Monmouth: The Gateway Between England and Wales

PUBLISHED: 23:24 08 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:59 20 February 2013

The Roundhouse at The Kymin - a 'Temple' to the Royal Navy.

The Roundhouse at The Kymin - a 'Temple' to the Royal Navy.

Once a place of conflict Monmouth is now a gateway between England and Wales. Chris Poole looks at its past and present and meets the people who put out the welcome signs.

Once a place of conflict Monmouth is now a gateway between England and Wales. Chris Poole looks at its past and present and meets the people who put out the welcome signs.

Driving out of Herefordshire towards Monmouth it's easy to see why this county town is sometimes called the gateway to Wales. As the road from Ross-on-Wye sweeps through the majestic scenery of the Wye Valley suddenly there is a gap through the hills and the sign "Welcome to Wales" heralds views of the rooftops of Monmouth.

Roman soldiers camped here to maintain control of their conquests in the area. Later, Normans recognised onmouth as a strategic point for expanding trading links. A castle in the town came and went and came again in time to accommodate the birth of Henry V within its walls. A fortified bridge across the river Monnow sought to protect the town.

It was Monmouth's strategic location as a border town that more or less guaranteed a history of skirmishes and conflict. And so it was until the relative calm of the 19th century. The town's military connections continued, and do so today. There is a regimental museum near the remains of the castle where the senior reserve regiment of the British Army is headquartered in the imposing Great Castle House.

The Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers can trace their origins back to Tudor times when the country relied upon the militia system for its defence.

Monmouth also has a connection with Nelson who came to the area in search of timber for his fleet and was, evidently, rather taken with the town. There is a monument on the hilltop to the east of the town known as The Kymin which is described as a 'Temple' to the Royal Navy and which commemorates Nelson's time here as well as the exploits of 15 other admirals. Naval links go even deeper with a long and distinguished line of warships bearing the name HMS Monmouth.

Happily, Monmouth today enjoys a more peaceful existence. Recent surveys show that most here are proud to be Welsh even though the town and the county have suffered some administrative confusion in the past.

The Welsh language is taught in schools although is not widely spoken in this part of Wales. No longer the traditional market town that it once was, nowadays it draws visitors and shoppers from Hereford, the Forest of Dean, South Wales and further afield. Its comfortable blend of independent traders and familiar names such as Waitrose and Marks & Spencer Simply Food make for an attractive mix of retail outlets so it is easy to see the appeal for residents and visitors alike.

Roger and Nicki Bateson who own The Rowan Tree, a gift shop in what was once the Home and Colonial Stores, are confident that Monmouth has retained its attraction.

"We've been here for about six years" says Roger "and in that time, including last year and at the start of 2009, our turnover has consistently grown". As a measure of the business confidence in the town Roger adds: "We regularly receive enquiries from other retailers or agents asking if we would be interested in selling the freehold of this listed building".

Nicki enthuses about their regular customers: "We've always had huge support from the people of Monmouth. I can't say warmly enough how much we appreciate our regulars not just for their custom but for their feedback on our displays and products".
But it isn't just shoppers and townspeople that bring Monmouth alive. "We rely heavily on tourism" says Town Clerk Sarah Robson. "The Council is working to promote it with, for example, a blue plaque scheme introduced two years ago and plans to overcome the perennial problem of coach parking".

The latter will be especially welcome with parking for everyone reduced while major works at the town's historic Shire Hall progress. Moving the market from here to the site near Monnow Bridge has taken up many of the parking spaces normally available. The famous, and unique, bridge is itself put to good use becoming a lively farmers' market on the last Saturday of each month.
An example of the blue plaque scheme is mounted at the nostalgic Savoy Theatre in Church Street. This magnificent cinema is of a style now long gone but is quietly enjoying a revival. Vic Bignell, Director of the Trust that manages the theatre (or theatr to give it its Welsh spelling), says: "We are pursuing an active programme for sponsorship and support" (see the trust's website at www.savoytrust.org.uk).

The town has many other amenities and attractions - the Nelson Museum, Monmouth Priory and Swan Craft Studio to name a few that give a flavour of the rich variety that Monmouth has to offer.

You can't escape the history in which Monmouth is steeped. Archaeologist Nobby Clarke has been digging here for years and talks with pride of the town's record of preventing inappropriate development from engulfing historical treasures. "Our archaeology society has won coveted awards for its work in Monmouth including the Silver Trowel of the British Archaeology Awards" - a distinction shared with, for example, the Mary Rose Trust. Monmouth has an enviable record of consulting and acting on archaeological advice to preserve its heritage.

Local historian David Harrison echoes these sentiments describing Monmouth, historically, as a "bastion against the Welsh", a reflection of the town's fortified bridge and the mixed fortunes of Monmouth Castle. He explains that much of the town's earlier wealth and development came from the professionals who were associated with the Assize Court and gaol of this important county town.

Today, it is probably the education sector that is one of Monmouth's leading employers and, indeed, it is hard to avoid the formidable presence of Monmouth School, one of many in or near the town, as you approach from the east.
Throughout recorded history Monmouth has been seen by some as a gateway, by others as a daunting fortress and barrier to their ambitions, whether these were political or commercial. Its population of 10,000 or so souls today can be rightly pleased that they have a town brimming with character that has moved with the times but retained its links with the past.

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