisc. The II Augusta had been based in Exeter from about 55CE after having a distinguished campaign in the south-west of England under Titus Flavius Vespasianus. Following the suicide of Nero in 68CE, Vespasian, as he was now known, made a bid for the Imperial Throne and was supported by his old legion. Around the late 70s, Sextus Julius Frontinus was chosen to subdue the Silures, whose territory ran across South Wales up to the Wye. They had remained undefeated for nearly 30 years. The II Augusta were moved to a new fortress somewhere in the Caerleon area. Once the River Usk was bridged and docks were constructed, the present camp site was occupied. Around 100CE stone defences were constructed to replace the earth and wood ones, enclosing an area of about 50 acres. Within were barracks, the headquarters, now under the parish church, baths and all the other buildings required by the army. An amphitheatre was built just outside the defensive walls aound 90CE. By 300CE, the Legi II Augusta had been withdrawn and Isca had been mainly demolished. There were still extensive remains in the 12th century for Geraldius Cambrensis to comment on and despite many years of stone robbing there still are some fine sights today. Systematic excavations took place throughout the 20th century. We first visit the baths which are housed in a splendid museum. There are extensive remains of the swimming pool, natatio, and the cold room, frigidarium. The warm room, tepidarium, the hot room, caldarium and the exercise hall, basilica have been lost but a part of the changing room, apodyterium remains.
We then head to the fields to the south of the town and near to the rugby pitches is the Amphitheatre, excavated by Sir Mortimer Wheeler in 1926-27. Down through the stone entrance into the arena is a strangely peaceful experience, considering the many violent scenes that would have been played out here. The seating area would have been wooden on top of a stone base. The bases remain, pleasantly grassed over. We the head westwards down a path to the Prysg Field Barracks. The bases of the barracks are laid out still in four long blocks. Kitchens and latrines also remain as low walls. The sun is shining; Robins sing their wistful autumn notes and Jackdaws chatter in the trees. It is again very difficult to imagine the hustle and bustle of a military camp here in this delightful place! We return to the centre of the village and pay a visit to the parish church of St Cadoc, but it is locked. Next door is the National Roman Legion Museum which houses a large collection of Roman pieces from armour and weapons, gravestones and plaques to water pipes and roof tiles. Outside is the reconstruction of a Roman garden. Tall, dead Fennel stalks are dotted with numerous striped snails. On the main street is a pink house that was the birthplace of Arthur Machen (1863-1947), a horror and fantasy novelist with whom I was greatly impressed in my formative years. Nearby is the Mynd Wall, constructed 1839 by John Jenkins, master of Ponthir Tin Plate Works to protect his house against Chartist demonstrators. Up Cross Street is Pendragon House which in 1939 housed 30 Basque refugee children from the Spanish Civil War.
Llangybi – A small village on the road to Usk. Tradition has it founded by the 6th century Cornish Saint Cybi. He is supposed to have crossed the Bristol Channel with ten followers and settled in the area. The local king, Edelig, threatened to evict them from his land, but as he approached them he fell from his horse, which died, and he and his men became blind. Edelig then prostrated himself and gave his body and soul to God, at which point he and his attendants were immediately cured and the horse restored to life. Edelig then gave Cybi land for two churches, including the one which became known as Llangybi, and another at an unspecified location (possibly Llandegveth, a neighbouring village) where he is said to have left a handbell. The church dates from the 13th or 14th century but is locked. Nearby is a holy well, St Cybi’s Well. It was the source of water for the town until 1951. It is said to be the inspiration for T.S. Elliot’s poem, Usk. We are told later a gruesome tale. In 1878 Spanish sailor Josef Garcia was convicted, at the Sessions House, Usk, of the murder in the village of William and Elizabeth Watkins and their three youngest children (Charlotte, 8 years, Alice, 5 years and Frederick, 4 years).
