A day of dogs and bridges. Dogs first. We start from the railway station at Caldicot, three of us this time. The path to the motorway and across to the coastline is studded with notices, official and handwritten, about the absolute unacceptability of dog shit. We try to construct a history that accounts for this vehemence. Perhaps a local councillor who has suffered an Unfortunate Event attributable to dogs launches a fierce campaign against them. A bitter dog-loving political opponent, to spite her and under cover of night, lays down a fresh trail of dog shit. The vendetta intensifies, yet more signs are put up, and the stench increases. Or maybe there’s another explanation …
At the coast, where the path develops into a concreted track, the Second Severn Crossing appears in the distance. Even through the heat haze its elegant lines are clear: the delicate lattice of the suspension cables and the double curve of the bridge’s course across the river.
Just before the bridge lifts off on its watery way the path turns left and goes under the carriageway. From here a double row of squat piers marches off to the east as in a Romanesque cathedral (it’s suitably dark here, away from the bright sunshine). Over our heads lorries drum out a hostile, crumping rhythm that sounds both distant and very close at the same time. We’re relieved to emerge on the north side and move towards Sudbrook.
Sudbrook owes its existence to one process, the building of the Severn Tunnel, which was finally opened in 1886. The village was constructed from 1873 by Thomas A. Walker, the Tunnel’s engineer, to house the workers. Walking through the village it’s all too easy to see the social hierarchy imposed on it from the start: small terraced houses for the labourers on one side of the street, slightly larger, bayed houses for the engineers and managers on the other. Both main streets are dominated by a large rectangular brick building, the pumping station, still in use today: 13.86 million gallons of spring water are pumped from the Tunnel each day. To the south are the derelict remains of a large paper mill, closed in 2006, which used some of the extracted water. It’s now a peaceful, good-looking village, but it must always have been a strange experience living here, for most people a place of constant transit from one place to another.
One part of Sudbrook long predates 1873. To the west of the village lies an Iron Age promontory fort. Just two straight ramparts survive – the rest have disappeared through coastal erosion – and between them shelters a football pitch.
A little further along the coast is Black Rock, once a crossing point on the river and a base for traditional lave fishing, now a picnic spot with a view of both bridges. A low cliff juts out into the estuary here, made of vulnerable old red sandstone. After Black Rock the path settles into grassy track lifted above the surrounding land. Nettles sting and insects circle in the hot midday air. Swifts loon about over our heads. The signposting fails us again and we miss the crossing over the railway line and try instead to bend ourselves double under a railway bridge over the pill at Red Cliff: a neat lighthouse stands opposite, alongside the piers of the original Severn Bridge.
Back on track and across more fields we find ourselves in a small pocket of gracious country living: the perfect village of Mathern. The church here marks the place of death of the curious early Welsh leader Tewdric, who, according to the Book of Llandâf, returned to public life after abdicating from the kingship of Glywysing to become a hermit, only to lose his life in a battle against the English. The battle was won, but today you could easily imagine Mathern was an English village, with its big houses, long driveways and manicured lawns. Near the church is the old palace of the Bishops of Llandâf, restored in good Arts and Crafts style by H. Avray Tipping.
After Mathern we go astray again, and instead of following the coast path through an industrial estate we cross the M4 at the wrong place, and climb uphill, with views of the Wye and Severn, across large fields containing some fine ancient oak trees. Then suddenly we’re in 1970s suburbia, in the area of Chepstow known as Bulwark. The streets are all named after trees, is if in regret for the real trees cut down to make way for the houses.
Then a long descent into Chepstow proper, a deserved lunch in the Three Tuns in the shadow of the castle, and finally down to the Old Wye Bridge across the river (1816). We co-opt a man visiting from Bristol to take our picture as we stand under the sign welcoming travellers to Gloucestershire. This is our last bridge and the end of the Wales Coast Path.