Tuesday – Wye Valley and Chepstow – South down the A49, through Hereford and then onto A466 road leading down to Monmouth. Several downpours of torrential rain leave the roads partially flooded in places. Through Monmouth and down past the River Wye which is flowing high and rusty brown.
Llandogo – Into the village of Llandogo. It stands on the western side of the river beneath a high wooded hill, Cuckoo Wood leading up to Beacon Hill. There was an important mediaeval monastery here mentioned in early 7th to 10th century Llandaff Charters. Salmon and elver fishing was a major trade as was the processing of timber. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Llandogo developed as the terminus of a busy shipping trade route operating out of Bristol Docks. Barges from Monmouth, Ross-on-Wye and Hereford brought their goods to the wharfs at Llandogo and Brockweir (on the opposite side of the river) to be shipped to Bristol. In the 80 years between 1786 and 1868, 28 vessels operated from the village. Houses lay on the hillside, many are modern but there are as an older properties up there as well. Dismantled railway lines of the Wye Valley railway, which opened in 1876 and ran unprofitably until closure on 5th January 1959, lay between the church and the river.
The church of St Oudoceus stands behind a small green with the east memorial. A large yew tree stands on a mound in front of the church. St Oudoceus or Euddogwy was reputed to be the third Bishop of Llandaff in South Wales. However he was probably a 7th century bishop at Llandeilo Fawr between about 650 and 700. Oudoceus is recorded as having retired here and a subsequent church was constructed in the Middle Ages. Nothing now remains of the earlier church. The present building was built between 1859 and 1861 to the designs of John Pollard Seddon and. Further construction, including decoration of the interior by a German artist to the designs of Coates Carter, Seddon’s architectural partner after John Prichard’s death, undertaken in 1869. The building is in the Early French style. It was built in Old Red Sandstone with Bath Stone dressings, creating a polychromatic display. It has an elaborate belfry, referred to as a pulpit in the sky. The wall paintings are bright in a pre-Raphaelite style. Figures of Moses and St Paul flank the altar behind which is a Devonshire marble reredos. The glass is good, the east window is by Hardman; the west window in the north aisle (1908) by Heaton Butler and Bayne and other glass by Newbery.
St Arvans – On down the valley to St Arvans. Into Devauden Road, past Piercefield Terrace. Houses here are mainly Victorian although more recent rendering disguises the stonework. Into Church Lane where there is the parish church of St Arvans. There are some large table tombs in the graveyard including one to Zouch Turton esq who died in 1814. Legend has it that St Arvan was a 9th century hermit who supported himself coracle fishing for salmon on the River Wye. The original church is probably 9th century Celtic as indicated by its circular churchyard. The chancel is mediaeval with a south window from around 1300. By the west window is a 10th century Celtic cross, probably a tomb or churchyard cross rather than the wayside marker. It is similar to crosses from the same period found both in Scotland and the Isle of Man. The present church was largely built between 1813 and 1823 with the octagonal tower added in 1820, the gift of Nathaniel Wells of Piercefield Park, which is now Chepstow racecourse. Wells was churchwarden here and was remarkable in that his mother, Jiggy, was a slave on the family plantations in St Kitts. He was Britain’s first black High Sheriff when he was appointed High Sheriff of Monmouthshire by the Prince Regent. The belfry contains a single bell cast in 1751 at the Chepstow bell foundry of William Evans. A memorial tablet to Wells is on the south wall of the chancel. A major restoration of the church was undertaken by JP Seddon and John Pritchard in 1883. The two aisles were added at this point complete with Dormer windows. Most of the glass is Victorian, but there are two fine modern windows in the North aisle in memory of the Price family. Another refurbishment and partial restoration took place the 1980s when the chancel and sanctuary ceilings were decorated. A coracle hangs on the west wall.