Usk – We are staying overnight in the town of Usk. The Roman legionary fortress of Burrium was founded on the site of Usk by the military commander Aulus Didius Gallus, around 55CE. He moved his XX Valeria Victrix legion into the area from its earlier base at Glevum (Gloucester). It was the earliest legionary fortress in Wales. Despite its poor position, the river is not navigable at this point, the site is hemmed in by hills and subject to flooding, it still provided useful access to South Wales. It was abandoned some 20 years later when the fort at Caerleon was established. The site remained occupied and there is evidence of iron working. After the Conquest, the de Clare family built a castle to protect the river crossing. Between 1154 and 1170, Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke established a planned town, surrounded by an earthen rampart. The town was laid out in rectangular building plots, centred on the market square. Markets were originally held in Twyn Square, twyn being a Welsh word for hillock. The bridge is recorded in 1383 as requiring repair. The Welsh name for the town, Brynbuga, meaning Buga’s Hill is not recorded until the 15th century. We park outside our hotel, The New Court, have a pint and then set off through the town down Maryport Street. The houses are a wonderful compilation of styles from the 15th century through to the 21st. It is good to see the local Civic Society has provided many blue plaques giving the history of individual premises.
The market originally took place in Twyn Square but moved to New Market Street where the Town Hall was also built. This building has been rebuilt several times. Bridge Street is the main high street leading to the bridge over the river. A fine building stands on the corner of Bridge Street and New Market Street. It is in red brick with yellow brick decoration and has a tall curved parapet. It was a pub called The Pelican, then The Cardiff Arms and is now a hairdressing salon. A short way down New Market Street is the local museum of rural life, and a very fine museum it is! The collection of tools, machinery and other accoutrements of rural life is very extensive and provides a fascinating insight into old ways. Usk was well-known in the 18th century for its Japanwear, a process of applying lacquer to tinplate. We look at the bridge with its five arches. The first stone bridge was constructed around 1756. By 1835 it was in a bad state and was widened and strengthened. Two of its arches were destroyed by floods in 1877 and were later replaced. The River Usk is broad and shallow here today. Back up Bridge Street past the Three Salmon Hotel which has its stables on the opposite side of the road. The Ostler’s Bell is still on the wall. The hotel can easily be imagined as a popular place for Victorian and Edwardian gentlemen to stay after a day’s salmon fishing on the river.
On along Castle Parade and up to the castle itself. It is privately owned and as such has a delightful quaintness about it. Seats are placed to give wonderful views. The gardens are planted to create a haven a peace and quiet. The castle was probably built around 1120 and was recorded as being captured in 1138. The Welsh took it again in 1174 in spite of strengthening by Richard de Clare which may have included the building of the tower keep. It was recaptured in 1184. The palisade of the bailey was replaced by a masonry wall with round towers around 1212-19 by William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke. The castle was yet again captured during the war of 1233 between Richard Marshal and Henry III. The north-east round tower is said to have been erected by Gilbert de Clare in the 1260s when this district was threatened by Llywelyn ap Gruffydd. When a later Gilbert de Clare was killed at Bannockburn in 1314, Usk passed to Elizabeth de Burgh who erected the hall block, chapel and solar on the north-east side. The Mortimers gained the castle and built a wall around the outer bailey on the south with one round south-western tower and a rectangular gatehouse. Owain Glyndŵr burnt the town in 1402 and 1405, but the castle may have held out. Later it became part of the Duchy of Lancaster and was allowed to decay apart from the outer gatehouse which was incorporated into a house built in the 1680s to accommodate Thomas Herbert, steward of the lordship under the then owner the Duke of Beaufort. We return to Twyn Square and look around an art gallery and fall in love with a painting by Janet Rogers which costs us rather a lot of money.
