Four miles upriver from Newport, Caerleon has associations with King Arthur, and is thought to be the ‘Carlion’ of Malory’s romance, Le Morte d’Artbur, written in 1485. Caerleon was Isca Silumm, headquarters of the Second Augustan Legion from AD 75 to the 4th century. The fort covered 51 and a half acres, and its ramparts can still be identifed today. Finds from the site can be seen at the Legionary Museum, including carved stone heads, coins, pottery, domestic items, glassware and a number of old weapons. You can also view the remains of one of the few Roman barrack blocks to survive in Britain. Until it was excavated, the Roman amphitheatre was popularly held to be King Arthur’s Round Table. Tennyson stayed here,at the Hanbury Arms, while researching for his poetic work Idylls of the King.
The Roman walls survive as evidence that, 1800 years ago under the name of Venta Silurum, this was the second largest civilian settlement in South-West Britain (the biggest was Bath). The population of about 2000 enjoyed all modern Roman amenities including an amphitheatre for their entertainment. Less enjoyable were the incursions of raiders from Ireland along the shores of the Severn. One of their victims was the future St Patrick, who was kidnapped from ‘somewhere near to the sea’, and quite possibly from Caerwent itself. The present town lies within the Roman walls, and in the porch of the 13th-century church is an interesting mosaic. The double lychgate is a memorial to Thomas Walker -involved in the building of the Severn Tunnel and the Manchester Ship Canal.
Set beside the River Monnow, this Village has old stone houses and an ancient inn. The church porch, contains a carved stone commemorating an 18th-century blacksmith. Llannhangel Court is a Tudor house standing in attractive gardens; it has a fine yew staircase and a number of interesting portraits and furnishings.
The ruins of 13th-century Llanthony Priory stand in the beautiful unspoiled valley of the River Honddu, with the Black Mountains on the west and 1748ft Hatteral Hill rising to the east. This is border country (the English boundary a mile away also defining the limit of the Brecon Beacons National Park and following the path of Offa’s Dyke), and the Priory was founded by a Marcher Lord of Hereford, Hugh de Lacy. The original 12th-century community numbered 40, but the remoteness of the spot made for a primitive existence which many monks shunned, and by the time of the Dissolution only 5 remained. What was the Prior’s house is now an hotel, and a church contemporary with the priory still stands, retaining some Norman features, though restored.
The Romans established Blestium, a military base, at the site between three rivers where Monmouth now stands. Some centuries later the Normans built a castle, later to become the birthplace of Henry V, whose statue stands outside the 18th-century Shire Hall. The castle was destroyed in the Civil War, but the Monnow Bridge, Britain’s only surviving fortified bridge, remains. Its 13th-century tower formed one of the four medieval gates to the town. Nelson visited the town in 1802, and the Monmouth Museum contains his sword and models of his ships, while the Naval Temple on Kymin Hill has many maritime relics. Monmouth was also the birthplace of C S Rolls the ‘Rolls’ of Rolls-Royce, whose father, Lord Llangattock, lived near Monmouth.
A fast growing modern town, Newport was originally called Gwynllyw after the Christian warrior who governed the town and was eventually canonised. The Norman cathedral (a parish church until 1949) is dedicated to the saint, though they now refer to him as St Woolos. The 15th century castle, now ruined, controls the river crossing. The poet W H Davies, author of Autobiography of a Supertramp, was born here and is commemorated by an Epstein bust in the town’s museum. Davies sailed to America in 1893. Tredegar House is accounted the finest restoration house in Wales. Parts date back to the 16th century and it is set in lovely grounds. At Caerleon is a fine ruined Roman amphitheatre and barracks. Caerleon is a possible site of Camelot, linked by both Malory in Morte D’Artlmr and Tennyson in Idylls of the King.
On a knoll just outside the village are the impressive ruins of 15th-century Raglan Castle. One of the latest examples of medieval fortification in Britain, it was a Royalist centre during the Civil War, holding out against Fairfax for 11 weeks in 1646. One side of the moated five-storey Great Tower was blown up and the rest of the castle slighted.
A beautiful ruin in an equally beautiful setting, Tintern Abbey lies in a bend on the Wye in a meadow overlooked by the wooded hills which form the boundary between England and Wales. A victim of the Dissolution, the abbey is one of the finest reminders of monasticism. It was founded in 1131, although most of the ruins date from the 13th and 14th centuries. The abbey church itself survives almost intact.
The old market town of Usk is an established touring centre, set as it is between the Brecon Beacons National Park and the Wye Valley; its situation on the River Usk also makes it popular with those seeking a fishing holiday. The town itself is built above the remains of Burrium, a Roman settlement 8 miles north of that at Caerleon. It is overlooked by the ruins of a Marcher lord’s stronghold dating back to the 12th century and dismantled after its support of the Royalist cause in the Civil War. St Mary’s Church, parts of which are 700 years old, was once attached to a Benedictine priory of nuns. It has a fine Tudor screen and a 17th-century pulpit.