Finding yourself on someone else’s blog is a rather strange experience – a bit like bumping into a school teacher on holiday. Last week Rachel and I walked across Wentwood to check some of the paths – see https://cistercianway.wordpress.com/2018/07/25/rewalking-wentwood/ . When we had scrambled down to the the Usk Valley Walk, we saw another walker in the distance. We stopped to remove a bee from the path (I thought it was dead, Rachel said it might just be tired because of the heat, and we didn’t want it being trodden on), the walker passed us, asked what we were doing and went on his way.
Then I found this on Twitter – https://twitter.com/AnneWareham/status/1023492376147439616 . I thought I’d look at the blog at https://charleshawes.veddw.com/other-walks/the-usk-valley-walk-usk-to-caerleon/ . And there we were!
Then we had a really interesting discussion on Twitter (involving people like @AncientTorfaen, @ Gwentydd and @ServiliusPulex – see the threads from Anne Wareham’s initial tweet) about the relationship between the Usk Valley Walk, the Roman roads between Usk and Caerleon and possible medieval routes through the area. At one point Charles Hawes said he wished we could have the discussion on his blog so I summarised some of the information there.
I felt it still needed a blog post of its own – so what follows is a bit more background and some more thoughts.
Details of the Roman roads east and west of the river between Caerleon and Usk are in GGAT’s report at http://www.ggat.org.uk/cadw/cadw_reports/pdfs/GGAT%2075%20Yr3%20Roads%20final.pdf. Plotting all those OS grid points on the online OS map suggests that the road east of the river followed the minor road from Caerleon past Bulmore and Abernant Farm. The next identifiable bit is between ST3898697257 and ST3916298149 on a lane running north from Llantrisant – not the line of the Usk Valley Walk but slightly to the east. GGAT reported some aerial evidence of a route south of Llantrisant but gave no grid references. Nearer to Usk, evidence of the road is at SO37970025 just south of the prison and just east of the Llanllywel road.
So the Roman road east of the river probably underlies the pre-A449 road or runs near it for much of its length. The Usk Valley Walk roughly parallels it but apart from the road section from just south of Usk to Llanllywel probably doesn’t use much of it.
What about the route east from Caerleon towards Caerwent and Chepstow? GGAT were broadly happy with Margary’s description of this, which is reflected in the route marked on the OS map. There is more detail in D. Maynard’s 1996 reports and A. M. Yates’s 1997 report on excavations in the Celtic Manor golf course, still unpublished in 2004 and in the GGAT archives. The Usk Valley Walk roughly follows this from Cat’s Ash across the golf course to the Bulmore road across the river from Caerleon, though there may be some diversions to get through the golf course.
There is plenty of other evidence, archaeological and documentary, for early activity in the area. The OS map shows a remarkable group of earthworks west of the road down from Caer Licyn. A student of mine, Daryl Williams, did some survey and geophys on these for his M. Phil. thesis a few years ago (when we still did Archaeology in Caerleon … when we still had a university in Caerleon …). His conclusion was that the more northerly site, a rectangular double ditch, was probably Roman and could be a pre-Caerleon temporary fort (similar examples at Gelli-gaer, Coelbren etc). The complex to the south-west of this he thought was later (because the central enclosure clearly respects the earlier structures) and could be an early medieval ecclesiastical site of some sort.
This was all very speculative – and why another ecclesiastical site in an area that’s littered with disused churches? There’s the site of St John Henrhiw, St John in the Wilderness, at about ST 396 915, the chapels of St Julius, St Aaron and St Alban nearer Caerleon, Gwenog and Penrhos somewhere in Caerleon (more about all these in Diane Brooks, ‘The Early Christian Church in Gwent: A Survey’ in the Monmouthshire Antiquarian vol. 5:3). Diane Brooks also suggests Cat’s Ash is the Villa Cathouen in a charter in the Book of Llan Daf that Wendy Davies dates to c 745. The charter may suggest there was a church there. The converted barn of Cat’s Ash Farm was a later medieval chapel – you can still see the outline of the east window. And there are more recent closures – Llanbedr was disused in the 19th century. Kemeys Inferior was closed to build the A449 and much of its stonework went to extend St Woolos Cathedral, through the footings and the gravestones can still be seen. There’s no right of public access to it now but I did get permission to take students there for some years. Churches are also thick on the ground west of the river – Llanhennock, Tredunnock, Llandegfedd, the disused church of Llanddewi-fach. Many of these have archaeological or documentary evidence of early date.