Down on the main road is a Victorian drinking fountain. The early 1890s Monmouthshire County Council decided install drinking throughout the county. The local residents raise £30 to purchase a special fountain which was manufactured by the Sun foundry in Glasgow. It was assembled at the Iron Stores in Chepstow and opened in 1893. On the other corner of the road, a short distance up the main road is the Old Toll House, built around 1822 as a part of the new Chepstow to Monmouth turnpike which was opened in 1829. A large Victorian house is opposite, next to St Arvans Memorial Hall, designed by Eric Francis of Chepstow in 1923. Just up Devauden Road again is another water feature, or at least the remains of one. A cast iron column standing two feet high flares out into a small bowl with a spout coming out of its side. Some sort of hydrant one assumes.
Chepstow – Into Chepstow and the rain returns. I park at my hotel and head down towards the River Wye. There has been a serious accident, a car stands middle of the road with a van smashed into its rear. The door pillars have been cut through by the fire brigade. The whole street is blocked off. So back round to the town centre and to St Mary’s Priory church.
I commented previously on the alterations that have occurred in the church but did not maybe stress how disastrous they have been. The aisles have been removed and the arches filled in leaving a peculiar long nave. The choir, which may have been a vaulted, exceptional for an early Norman church, was pulled down at Dissolution. In 1701, the crossing tower fell, destroying the transepts. Between 1838 and 1841, the east end was rebuilt in a Neo-Norman style. In 1890 Seddon and Carter started new transepts in the Geometrical style but this remained unfinished. At the entrance to the north transept is huge base of the former crossing pier with a much narrower column placed upon it. The northern transept is a plain white hall, the southern transept has the similar columns but has been finished in the Neo-Norman style. At the end is the monumental tomb of the Maddock family. To the west of the South transept is a small area of original aisle in both stone and then rendered wall. Against the back wall of this area is a Norman arch on the floor which has been filled in with what looks like formica that may actually be Victorian cloth surrounded by a wooden screen. The organ retains some 17th century pipes, one of the few in the country. It was originally made for Gloucester Cathedral (possibly by the Dallam family). It was moved to Bristol Cathedral in 1663 and then to Chepstow possibly as early as 1685.
It is still raining so I drop into a pub for a pint. When I leave the rain has stopped but the sky still heavy with cloud. The car accident has been moved away so I head down Bridge Street. Onto the 1816 bridge. Downstream the limestone cliffs look out over the river which is low tide. The cliffs are Carboniferous limestone, Hunts Bay Oolite Subgroup. Upstream are great banks of mud, on the Welsh side it was once Guy’s Wharf, then more cliffs and on top, Chepstow Castle. Over the bridge and into England. A Raven flies over croaking. Bridge End Cottage is late 18th century. Nearby is Wyecliffe House, a large T-shaped building of the late 18th or early 19th century.
A path climbs up out of the valley. My period of enforced idleness caused by my ankle and back problems means I am now in pretty poor shape so I am blowing heavily by the time I reach the road at the top of the path. Past Shirley’s Grove, a wooded public walk named in memory of Cicely Amy Shirley, who died in 2015 aged 103. Miss Shirley, as she was fondly known by villagers, served as a parish councillor and was a founder trustee of the Poor’s Allotment charity and trustee of the Recreation Ground Trust. Across a field. This is the Offa’s Dyke Path. Looking back at the Wye valley and beyond at Chepstow, it is clear the whole area was once heavily wooded and there still are a decent number of trees. Small field mushroom buttons are in the grass. A ruined circular tower, The Lookout Tower, stands in a field beside the path. It is a folly probably built in the early 19th century. On the other side of the path in a strip of woodland, Chapelhouse Wood, there is a slight ridge running along the top of a precipitous drop down to the River Wye, it is the beginning of Offa’s Dyke. The path runs alongside a wall behind which is a large house, East Cliff. The dyke runs along the far side of the property. Through the gate and alongside and very large walled garden belonging to the house. Across the field is a glorious large arts and crafts house, timbers picked out in turquoise and white. This is Pen Moel, rebuilt in 1890, in a style reminiscent of Norman Shaw. An octagonal turret has a conical roof and there is a long open verandah.
A track leads down to a main road and enters Tutshill. A lodge stands at the end of the track. In the village a large house, the church of St Luke and a school stand in a row. The house, Church Cottage, is mid 19th century. The architect was probably Henry Woodyer, who also designed the church of St Luke. This has been recently refurbished leaving it rather austere and characterless. It was built in 1853 in a 14th century Decorated style. There is some decent Victorian glass. A late 18th century farmhouse, called Powder House, stands opposite. Beyond, the land drops away to the Severn estuary. Much of the village is 20th century. By the Tidenham War Memorial Hall, Mopla Road leads off down towards Chepstow.