Friday – Usk – I head off past the the Sessions House which is a grand building opposite the hotel and round through fields belonging to Usk prison. The high fences of the establishment look gloomy in the pre-dawn light. Across the fields searching for the Chapel Well, which I fail to find. I go as far as a small river, the Olway Brook or Nant Olwy. In fact, I now think the well is probably on the far side of the river, the map is unclear. There are many bumps and lumps in the fields which were part of the Roman Fort. Back along Chepstow Road and down to St Mary’s Priory. The Benedictine priory was founded in 1170 but much reduced at Dissolution. There is a very worn tomb of the last prioress. The priory housed the shrine of St Radegund and became a popular pilgrim site. The original community comprised five nuns but numbers later rose to thirteen. At the turn of the 15th century the chronicler Adam of Usk stated that only maidens of noble birth were received at the priory; several of his relatives had taken the veil there. I head across to Bridge Street and along the river on the Conigar Walk, built in 1858 by J.H. Clark to commemorate the Princess Royal, Victoria, to Frederick of Prussia. The name Conigar comes from coney meaning rabbit and indicates there were rabbit warrens enclosed here. I leave it to visit the site of the martyrdom of St David Lewis, a Jesuit who was hung here on 27th August 1679. Past the large Porth-y-carn House, built around 1834 for Thomas Reece, agent of ironmaster Crawshay Bailey, and back to the river. I travel back down the river and up an alley to Maryport Street and breakfast. After booking out, we go back to the church of St Mary, but inevitably it seems in this part of the country, it is still locked.
Sunday – Leominster – The first frost of the season sparkles on the grass on Easters Meadow. The Sunday market is getting smaller each week. The River Lugg is low and clear. A Grey Wagtail calls as it flies downstream. A pair of Dippers bob on a gravel spit before flying off, one up and one downstream. At home the regular task of dealing with the compost bins needs undertaking. One of the wooden bins is emptied onto the patch of ground where the squashes have been growing. The other is barely a third full, the material has rotted down far more than expected. So instead of transferring it to the now empty bin, that one is filled from the three plastic bins with the excess, adding some horse manure I buy from a smallholding and the partially filled bin can have new material added. The material in the bins is quite dry so I pour in some water to the full bin and leave the other one open. Ah, the wonders of compost making! All the pears are collected and a dozen Herefordshire Russet apples. There are quite a few squashes to go into storage. A Blackbird seems to take exception to my exertions and perches in an ornamental tree and pinks at me continuously. A Raven flies over cronking.
Friday – Radnor Forest – After several days of rain, the morning turns bright and sunny. However, it is cool, the temperature in single figures Celsius. Up Mutton Dingle where the stream bubbles down, maybe not as full flowing as one would expect after so much rain. The lower section of the stream is still obscured by vegetation; mints, nettles and other green leaves but no flowers, their time has run. There are fair numbers of Blackbirds and several Song Thrushes on the path as it enters the section lined by Hawthorns and Hazel. The Blackbirds are noisy. Robins sing and Blue Tits squeak. Through a gate and as the path levels out, water flows down it. There is a surprising lack of fungi. On towards the Forestry Commission plantations. Ominous dark clouds are building from the west. Unsurprisingly rain soon follows. Two Ravens sit in the dead pines. It is quiet here, the hills are dotted with sheep but nary a baa. The Ravens fly off, croaking. Something pipes from the west, I would guess Golden Plover but none to be seen. Off along the track under Bache Hill to Stanlo Tump and into the evergreen plantation. Along the track through a slightly eerie mist; the air scented with pine. The rain has stopped. On through ranks of conifers. The wind has risen and is quite chilling which makes a passing Small Tortoiseshell butterfly flying strongly past something of surprise. It starts to rain again. A short track leads to a gate and then over the moor to the Black Mixen wireless mast.
I continue along the Forestry track. Clumps of brown toadstools, Greasy Tough-shank, Collybia butyracea, I think, are growing under the eaves of the plantation. The hills and fields to the north, towards the Clun Forest, are dappled with sunshine. I am over half way to Shepherds Tump when the track is closed for logging operations. Rather annoyed as I head back to the Black Mixen track. It has stopped raining and the sun makes an appearance. Water is blown off the branches in a fine mist which sparkles like fairy dust. A strange fossil is in a slab by the track, maybe a piece of a huge type of Razor Shell. Back to the turning and out onto the moor at Black Mixen. A toadstool grows by the path with a chocolate cap and pure white gills. I feel certain it is one of the russula family, but according to the guides they all grow under various trees and here it is way out in the open moorland. I can spend an inordinate amount of time looking through field guides to fungi and still never identify what I have seen! From the wireless mast a rough track runs across Little Creigiau, which is the top of Harley Dingle and on to the top of the valley of Ystol Bach Brook. The wind is very blustery up here. Down the path which levels out and follows the valley beneath Whinyard Rocks and Whimble. The wind blasts rain straight into my face. Whenever I pass along this valley I am struck by the fact that this little stream has carved out this deep valley, well over 600 feet from top to bottom. How many millennia has it taken? The path turns toward Cwm Broadwell. Water squishes out from under my feet at every step from the saturated green sward. Sheep huddle in the lea of the woods. Down what seems like an endless road towards Mutton Dingle. A Common Buzzard glides over Cwm Broadwell. There actually manages to be a bit of a traffic jam in the village with a lorry blocking one of the roads, I leave on the other after divesting myself of my wet outer clothing and boots.