So the site between Caerlicyn and Cat’s Ash could be part of this pattern of over-provision. Paul Courtney (in I think his Ph D thesis on the medieval landscape of Gwent) speculated that the number of disused or vanished churches in the area around Caerleon might derive from the dispersal of the Christianized Roman population in the early fifth century. There are several ways that early churches got started – on burial sites (often with relics of martyrs), as monastic foundations on the edge of villa estates – but over much of the Roman empire, Christianity spread from town to countryside (the word ‘pagan’ comes from pagus, a country-dweller) and one likely point of origin for many rural churches is the church built on a villa estate.
Later on, Caerlicyn and Cat’s Ash were on one of the main roads through south Wales. Ogilby’s Britannia (1675) is the first detailed road map of Britain, and it marks the route past Caerlicyn as the main road from London to St David’s. This makes it likely that it was the medieval pilgrimage route to St David’s. (Terry Jones – yes, him from Monty Python – had some very interesting ideas about the politics behind Ogilby’s choice of routes to survey and particularly about his edging back towards the Catholic tradition with routes to St David’s and Holywell. Worth remembering who was on the throne in 1675, who the heir to the throne was – but also what happened in 1678 and 1688 to make Catholicism politically difficult again.)
Derek Bissell’s detailed work on the location of Ogilby’s Monmouthshire routes was privately published in 2001 as ‘In the Steps of John Ogilby: some old roads of Monmouthshire and Brecknockshire’ – should be a copy in the bigger libraries. He traced Ogilby’s London-St David’s route through Monmouth and Trelech, past Newchurch and Gaerllwyd, mainly following the modern roads but with a few sections that are now off-road (eg the bridleway between ST 43707 96263 and ST 43169 96381 ). It goes round the north of Wentwood, passing Cas Troggy. Ogilby’s surveyors rarely noted antiquities but Cas Troggy is an exception. What this tells us about its condition in the 1670s is anyone’s guess. At the crossroads past Cas Troggy, at ST 41327 95029, the Ogilby route leaves the road and goes along the edge of the forst following the track to the south-west up Bertholau Graig. At ST 40029 94087 it is joined by the track running across Wentwood from east to west, and heads towards Caerlicyn and the the Kemeys Graig. Past Caerlicyn it contimues down the tarmac road to ST 37457 91042 where it bears right down a hollow lane to the Abernant road and so to Cat’s Ash.
What my daughter and I were doing when we met Charles was exploring an off-road alternative to the last bit of tarmac. There is a bridleway down from Caerlicyn but it is VERY steep, then you go steadily back up hill to rejoin the road. Looking again at the map, I’m not entirely certain that the bit where we met was the UVW as it’s marked on the latest online OS. We were on the track that goes from ST 38238 92445 to ST 37780 91747 and ST 37520 91410. According to the map, we should have continued downhill across the fields from ST 38238 92445 and gone closer to the farm. However, we did pass several UVW waymarks and there were waymarks on the road at ST 37477 91065. Has the route changed – does the OS need updating?
Rachel and I had left a car in Cat’s Ash and drove back to the other car in Earlswood. From Cat’s Ash the Cistercian Way follows the UVW into Caerleon. There’s a bit of road walking then you are supposed to cut across the golf course. I haven’t walked that section in many years. Last time I was walking that way was towards the end of our round-Wales trek in 2005. I was walking on my own at that point, there was some sort of high-powered world trade conference at the Celtic Manor and what they called a Ring of Steel round the whole site. I think my mother was worried that I was going to try to batter down the fence with a cross-stave but discretion was the better part of valour and I walked round by the road.
A couple of years ago, though, the route was far from clear. Andy Delmege is a clergyman from the West Midlands who walked much of my Cistercian Way route on a sabbatical in 2016. He had great difficulty negotiating the route of the Usk Valley Walk through the Celtic Manor golf course. Charles Hawes also reported problems – waymarks defaced and missing, paths crossed by roads that aren’t on the map. I probably ought to have a look at it myself, but something definitely needs to be done. It’s an important promoted route and part of it does run along a documented section of the Roman road. That bit of the route is actually within Newport City Council – their footpaths team have been keen on the project in the past so we’ll see what they can do.