Back over the 1816 Bridge. It is close to low tide and the river looks like swirling mud. A Peregrine Falcon comes from the cliffs and sweeps low over the river before disappearing back into the woodlands. The sun, which made a brief appearance, has disappeared again and the sky is darkening. I scan the cliffs and it takes quite a few minutes to locate the Peregrine on a ledge. It starts to rain again, so off to a riverside pub for what turns out to be a very indifferent pint.
My hotel, The Beaufort Arms is referenced in 16th century. From 1650-1735 it was known as Market House Inn and from 1736 known as the Duke of Beaufort’s Arms. Road distances were measured from the inn and it was a major coaching inn. It was probably rebuilt when Assembly Room created in early 19th century; the two buildings were interconnecting. Some later remodelling includes the front porch in the early 20th century, the metal grille more recent. An old wooden bean runs across the ceiling of my room, jointed at one point with four large wooden pegs. Beaufort Square was formerly the Market Place, called The Square, also St Mary’s Square and the Beast Market. The present name dates from around 1850. It was the site of important annual Wool Fair.
Wednesday – Chepstow – The weather has changed and it is bright sunshine in the clear blue sky. However, the temperature has tumbled somewhat there is a chill in the air. Up the High Street where stone plaques in the pavement record the history of the adjoining building in terms of retailers. Number 35 had merchants ranging from a Cork Cutter in 1770, through grocers, dressmakers, dentist, music instruments, dry cleaners, café, carpet dealer and fashion shops, which is its current use. Through the Town Gate and up Welsh Street. There is a mixture of plain Victorian homes and larger more flamboyant buildings such as Castle Court which probably dates from around 1900 but with earlier origins. It was formerly called The Cedars, a doctor’s home in 1862 and a vicarage. The road passes Castle Dell then rises up past the Mount. A charm of Goldfinches dance at the top of roadside trees. Off the main road following the Wye Valley Walk. Past the leisure centre and into woodlands past one of the fishtailed metal signs that are placed all along the Wye. This section is called Piercefield Walks. Valentine Morris enhanced the natural landscape in the Picturesque Movement style some 250 years ago. Morris made his fortune through Caribbean sugar and slaves.
The path passes through a high wall into Alcove Wood. There is a ditch and a dyke on the other side of the wall. The path drops down over these then continues northwards. The River Wye is sparkling far below through the trees. Old rotting stumps are covered with moss, Ivy and ferns. Woods are a mixture of Birch saplings, Holly, Yews and some older Beeches. The path runs along a steep hillside which runs down to the river. Grey Squirrels chase each other up and down the tree trunks. A lookout point is at the top of a cliff giving me considerable vertigo, below the river is drifting quietly as the tide rises. The water is still mud brown. To the south, Chepstow Castle stands on the cliffs and beyond is firstly a road bridge carrying the A48 then the Severn Crossing Road Bridge carrying the M48. Bedrock is exposed: Black Rock limestone of the subgroup Dolostone, from the Carboniferous, 343 to 359 million years ago. A Great Spotted Woodpecker chips high in the trees.
The path winds its way across small dry valleys of ferns. Roots of Yew trees work their way through a rock face tearing off slabs of stone. To the west beyond the top of the slope is Piercefield Park. A stone-built lookout point, called The Platform on the old maps, rises above a deep valley. There may once have been great views from here once but now the thick Yew trees create an impenetrable barrier. I chat to someone from the Monmouth Wildlife Trust who is undertaking an invertebrate survey. He is not optimistic that his traps will contain anything other than water after recent rains. He tells me he has recently located an extremely rare beetle, Cosnard’s Net-winged Beetle, Erotides cosnardi, which only been found previously in the Wye valley and Sussex and that record was over 100 years ago.