Sunday – Leominster – Off out very early to gather some cider apples. The roads are very foggy. By 8 o’clock the fog has lifted slightly as I head down to the Sunday market. The River Lugg is higher than it has been for some time and flowing rapidly. There are more car-booters at the market than I expected as it is not far off freezing. Many of the commercial sellers are missing though. Back home the apples are put through the scratter and then pressed; another two gallons of juice to ferment. Garlic is sowed and the Herefordshire Russet apples are all picked as they have started dropping. There is still a huge crop on both the Howgate Wonder and Bramley trees. The seed feeder has been refilled, first time since the beginning of the summer. The flock of House Sparrows returns almost immediately. Great and Blue Tits also are present continuously. A squeaking in the trees indicates a passing Long-tailed Tit flock. A Magpie is hopping through the Howgate Wonder squawking noisily. Most of the conkers have now fallen from the great Horse Chestnut but there are still enough up there to be a nuisance for a while longer. The leaves will be next!
Monday – Aymestrey – A real autumn morning, cold and damp although an earlier wind has dropped to a breeze. Up the Lingen lane out of Aymestrey. The mill race is flowing fast. Apple trees in the mill orchard are a mixed bunch as many seem to be this year, some with reasonable crops, others barren. A row of old Damson trees are heavily loaded with fruit and I curse my failure to bring any bags, unusual for me! A Robin sings and the River Lugg can be heard across the fields. Carrion Crows caw from the dark ranks of conifers above the river. The mill race runs off the river at a weir and the banks of both are lined with Himalayan Balsam, an invasive introduction that is quite beyond control now. Outcrop of limestone, the beds rising as they are chopped off, presumably by the road builders working on earlier erosion by the river. This is probably Aymestrey Limestone, an inconstant limestone deposited in a warm shallow sea near the eastern margin of the Iapetus Ocean during the Silurian, around 426 million years ago. Instead of checking the map, I look out for a way-sign for a footpath but realise I have overshot. Retracing my steps after checking the map, I find the sign has fallen. Up a track at Ballsgate, past an old water pump. Past several expensive looking houses and into woods. Below the path is a deep hollow-way. Down beside fields where the footpath disappears in a sown field. A gate accesses a track and off it an overgrown track leads up into the hill fort. A large rampart has an entrance on the north-eastern side of the hill, although there is doubt this is an original entrance. Much of the ramparts, there being two, have been destroyed over the years. The top of the hull is a triangular hump, seeming hardly a good site for a settlement. Although there are no Keep Out signs, the whole ambience is far from welcoming. Back down the hill and across the main road into Yatton. Along the lane then track. A lot of trees here are saplings, less than 10 years old, as the area was a large gravel pit where in June 1987 a stone lined burial pit was found containing the remains of a child, beaker and stone knife dating to the Early Bronze Age, 2400 to 1601 BCE. Blue Tits squeak in the trees.
Wednesday – Bodenham Lake – A damp morning. The leaves are turning quickly now. A flock of over 100 Canada Canada Geese are in the boathouse bay. The water level is quite low with a lot of the scrape exposed. Several Wigeon, a Ring-necked Pheasant, Mallard, Moorhens and a Common Sandpiper are on the scrape. Three Cormorants are the trees and a fourth flies in to join them. A pair of Mute Swans waddle up into the scrape. Four Gadwall are on the far side of the water. A small flock of Mallard, a Great Crested Grebe, a Grey Heron and Coot are at the western end. A flock of a dozen or more Long-tailed Tits squeak as the fly into the willow saplings on the edge of the scrape. The Grey Heron flies across to where the Mallard are dabbling, squawking loudly. If this was supposed to intimidate the ducks it was ineffectual. A flock of 25 gulls have found a thermal above Dinmore Hill and are circling in it. A Jay flies out of the woods.
