Getting back to field work after six weeks off with back trouble and a bit of a panic over the Penrhys pilgrimage this year … but we are back to it. (The word ‘back’ seems to be cropping up a lot here …)
In 2005 I walked from the top end of Chepstow Park Wood to Wentwood along the side road past Kilgwrrwg. On the one hand it’s the London-St David’s route as documented by Ogilby in 1675. It goes along a ridge with magnificent views, past two medieval churches and a Neolithic burial mound.
On the other hand it’s a lot of road walking, on a road which can get quite busy.
Time to think of alternatives …
Starting at Itton, at the south-west corner of Chepstow Park Wood, the map shows footpaths across Earlswood to the southern part of Wentwood. Earlswood isn’t a wood any more, though there are scattered copses and bits of forestry. It was part of the holdings of the earls (later dukes) of Lancaster and came into Crown hands in 1400 but was always managed as a separate estate. At the beginning to the 17th century when all the holdings of the Duchy were surveyed, Earlswood was trackless forest. A hundred years later it was full of smallholdings with no woods at all. Looking at the modern map, it’s a classic squatter landscape, with cottages and little farms strung out along a web of side roads and lanes. Of course, most of the cottages and farmhouses are now very nice bijou residences, but at one time they would have been what Eurwyn Wiliam calls ‘home-made houses’, shacks and shanties. This was real Little House in the Big Woods country.
How did this change happen? Well, in the middle of the seventeenth century, the Crown did somewhat have its eye off the ball (having your head cut off can do that to you). The population was rising, land was getting scarce … there was a bit of logging for the iron industry, people moved in along the logging trails, cleared patches of land, built shelters. There was no-one to take the initiative to stop them. This is how the high politics of religious turmoil and civil war can have strange knock-on effects on the landscape and ordinary people’s lives.
As far as walkers are concerned, though, it’s a bit problematic. There are so many little minor roads that the footpaths crossing between them have mostly gone out of use. Road walking is OK and the roads are quiet (though there’s a high 4×4 quotient) but the roads go mostly N-S and we want to go E-W. There looked to be a good footpath from Rhyd-y-bedw farm. There was no stile in the hedge and a very rickety locked gate half way up the farm drive. Walk up to the farmhouse and there’s a gate into the field. There’s a path worn in the grass across the field and through the next gate but I couldn’t see a way through the woods.
Strike 2. Walk along the road and take the lane to Coed-llifos farm. Can’t see a way through the farmyard.
Strike 3. Stride out along the road, down through the gloriously-named Bullyhole Bottom and up to the main road. There should be a path just to the right through the woods and over Earlswood Common. Heavily overgrown stone stile going nowhere. Private drive with footpath waymarked off it but totally impassable. Back to main road. Several footpaths to the right, all blocked at some point. Eventually a bridleway past Marls Farm and a minor road towards Wentwood. I’d spotted a chapel marked on the OS map at about 449 948 and asked Steve to meet me there. It turned out to be one of his favourite places, the Earlswood Valley Chapel, the oldest Methodist chapel in Wales. Founded in 1791, largely by the efforts of a local woman, Ann Lewis, who had heard John Wesley preaching at Devauden, the chapel was built largely by local labour and tradition maintains that much of the stone was carried from the nearby quarry, by the local women, in their aprons.
So that’s definitely the way to go for Wentwood but how to get there? Back home I did some homework and found on Christopher Somerville’s web site at http://www.christophersomerville.co.uk/?p=456 an alternative route past Coed-llifos and across the fields to the bridleway past Marls Farm.
Something for another day.