Pembrokeshire & South Wales: Pt 9 – Newport

Leaving the hustle and bustle of Swansea far to the West, we arrived in the Welsh City of Newport…


Status: City & County of Newport (historically Monmouthshire), City, Wales

Date: 09/09/2015

Travel: Car

Eating & Sleeping: Starbucks

Attractions: Newport Cathedral, Civic Centre, Transporter Bridge, Castle Ruins, River Usk, Newport Market, Great Western Railway Usk Bridge, Newport Bridge, Newport Technical Institute, Westgate Hotel, Chartist Sculpture, Stand & Stare Sculpture, Merchant Naval Memorial, Newport Docks, Steel Wave Sculpture etc

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We parked up in a large multi storey Car Park located just East of the River Usk, which separates the City Centre from the outer Eastern suburbs. It offered a tantalising view across the river towards the Centre, with some of the city’s most notable landmarks, including the tower of the Market Hall, and the large red “Steel Wave” sculpture towards the right of the picture.

It all looks very interesting, but before we go and find out a bit about them, we were also directly opposite the “Newport Technical Institute”, characterised by a large green dome above the main entrance. It’s a fine example of the mighty red brick buildings which came to showcase the late 19th/early 20th centuries, and went on to open in 1910. In 1958 it was replaced by the Newport College of Art until the mid 1970’s, although it continued in use for education as the local college until 1996. It has since been converted into luxury apartments overlooking the River/City Centre, but it’s historical character has been retained.

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One of the main routes into the City Centre from the Eastern part of the city is the “Newport Bridge”, shown above, and you can see the Market Hall/Steel Wave Sculpture over to the left on the far side.

The present Bridge was completed in 1927, a brand new replacement for the original stone bridge of 1800, designed by David Edwards with 5 large arches, which is the same number as the new Bridge. Had we visited in 1800 we would have had trouble walking into the Centre, as it wasn’t until 1866 that the Bridge was widened to accommodate a pavement on either side.

The original Bridge was also the scene of a famous stunt in 1913 by none other than the famous escape artist, Harry Houdini (1874 – 1926, Hungarian Stuntman) who had previously visited the City in 1905. He wanted to perform a stunt whereby he would jump into the Usk, handcuffed from the Bridge. The Police objected, but he managed to sneak around them and perform the act anyway, which went perfectly, to the delight of watching crowds.

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Sandwiched between the Newport Bridge, and the Railway Bridge to the right, are the incredible ruins of Newport Castle, in a strategic location by the main river crossing into the City Centre.

The Castle is the second to have been built in Newport, after an earlier Norman Motte & Bailey from the 11th century, destroyed by fire in 1322. Although it was apparently restored, it had been replaced by the current stone version by the end of the century. The first major attack on the building occurred around 1405, as part of the Welsh Uprising by followers of Owain Glyndwr (1349 – 1415, Welsh Ruler) which also saw a lot of damage done to the city of Swansea, and various other places under English control. The Castle survived, and was soon repaired.

The ruins today are much smaller than the Castle was in it’s heyday, as it included a Moat protecting a large walled courtyard with three main towers facing the river, which you can still see now. The central tower is rectangular, and if you look at the lower portion you can see a “Water Gate” partially obscured by the mud. This was used to allow goods/troops to arrive up the river. Presumably the Moat only stretched around the three walls facing out onto land, whilst the major fortified towers were on the riverside.

Like most towns/cities in England, Newport saw action in the English Civil War when the Parliamentarians under Henry Herbert (MP for Monmouthshire) established a Garrison in the Castle which later joined Oliver Cromwell (1599 – 1658, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth). It remained in Herbert’s family for centuries, during which time various parts of it became derelict. The inner buildings carried on as a Brewery until their destruction by fire in 1883, leaving just the three original towers along with a section of the wall lining the Usk. The Castle is now completely surrounded, by the River to the East, a Ring Road to the West, and the two bridges to the North/South.

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The Railway bridge is officially called the “Great Western Railway Usk Bridge”, which, as the name suggests, carries the Great Western Main Line into the city. The main route of the line runs from London towards the English City of Bristol, where it divides into two branches, one through Devon into the depths of Cornwall, and the other through the Severn Tunnel into South Wales, through Newport, Cardiff and Swansea towards the ports of Fishguard/Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire for ferries to Ireland.