Friday – Hereford – The sun is shining but clouds are building. The Northern Belle, a luxury Pullman train with each car named after a British castle or stately home – Alnwick, Belvoir, Chatsworth, Duart, Glamis, Harlech and Warwick is standing outside Hereford Station. The cars are pulled by a pair of D47 diesels in the Pullman cream and chocolate livery. Through the city centre and down Gunners Lane behind one of the few remaining sections of the city wall. Beyond are the remains of a tower and another stretch of wall. Along Barton Road and onto the cycleway that runs on the old Newport, Abergavenny and Hereford Railway Company line. A plaque Barton Road commemorates the opening of the cycleway in 1985, the bronze has weathered considerably in what seems like only a few years, but is, of course, nearly thirty. on the Over Hunderton bridge, built in 1854 by Charles Liddel. A couple scull past on the placid River Wye in an Olympic style rowing boat. The Victoria Street bridge is full of traffic as usual. There are many shrubs and trees along the track, many like Acers and Dogwoods turning various shades of red. Past several what are probably now former Council estates with many of the mansard roof designed houses known as Cornish Units, designed by A Er v.senthil and R Tonkin for the Central Cornwall Concrete & Artificial Stone Co. A modern timber-clad housing block with a sedum roof lays below the track. There is a noisy ménage à trois of Wood Pigeons on a branch above the track. Silver-leaved Poplars glitter across a wide play space. The track meets the railway and a bridge on a lane between Merry Hill and Grafton. Three Common Buzzards circle woodland.
Past The Green and New House and Veddoes Farms and on to Portway. Portway was a road junction and a single house until the mid to late 20th century when more houses were built and several car dealerships and other industrial units were established on Callow Marsh. A lane heads south parallel with the busy A49. For a small lane it is surprisingly busy, with tractors, vans, lorries and cars. On past Knockerhill Farm and Plantation to a junction then past Quarry and Callow Plantations up to the small village of Callow. Nuthatches call in the woodland. The church of St Mary was rebuilt on site of earlier church in 1830 by L Johnson and enlarged 1884 by Lloyd Oswald in squared and rock-faced sandstone with sandstone dressings and a Welsh slate roof. It is said to have been consecrated in reign of William the Conqueror, now dedicated to St Mary but in 1346 to St Margaret, possibly of Knights of St John. It is sadly locked. The site is vaguely circular on the top of the hill with two Yew trees. It may be a far older site that the Conquest. There are fine views of Hereford to the north and Aconbury Hill with its hill-fort to the east. Back down the hill towards Grafton. A row of overgrown trees in a garden between Knockerhill Plantation and the road are full of rotting damsons. A single Borage flowers beside with road with bright blue petals. Necklaces of red berries of White Bryony drape the hedgerows. Wrens and Robins tic in hedgerows. It is warm now. A diesel pulling the train of wagons (for Port Talbot steel works, I think) that passes through Leominster several times a day is growling past. Back in the park along the old railway track, a Mistle Thrush rasps. I associate Mistle Thrushes with autumn as they seem much more vocal and apparent in this season. A cacophony comes from a briar and bramble patch full of House Sparrows and Starlings. Back by Barton Road bridge, a Blackbird is throwing fallen leaves around, searching underneath for grubs and worms. The track runs into Sainsbury’s car park by the old Bulmer’s Cider Plant and then onto Eign Street, where I pause for a pint. Route
Monday – Norton and Offa’s Dyke – A cool morning with a breeze but the promise of the remnants of hurricane Gonzalo heading our way. Roadside foliage – nettles, thistles and grass are all beginning to lay down in surrender to the ending season. Over the River Lugg at Boultibrooke Bridge built 1932. Upstream is a weir. Jays screech in Oaklea Park, which I assume was part of the Boultibrooke Estate. The park wall emerges from trees across a meadow. A lodge stands beside a drive to Boultibrooke. The house is hidden in woodland. It has an old central section with a wing added in 1872. A rear library extension was added in 1812-15 by Robert Smirke for Sir Harford Jones Brydges, the noted Persian scholar and diplomat. Loftus Otway, after a career in the Indian Civic Services, bought Boultibrooke House around 1939. The house became a holiday home for nephews, nieces and cousins with their young children, inspiring the rhyme:
