NEWPORT has been inextricably linked with the sea and with shipping since medieval times, and the sometimes gritty façade of Wales’ third city belies a colourful maritime history that just cries out to be explored.
It was once the world’s largest coal exporting port, before neighbouring Cardiff’s spurt in the mid-19th century. But it was the Normans who first fully appreciated the prime seafaring location it occupied, on the River Usk just off the northern coast of the Bristol Channel separating Wales and England.
They built the city’s first castle, a motte and bailey affair largely of wooden construction, on an upland site believed to be near where Newport Cathedral stands today. They followed that up with a much more imposing defensive riverside structure and associated crossing of the sweeping Usk, or Afon Wysg in Welsh, in 1088-93.
It was this castle that gave the city its modern Welsh name of Casnewydd (pronounced Kas-neigh-with), a highly truncated form of the original Castell Newydd ar Wysg (Newcastle on Usk).
Called simply Newport Castle , it still stands today, even if its ruined state bears testimony to a guerrilla attack on it by Owain Glyndŵr’s forces in 1402, two years before his coronation as the Prince of Wales.
In the 19th century the castle housed the Searle and Herring brewery, which used water from a well in the castle courtyard for its beer. Flying the flag for the city these days is the highly innovative Tiny Rebel Brewery, which is very successfully riding the craft ales wave. You’ll find their minimalist if colourful Tiny Rebel Bar just a short walk away in the High Street, well worth a visit.
The castle is admittedly nowadays somewhat neglected, standing rather incongruously amid the fumes from today’s teeming traffic which somehow seem to perpetually surround it. Admission is not possible, but you can inspect it for free from the footpaths that flow freely around it.
However it does have a different aspect to it when seen at night in its floodlit flimsies, its walls and towers reflected gently in the rippling Usk. Pop over the bridge to the opposite eastern bank for a decent view, perhaps over a beer and a meal in the lively bit of Americana that is the Riverside Sports Bar and Kitchen .
The Usk splits the city in two, ensuring that the smell of the brine and the mournful cry of seagulls are never far away. And if you’re unlucky – or should that read lucky – neither are their pungent droppings. It is spanned by nine public bridges that keep the city as one, none more spectacular than the famous Newport Transporter Bridge . It absolutely dominates the skyline, as it has done since it was first opened in 1906.
Designed by French civil engineer Ferdinand Arnodin, it is believed to be one of only six such bridges still in use worldwide, of a mere twenty or so that were ever built. Listed as a Grade I historic structure by the Welsh Government, it carries vehicles and pedestrians on a suspended gondola that dangles crazily over the water as it is wheeled from bank to bank along the span. It was built in order to allow shipping unimpeded access to the docks, while also offering a better option for workers to cross from one side to the other without having to depend on ferries subject to the vagaries of the tides.
The more intrepid pedestrian might like to climb some 200-odd metal steps and use the high-level walkway across the main span, for a small fee. However it is not for the faint-hearted. Be aware that the bridge is usually open in the daytime only, and not at all on Mondays and Tuesdays, between April and October. But do check on current opening times before setting off.
You’ll also find a fascinating dedicated visitor centre that has the same opening times as the bridge, where you’ll learn all that there is possibly to learn about the bridge. And of course they’ll try to flog you plenty of souvenirs.
Back within sight of the castle, the spectacular Steel Wave sculpture erected in 1990 dominates a waterfront that once would have been thronging with passengers jostling to get onboard their ships, or commercial vessels loading up. The sculpture was designed by Peter Fink, and assembled using 50 tonnes of steel, depicting how Newport in the past depended on its maritime trade and its steel industry, both now just sad shadows of their former selves.
Here you’ll also find the swish new Riverfront Theatre. It was during excavation work here in 2002 to build this theatre that archaeologists stumbled across a stunning discovery that many hope will yet be the making of Newport as a tourist and educational destination.
Engineers alerted them to the remains of a ship their digging had uncovered, completely unaware of the magnitude of their discovery. Bit by painstaking bit the archaeologists cleaned off the mud that had preserved the ship over the centuries, and the ancient timbers were gingerly lifted from the river bed one by one.
The 35m-long clinker-built ship, nowadays known simply as the Newport Medieval Ship, dates from the 15th century. It was a merchant vessel, built in the Basque country in Iberia, that plied the route between Bristol in England and Lisbon in Portugal. It’s believed that it berthed at Newport for a major refit sometime after 1465, but was flooded by incoming tides and subsequently abandoned.
It is the only such ship of its period in the world to have been discovered, and its preservation is proving to be a long and meticulous process. Hopes are high that it can eventually be housed in a purpose-built riverside exhibition centre. However, for the last few years the project HQ has been a rather nondescript industrial unit at the Queensway Meadows Industrial Estate, some 4km from Junction 24 off the M4 motorway outside the city. Bus route 74A takes just over 30 minutes from the city centre, which is within easy walking distance of the riverbank; just ask for the Newport Medieval Ship Centre .
And while the centre itself has nothing outwardly to recommend it, inside is a cornucopia of amazing history and science working side by side. This is the working hub of some stunning archaeological and preservation work, where some 3,000 pieces of timber are in the snail-paced process of being preserved, before hopefully one day being jig-sawed back together.
But the Centre does lay out the red carpet to curious visitors every Friday and Saturday throughout the spring and summer, plus Bank Holiday Mondays (public holidays). Admission is free, but they do encourage donations in order to finance further work on what is a stupendous project. You’ll be shown some of the preservation work going on, learn about the ship’s history, and pore over a selection of medieval artefacts found on board.
A more extensive collection of its artefacts can be seen at the Newport Museum and Art Gallery in John Frost Square in the city centre.
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