A fallen trunk has a fine crop of fungi at least three different varieties possibly more, I am not going to spend the next few hours trying to identify them. Path climbs past some ancient Horse Chestnuts. Another dead trunk has an orange fungus growing on it. The path crosses the ramparts of a small circular fort. A small grotto of the mid 18th century, similar to the one at Croft, is buried under Brambles and Old Man's Beard. A path is marked on the map heading east out onto a promontory where is a large bend in the River Wye. Numerous boulders lay scattered in amongst a wood made predominantly of yew trees. A reddish-purple toadstool, Plums and Custard, Tricholomopsis rutilans grows out of the leaf litter. Down a deep ditch which runs under the high rampart of a hill-fort. In theory, as in according to the map, a path crosses the ramparts into the centre of the hill-fort but it is so overgrown I decided not to risk it. I then find another route up, not a lot easier as the ramparts appear to be constructed of boulders which are between one to two foot blocks. Another low rampart runs along the north edge of the fort where the land beyond drops steeply away down Piercefield Cliffs. A rudimentary path leads back along the top of the steep slope. Although not marked on the map is actually a far easier path than the one which is so marked. I return to the Wye Valley Walk.
A short distance further along the path is a deep hole. Next to it the large flat standing stone thought to be associated with the grotto. The path continues along the top of a precipitous slope. Off the Wye Valley Walk onto a footpath. Just beyond the woods is the ruins of Piercefield House looking out over a glorious rolling landscape.
The Piercefield estate was owned by the Walter family from mediaeval times. Their house here was reported to have been enlarged by John Walter around 1630 and extended around 1700 by William Talman, architect of Chatsworth. The estate was sold in 1727 to Thomas Rous and again in 1740 to Valentine Morris, the father of the Valentine Morris mentioned above. Morris the younger developed the park with the assistance is Richard Owen Cambridge. In the 1770s, Morris was bankrupted and left for the West Indies and sold Piercefield to George Smith who commissioned John Soane to build a neo-classical mansion incorporating Morris’s house. Smith, however, ran out of money and sold the property to Colonel Mark Wood in 1794. He continued the building and commissioned Joseph Bonomi to modify the design. Wood sold the house and estate to Nathaniel Wells, reported above. The house passed through several hands before being purchased by the Clay family who, in the 1920s, sold it to the Chepstow Racecourse Company, whose directors were all members of the Clay family. The house, already in decay, was abandoned.
A short distance along the path there are more ruins, the stable block and kitchen gardens. A Jay flies over. Sheep graze the lush green grass. A Raven cronks overhead. More sheep shelter from the sun in the shade of a large spreading Plane tree. The path comes to the edge of Chepstow racecourse and heads south. A flight of three military helicopters, Westland Apache Longbows, passes over.
The track enters woodland, Park Grove. A large dead tree, it must have been 400 or 500 years old, is covered in bracket fungi, probably a Southern Bracket, which have shed chocolate spores all down the trunk. A Common Buzzard mews. The path passes an old wall, a section of which is being held up by scaffolding poles. On the other side is a modern housing estate. The sky has clouded over and it is darkening rapidly. This was not supposed to happen according to the weather forecast! The footpath passes through a gateway in the wall and descends to join Welsh Street. The housing here is modern with the exception of the turnpike tollhouse. This is probably from the mid 19th century but it has been claimed it was built in 1758 by Valentine Morris. Four Common Buzzards circle high above the primary school, maybe slightly worrying.
I stop at my hotel for a pint before I head out, passing under the A38. The other side of the road is the former site the Fountain Hotel which was demolished in 1972. It was reportedly on the site of the main water supply of the town for many centuries. On the edge of a small car park is the electricity substation on the side of the main power supply station built at the beginning of the 20th century by the Chepstow Electric Lighting and Power Company. Opposite is a supermarket on the site of the old cattle market which operated here from 1922 to 1967. The job centre is in a building with a rounded end built in 1939 carrying the crest of George VI.