The South Wales Branch was completed in 1850 as far as Swansea, with a new Railway bridge in Newport almost ready to receive trains in 1848. It was however constructed out of wood, and the whole lot burnt down just as the finishing touches were being added, destroying the entire bridge. It was of course rebuilt, but to a design by Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806 – 1859, famous English Engineer, also responsible for the GWR itself), using a series of metal girders in place of wood. The structure was later replaced in 1888 with the present day bridge, which uses stone pillars with a metal covering across the top for trains to cross. You can’t really tell just by looking at it but there are actually 4 “lanes” on the bridge, widened from 2 in 1911.

As we were watching, two trains started to cross the bridge at once, with a freight train heading East, and a First Great Western train heading West into the city, probably coming from Somerset in England.

Moving away from the Bridges, we finally arrived on the City Centre side of the Usk, with the “Steel Wave” towering 40 ft above us. The Wave is one of Newport’s most recognisable pieces of public artwork, designed by Peter Frink in 1991 to pay homage to both the Steel Industry, and the Sea Trade, two areas which have been very important for Newport’s development over the years.

Looking through it’s centre, we could see the magnificent Market Hall almost directly behind it, on the other side of the Ring Road. A fine Victorian edifice, it was completed in 1889 in place of the previous, much smaller Market Hall from the early 19th century. The main exterior facade is faced with brick, whilst the rest of the building is held up with a large iron frame, which also supports the enormous iron & glass arched roof. There have been a few extensions over the years, most recently in 1987 when a new entrance was added off of the High Street itself, which runs behind the main building.

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Moving up to the aforementioned High Street, we arrived in a large central square, at the North end of the pedestrianised streets. It’s an impressive area, with a number of finely sculpted buildings, and a variety of public art.

Two of my favourite buildings can be found at the back of the picture, starting with the HSBC building, which features the short, squat Clock Tower on the roof. It sits on the corner of Bridge Street/Stow Hill, and dates back to the late 19th century. Like many of the surrounding buildings, it was crafted out of Ashlar, a term which refers to stone that has been deliberately smoothed off, usually for use in walls or buildings. I presume that it was deliberately built for the HSBC itself, as the Banks were the richest companies back in the day, and generally have the most impressive buildings architecturally on a High Street.

Directly to the left of the HSBC is a slightly shorter building, which has “Central Chambers” carved above the main entrance. It dates from a similar time period, late 19th century, although it has been crafted in a slightly different style. The only other information given on the British Listed Buildings Website is that it was a former Gas Showroom.

The whole street is charming to look at, and if you look to the right of the HSBC, just over on the other side of Bridge Street which runs down the side, there is a full block of intricately designed structures. They were built around 1900, and come together as a big unit, starting at the corner and heading up the street to be obscured by the HSBC. Whilst they are simply shops with offices above, including a Natwest further along which may have been there since it was built, they having a charming design quality, and coupled with the two we have already talked about, the area is a paradise architecturally.

You may have noticed an odd looking series of sculptures in the middle of the square in the previous picture, which is closely tied to the large building shown to their right in the second picture above.

It’s called the “Westgate Hotel”, with the name deriving from the original West Gate which lead into the city. This was demolished, and a large Hotel built in it’s place. It was to be the scene of one of Newport’s most famous events, known as the “Newport Rising”, on November 4th 1839. It was led by the Chartists, effectively a male version of the Suffragettes that would be active the following century. There had been various demonstrations around the country to try and reform political agenda’s, particularly for the benefit of the working class, which was largely ignored by Parliament. One particular person associated with the movement was John Frost (1784 – 1877, from Newport) who had planned a large Chartist gathering in Newport, numbering several thousand people. Things soon turned nasty however, as a number of Chartists were being held prisoner by the British Army inside the Westgate Hotel itself, and the Chartists sought to free them. The Army opened fire on the protesters, killing at least 22, and wounding over 50.

The sculpture was designed by Christopher Kelly in 1991, and commemorates the struggle of the Chartists. There are three main sculptures, each with their own meaning:

  1. Union: Shown to the left on the first picture, it shows a Man and a Woman carrying a large model of the city of Newport, showcasing what they believe should be the ideal city for everyone.
  2. Prudence: Shown to the far right on the first picture, formed of two people celebrating the Arts and the various Industries prevalent in Newport, showing the Wisdom of Man.
  3. Energy: Behind the Union sculpture, but shown in the foreground of the second picture, showing the Chartists rising up from being crushed by those above them, to fight for their cause.