The clouds are beginning to look angry. The road leads into Norton. Once a much smaller village it clearly expanded considerably in 20th century with developments of dubious architectural worth. However, there are buildings of interest. A row called The Terrace has a plaque inscribed Parish Schools. The row is mid-Victorian in the Gothic style. A notice declares The Best Kept Village in Radnorshire 1973-1978 – not sure what has happened in the subsequent forty years! The church of St Andrew’s was completely rebuilt by Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1868. The notice board claims the site was founded in 1088, although the CPAT Churches Survey considers it is possibly pre-Conquest. A notice states the church would normally be open from 10am, but I am out of luck. A splendid wooden bell turret is 17th century. There are several grave plaques on the church wall, the earliest being 1777. A sundial was presented by Gilbert Drage in memory of his wife in The days of George VI, King and his Consort Queen Elizabeth. Drage is known for his writings on both militia and hand-loom weaving! To the north of the church are a number of graves of the Green Price family. Little pink flowers of cyclamen peep out of the grass. Beyond is the large and impressive Old Vicarage built on the site of a motte and bailey castle. Norton has an entry in Domesday, unusual for Welsh settlements. It is recorded as Nortune, meaning North Farm. A wooden castle would have been first erected, followed by a stone castle. It was destroyed in May 1215 by Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, in a dispute between the Marcher Lords and Welsh princes. The castle was re-built, only to be destroyed again in late December 1262 by Owain ab Madog, in support of the campaign of Llewelyn ab Gruffydd. It was never rebuilt and the stone was removed to build other dwellings nearby. It has started to rain. Out of the village and up past Hare’s Green Farm. Am elderly couple stop their car to offer a lift, which is kind but I am pounding well.
A Mistle Thrush rasps, Long-tailed Tits squeak and Nuthatches whoop. Rain more or less stops. The hill keeps climbing. Bullfinches meep quietly in Hazel trees. Past Bâch Dingle, Hill House Firs and on to Whitepole Pool Plantation. Across open ground, past a pond to a monument on a small hillock on Hengwm Hill. It was erected in about 1887 and is a polished red granite obelisk with a stepped granite plinth and pedimented stem set on a stone pedestal. The north face is inscribe with leaded lettering as follows: This Public Monument was erected by subscription to perpetuate the memory of Sir Richard Green Price, 1st Baronet, Born 1803 – died 1887, whose services to the County of Radnor will long outlive his name. It continues to record Through his untiring energy, the railway to Knighton and Llandindrod was constructed as well as to Presteigne and New Radnor. There is more but it has become difficult to read. The hillock has numerous white fungi dotted over it, probably Ivory Clitocybe, deadly poisonous. Offa’s Dyke Path passes close by and continues alongside a plantation of evergreens. The Radnor Forest rises to the west. Across the top of Hawthorn Hill. Common Buzzards, Ravens and Yellowhammers are spotted. A stunted Hawthorn grows beside the path, no leaves and few berries. Wind and rain batter me now. The rain stops again as a track drops down Furrow Hill towards Dolley Green. More stunted trees, this time Blackthorn with plenty of sloes. The track passes through a large herd of cows. For once, I am glad Maddy is not here, this would have been a serious problem. Out of Dolley Green and along a lane to Home Farm and then back towards the Norton Road. An ancient Oak stands on the edge of a field. Its girth is exaggerated by a large gall type growth but is still considerable. It looks like all the original branches have been removed over the years but it still has a fine crown. Back at the car, it looks like rain is coming down the Lugg valley again.
Tuesday – Leominster – The threatened storm has yet to materialise. Over to the Millennium Garden for some more cider apples. A 25 litre barrel has been purchased and is slowly being filled with juice. By mid-morning the wind is shaking everything.