At the end of the road is the railway station. It was built in 1850 for Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s South Wales Railway to the design of one of Brunel’s assistants N. Lancaster Owen. Opposite is a pair of houses called The Quarries. They stand at the entrance to an industrial estate which has been established in what is clearly an old quarry. Mill Lane runs under the railway to a large works which has now been demolished and the lane closed. Previously this was the site of the cattle market. Back to the A48 and across the river. The fencing and walls ensure Brunel's landmark railway bridge cannot be seen by a pedestrian. The bridge was erected in 1849 by Brunel in cast and wrought iron and steel. A large inverted ‘W’ girder spans the river from the English side to a group of six tubular iron supports, then three spans in simple channel form carried on two sets of three tubular iron supports on land on the Welsh side, to heavy stone abutment to the railway embankment. A balustrade is in profiled pressed steel. Much of the bridge had since been replaced as trains grew heavier amid faster, but the bridge is still regarded as one of Brunel’s greatest achievements.
Into England. A path climbs up to Beachley Road. From the bridge that crosses the A48, the iron pillars holding the railway bridge can just be seen. Along Beachley Road and then onto a footpath past large, architecturally boring but very expensive modern housing. Past an overgrown old quarry and along a path where high walls have been erected to stop the riff-raff getting a good view of the river and the castle. The track comes to the path that climbs the English side from the 1816 bridge. Route
Sunday – Leominster – The heavy grey clouds which brought overnight rain are drifting imperceptibly slowly eastwards leaving blue sky. Everywhere is still saturated. A westerly wind rustles the leaves. Over the railway. Tall Shaggy Inkcaps rise out of the undergrowth. The River Lugg is still flowing high and rapidly, its water still muddy reddish brown. There are not many vehicles in the commercial vehicle section of Brightwells’ compounds, mainly army land rovers. A lone Mute Swan flies over changing direction several times before heading north. Himalayan Balsam and a few Hogweed are still in flower. Brightwells’ main compound also has large open empty spaces. The Mute Swan clearly did not like what it saw to the north so is now headed back downriver southwards. A rabbit darts from the green grass of the path back into the undergrowth on the riverbank. I have moaned to myself on several occasions that now Brightwells have blocked off the bottom car park and forced us to walk up the river bank they ought to put a gate in instead of the stile – and now they have.
The market is much smaller now. All the plant sellers bar one have stopped coming. Cheetham Brook is much redder coloured then the Lugg. The Water Boatmen on the river have all gone now. The River Kenwater is flowing fast and coloured. Another shop in Broad Street is now occupied, indeed it appears they all are, which is good.
Home – One of the near empty vegetable beds is hoed and Winter Tares are broadcast over the ground. There are some large courgettes on the plants but there is also a backlog in the kitchen so they may as well be left to grow into marrows. I pick some climbing beans and pod them. There are 2½lbs of beans for the freezer. The Worcester Pearmain apples are finished, the few Coxes on the new tree are very close to ripeness but the Herefordshire Russets are still a short way off. We were hoping to cut the grass today and scarify so that one area can be sown as a wild flower meadow but it is too wet. Kay gathered up four sacks of conkers yesterday but an equal number have already fallen and they are crashing down onto the summerhouse roof with great regularity.
Saturday – Barnsley – Into tarn along the Huddersfield Road. The last field in Wilthorpe has now gone and another flat-pack housing estate stands on the hillside above the old canal. Several pubs in the area are now major supermarket express stores. The environs of our old house are looking a bit neglected and we wonder if the people who purchased it from us have moved on. A Spitfire fighter plane has just been placed outside the Town Hall. A military band is in the Town Hall car park. Much of the ground floor of the Town Hall is now a museum and it is crowded which is excellent. I wander along a corridor trying to remember what office was what – the Treasurers in the corner, the Legal Department here…
The town centre is much changed. Along Peel Street we try to work out what has gone. The large British Heart Foundation charity shop is still there, The pine furniture shop seems to have gone downmarket, the pawn brokers has moved into the premises on the corner of Peel Square but some of the pubs are the same. Central Offices and the South Yorkshire County Council block have been demolished. Across the wide area of rubble I can see the old Ceag building as also gone. Ceag are a lighting company that, at one time, made miners’ lamps. There is a new market hall. Inside it is all clean and new smelling. However, the familiar stalls are still there – lots of butchers, fewer greengrocers, The Sock Man and the legendary Pats for Pants. Up the Arcade.