Unfortunately this isn’t the original Hotel where the protest took place, as the building was torn down in 1884 and rebuilt, however it still evokes the struggle for freedom that took place here.

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Crossing the road, we wandered up Bridge Street, between the HSBC building, and the other Listed Building to its immediate right. There, between the two buildings sits a statue of Sir Charles Morgan (1760-1846, who served as MP for Brecon, and later Monmouthshire), designed by John Evan Thomas. It was positioned on the High Street upon it’s creation in 1850, however after just 10 years it was removed to make way for a new building, only recently in 1992 being returned to the city centre, now to be found on Bridge Street.

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Just up the road from the statue, following Stow Hill up an incline, we found this small Memorial, which marks the place where the former “Drill Hall” once stood. It was here that Territorial Soldiers from Newport were trained to fight with the “First (Rifle) Battalion The Monmouthshire Regiment”, in both World Wars. The Regiments history can be traced back to 1859 when it was formed out of individual Rifle Volunteer Units, and fought in the great wars at the start of the 20th century, before becoming part of the Royal Welsh Battalion in the 1960’s.

The plaque to the right adds a little more to the Regiment’s story, telling of a heroic battle during World War One. One the 8th May 1915, 500 soldiers in the Monmouthshire Regiment stood their ground against the vast might of the German Army, before the start of the second battle for the Belgian city of Ypres. Ultimately, the joint British/Canadian/French force won the battle, however just 129 men from the Monmouthshire Regiment survived to tell the tale. Whilst it is a terrible loss to Newport, it is also seen as a brave victory, one that the city shall always be proud of.

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Circling back round, down the hill to the other end of the High Street, the opposite end to the Westgate Hotel, we came across another of Newport’s incredible pieces of public art. This particular piece is called “Stand & Stare”, the name referencing a line from a poem by William Henry Davies (1871 – 1940, Welsh Poet who lived as a Tramp), which goes: “What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare”.

Davies himself was from Newport, and became one of Wales’s most beloved poets, and is still popular today. The sculpture was designed by Paul Bothwell-Kincaid, and officially unveiled in 1990, 50 years after Davies’s death in 1940.

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Leaving the main City Centre shopping streets, we headed down towards Mariners Green, an open plan square where Cardiff Road, Commercial Street and George Street all meet.

In the distance however, we got distracted by the famous Newport Transporter Bridge, one of only three left in the United Kingdom, along with Middlesbrough and an unused one in Warrington.

The Bridge has a simple design, put forwards by Ferdinand Arnodin (1845 – 1924, French Engineer, one of the two designers to patent the original Transporter Bridge idea), and completed in 1906. Cars and pedestrians embark onto a large platform, suspended by cables to the main bridge deck, nearly 250 ft above. Winches then push the cables along the deck, taking the platform with it, until it arrives at the other side. This allowed ships to pass underneath the main bulk of the bridge, and the platform could be moved whilst the river was clear. It remains the UK (and the worlds) largest Transporter Bridge, and is in fact 1 of just 12 which still exist in the world today. Only 23 were originally built in the 19th/20th centuries, with three new ones within the last 50 years, bringing the historical total to just 26.

We kept going, and soon arrived at Mariners Green, the central feature of which is the “Merchant Naval Memorial”. This finely sculpted Memorial was designed by Sebastien Boyesen, and according to the information board at the base of the monument it was designed to:

“Commemorate the long standing relationship between the Merchant Navy and the Town of Newport. Inaugurated 28th April 1991”.

On top of the 23 ft column sits a large bronze statue of a Navigator, sat on top of the Globe, holding a Sextant. Around the base of the column are a few extra sculptures, crafted out of stone, including an Anchor, and a large gun, representing Naval Warfare. Various people from the City served with the Royal Navy in WWII, not all of whom came back, so the monument is dedicated to their memory.

It was on our way back into the centre from here that I noticed a sign pointing towards “Newport Cathedral”, so we followed it back up a hill into the heart of the City, keeping an eye out for a Cathedral looking building.

