The Wentloog and Caldicot Levels are like no other part of Wales. They’re flat lands that lie partly below sea level, protected from the Bristol Channel by earth walls and drained by artificial watercourses – more like the Lincolnshire fens than Wales. Three of us set out, on a fine windless April day, to walk the seawall of the Wentloog Levels, from Rumney, Cardiff, north-east for ten miles to Duffryn, Newport.
We start from Parc Tredelerch, where we finished on Day 5, and soon lose the heavy traffic on the main road. A quiet waterway leads towards the sea. To our right across the water rises a long hill concealing landfill, on which lorries toil unseen in the distance. Shortly we join the sea wall, and turn to walk along its broad green top.
From here we look towards the sea in the distance, far out at low tide, then chocolate mudflats scored by shallow channels and crossed by wooden breakwaters, and, closest to us, at the tide’s highest reach, bleached tree trunks and flayed branches mixed with blue and red plastic jetsam. Sometimes there’s enough space for groups of cattle to squelch through sodden grass. On the other, landward side a reen runs beside us, green algae hiding its waters, and beyond it, long-strip fields in series. These, archaeologists from Reading University say, may be Roman in origin. Certainly the Romans were busy here building sea defences, and prehistoric peoples before them.
A few scattered settlements border the seawall, mainly scrap merchants’ yards and kennels. It’s eerily quiet here. Occasional dogs offer the only competition to the prevailing birdsong. As we walk further along the empty seawall the strangeness of this country begins to take a hold on us. It has its own watery language of wharfs, flaps, reens, groynes, outfalls and gouts. For many years a forgotten quango, the improbably named Internal Drainage Board, cared for the Levels, repairing the seawall and dredging the drainage channels, until the Wales Audit Office unearthed unacceptable practices by its members, including complimentary fact-finding trips to Venice and tours of Ulster whiskey distilleries.
By Peterstone the fields have changed from narrow strips to squarer plots, and dogs are outnumbered by horses. At a controlled gap in the wall, the Peterstone Gout, created in 1900, horses edge warily past us, and we keep on past a lake, home to ducks, geese and swans, towards the next village, St Bride’s. The church here commemorates the Great Flood of 1607, when hundreds died on the Levels following a violent tidal or storm surge. The Lighthouse Inn can’t offer lunch so we trudge on towards the estuary of the Usk and Ebbw rivers. More breakwaters, close-set wooden poles, march out across the mud. Lapwings dive and swerve, flashing their black and white wings over the flats. Looking north across the fields we can see a giant white rectangle shining in the sun: it’s the old LG plant at Coedkernew, never occupied by LG and now the site of a store for big data. At one point the path is guarded by incongruous Highland cattle with long horns and attitude: we take a short diversion to avoid them. A rusty freighter, its bow high and stern low, makes for the docks in Newport. Two figures, one with a tripod, stand in the distance at the very edge of the mud, waiting for birds. We walk round the West Usk Lighthouse, renovated and available for rent, and arrive at the estuary.
Now we’re moving into a new, electrical landscape. Across the estuary the Uskmouth power stations face us, and pylons start to sprout like grass. Two gigantic towers carry wires across the river; another, squatter one nearby seems hand-crafted and baroque; at one point, turning in a circle, we count over 40 pylons. We’re in danger of walking into another landfill site before someone directs us back to the path, which before long reaches the outskirts of Newport at Duffryn and its unusual Cambridge-inspired public housing estate.