We surprise J. by arriving early, for the first time ever. We’re at Lighthouse Road, Duffryn for a walk round the industrial underbelly of Newport and on into the Caldicot Levels. It’s a cloudy day, but warm, with the promise of faint sun later.
The river Usk cuts a wide gash through the city, in a way that the Tawe and Taf fail to do in Swansea and Cardiff. At low tide its chocolate banks glisten and glow. But now the tide’s high and, once over the river Ebbw and past a housing estate mysteriously labelled with the graffito ‘Moscow’, we follow the sullen river upstream.
The Transporter Bridge is closed today, forcing us to march further north to the next crossing. It looks trim, blue and handsome. On operating days you can go over on the gondola or platform with the cars and bikes, or climb the tower, walk over the horizontal boom or ‘rail track’ above and descend the tower on the far bank. Only two other transporter bridges remain in Britain, in Middlesbrough and Warrington, and only three others in the rest of the world. Newport’s borough engineer, Robert Haynes, persuaded the authorities of the merits of the ‘aerial ferry’ designed by Charles Smith and first built by Ferdinand Arnodin and Alberto Palacio in Bilbao, and the bridge was opened in 1906.
Opposite the bridge are two old large and ornate pubs, the Waterloo Inn, with its ‘workmen’s dining room’ and the improbably named ‘West of England Tavern’. Neither looks inviting. The Waterloo has two notices, one crudely handwritten and tacked to a closed door, pleads ‘Treat yourself to Sunday lunch’; the other has a wistful tone: ‘Thank you very much. See you again soon’.
The City Bridge, upstream, could not be more different. Opened in 2004 it carries a busy road across the river on a white concrete bow-string arch. On it police are halting the traffic and handing survey forms to bemused motorists: we wonder if they’re asking about their tolerance of queues. On the east bank we pass the striking W.R Lysaght Institute. The ‘Stute’ was opened in 1928, financed by the John Lysaght company and its workers, and offered social and community facilities to the workers of Lysaght’s Orb steelworks. It closed in 2001 but was saved from demolition and dereliction and is now run by a social enterprise, Linc-Cymru, as a ‘community hub’, open for conferences, training, parties, weddings and many other uses.
When he heard I was making for south Newport my friend CE sent me this recollection:
Lysaght’s Steelworks opened in Newport in 1895 and my great-grandfather was one of the many who transferred from their base in Wolverhampton ca 1900, just after my mother’s father was born. The Somerton / Maindee community was a “little Midlands” in Wales: my grandfather retained a Wolverhampton accent all his life, though my grandmother (similar background) sounded standard Newp’t, as did my mother. My grandfather became a ships chandler in a Dickensian warehouse on the Usk docks that was a wonderful place to visit as a child. Almost all the extended family worked at Lysaght’s, mostly living in Collingwood Road, which in my childhood came to a dead end at the works gates. My grandmother did munitions work there in WW1. … Until I checked on the web this morning I had always assumed the firm was spelt “Lycets”. Even in the ’60s, with Llanwern in operation, older people in Newport referred to the steel mill as “Lysaght’s works”. The Lysaghts (by then ennobled) sold out to GKN in 1920s, and thence to British Steel.
We turn back south, along a straight road busy with industrial traffic, except for the pink trailer dispensing ‘Dawn’s Big Baps: hot and cold food’, then turn right down a quieter road, home to a driving test centre, where a ‘Skids School of Motoring’ car awaits its turn, and the well-fortified Newport Corinthians AFC. Now we’re back at the Transporter Bridge. As we approach, dogs bark in industrial kennels at the side of the road. C. imagines directing a Newport Noir film in which the screams from a horrible murder on the mudflats behind are muffled by the yelping of rabid dogs in their concrete cages (the dogs later falling silent as the victim’s blood mixes silently with the oozing mud). But his nightmare fantasy quickly passes. We take a peaceful track downriver, through docks five feet tall. A grey sub-modernist warehouse on stilts stares at us across the river. Then the path veers inland, through what are fashionably termed ‘edgelands’. This strip between river and Levels is the home of panel-beaters, shot-blasters, car-sprayers, cement-mixers, car-valets, steam-cleaners, repairers and demolishers – survivors of an older, (literally) peripheral economy derided or ignored by our Big Money overlords and their political agents.
Though it’s still dominated by wind turbines and electricity pylons – Newport is the pylon capital of the UK – we’ve reached the open country, in the unusual form of a series of large wildflower meadows. We squelch through lush wet grass, amid thousands of buttercups, red clovers and occasional pink marsh orchids. These are the Great Traston Meadows, looked after by the Gwent Wildlife Trust with the cooperation of Solutia, a chemical company. They shelter the country’s rarest bumble bee, the wonderfully-named shrill carder bee (bombus silvarum). Though they look similar on the map, these Gwent Levels are very different in character from the Wentloog Levels on the east side of the Usk: wetter, more pastoral and less regimented. But like Wentloog they’re ‘totally hand-crafted by man’, in the words of one authority, and conceal the traces of human activity through the medieval and Roman eras back to Mesolithic times.
Next comes Nash, a deserted village with a closed pub (the big sign visible across the fields ‘Waterloo Inn’ beckons us, cruelly) and a large tall-spired church. Then the path turns eastwards towards the mouth of the Usk and the two remaining power stations, the classic-design Uskmouth B (coal-fired), whose closure was announced just days after we viewed it from the west side of the river, and the new, anti-design Uskmouth C (gas-fired), run by the Danish firm DONG. Both are visible in the distance, between the tall pale reeds that line the path.
More fields, drained by reens and grips, and we reach the Newport Wetlands Centre, a handsome wooden building and reserve run by the RSPB, and, at the coast, the miniature East Usk Lighthouse, built in 1893 but much changed. Then the path turns inland, through Saltmarsh, to Goldcliff, where, after a drink in the Farmers Arms, we wait for the 63 bus to return us to Newport.