During our exploration we passed a road called “Victoria Place”, which features an absolutely stunning array of Victorian Housing, which dates back to 1844. A plaque on the side of one of the buildings states that the two identical rows of housing were built by a firm called “Rennie-Logan”, who also built the Newport Dock, which originally opened in 1842, with an extension completed in 1858. This was known as the Town Dock when it opened, however to supplement the large amount of trade coming into the City, a second Dock, the Alexandra Dock, opened in 1875. It would be extended at least 3 times, in 1892, 1907, and finally 1914.

At the end of the street, is a large square Chapel formerly belonging to the United Reform Church, designed by an architect from Newport called A. O. Watkins, which began to serve the local community in 1859. By at least 2009 it was disused, and plans were approved to convert it into a mosque, which opened a few years later.

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Continuing further up the hill, we soon found the Cathedral itself (apologies for the photo, it was slightly obscured by some trees!), sat in a prominent position at the top of Stow Hill, looking down towards the rest of the city. Before we arrived we had no idea Newport was a Cathedral City, as it was only granted City Status in 2002 as part of the Golden Jubilee Celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II.

Officially called the Cathedral of St Woolos, King & Confessor, the name is a reference to a man named Gwynllyw (450 – 500), who ruled a Kingdom of the same name in South Wales, and also founded the first Church on this site. The area included a large section of land East of the River Usk, towards the historic area of Glamorgan. The name Gwynllyw was lost in translation in English, becoming Woolos.

This means the original Church originated in the 5th century, and although nothing remains of this Wooden edifice, it’s stone successor was preserved, merged into the fabric of the new Church that the Normans built around it in 1080. I mentioned earlier about the attack of Owain Glyndwr’s forces which damaged the Castle, and they made it as far out as the Church, causing severe damage to the main structure. When it was rebuilt a few years later, the large Tower was added (behind the trees at the far right of the picture), and despite being targeted during the English Civil War, as was the Castle, it survived to modern times. It was officially still an Anglican Parish Church until 1949 when it became the new Cathedral for the Diocese of Monmouth, created a few decades earlier.

Perhaps it’s most famous Bishop in modern times was Rowan Williams, who adopted the post in 1992. He would go on to become the Archbishop of Wales in 1999 alongside his Monmouthshire duties, making Newport Cathedral the head Cathedral in Wales for the duration of his tenure. In 2002 after stepping down as Welsh Archbishop, he became the new head of the Church of England, as Archbishop of Canterbury.

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Directly over the road from the Cathedral was a playing field, which offered a fine view out across the city, with spires and turrets visible down below us. It seemed a fitting place to complete our exploration of the city, which sprawled out in front of us, surrounded by the lush Welsh countryside. Sadly the only major landmark we didn’t get chance to find was the Newport Civic Centre, a mammoth structure opened in 1940 to designs by Thomas Cecil Howitt (1889 – 1968, Architect from Nottinghamshire), which houses Newport City Council, the Mayor of Newport, and the Crown Courts. It’s main feature is a tall square Clock Tower, only completed in 1964 after work was halted owing to WWII. Design wise, it is very similar to it’s counterpart in Swansea, the Swansea Guildhall.

Looking back across the city, the spire on the right belongs to Bethel Community Church, which we would later pass as we made our way back towards the Car. It’s origins lie with the Methodist Faith, as it opened in the 1880’s as a Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, before falling numbers in the 1960’s caused them to sell the building, which became part of the Pentecostal Church, renamed the Bethel Community Church.

So that was our trip to Newport, an incredible city in South Wales, not far from the border with England, and one of the big three Welsh Cities, Newport, Cardiff and Swansea, all of which we have now visited. I must say that one of the most memorable things about exploring Newport was the vast variety of Public Artworks on display, commemorating brave heroes from wars over 100 years ago, beloved public figures, and the brave fight against the ruling elite.

Transport wise, it lies directly next to the M4 Motorway, which runs over the Severn Bridges to the East, into England around Bristol, past Reading towards London. Eastwards it travels to Cardiff/Swansea, and terminates in Carmarthenshire not far from the oldest town in Wales, Carmarthen. The local rail links are also good, with direct trains to the Welsh Valleys, South Wales, Southern England, London, Bristol and Manchester Piccadilly.

Newport is a lovely city, and there is a lot of history to discover, some in the most incongruous looking of buildings, so see what you discover! It was time to leave however, and we pressed on to the final destination in our Welsh road trip, the historic town of Monmouth…


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