The Most Important Portin Wales, Chepstow
23:21 08 February 2010
The Main Attraction
Once the most important port in Wales, Chepstow of 2009 is getting leisure and pleasure from its relationship with the sea, says Chris Poole
"'Bottom', the bowman reported. One ping. Stop engines. 'Slip the tows'. Three pings and we went astern. One cutter was riddled by bullet fire and sank."
With this entry in his log, Midshipman Douglas Dixon described the events of the morning of 25 April 1915 on the
Gallipoli peninsular in the Dardanelles. At about the same time, a few miles to the south, a young sailor from Chepstow struggled heroically to land his comrades from the steamship River Clyde while under heavy enemy fire. Able Seaman William Williams died in his endeavours
that day. His Commanding Officer said of him: "He was the bravest sailor I ever knew."
William Williams was awarded the Victoria Cross for his courage; one of more than 30 given during that illconceived
and ill-fated campaign in far away Turkey. He is remembered with a memorial in the centre of Chepstow.
While its imposing fortress, the elegant arches of its iron bridge over the River Wye or its race course attract the
attention of most who visit Chepstow it takes a little more effort to discover the town's connections with the sea. For this was, and still is, a working port. Whether or not its activities were what drew Able Seaman Williams into the Royal Navy we shall never know. In his day the port
was in decline.
Once the most important in Wales, by the 1880s it no longer had customs facilities and bigger, more modern developments were growing inexorably in Newport, Cardiff and Swansea. Nevertheless, Chepstow had prospered from
trade through the port, from salmon fishing and from shipbuilding. Anne Rainsbury, historian and curator of Chepstow Museum, describes how the town and hinterland owe many of their fine Georgian buildings to merchants and their trading through Chepstow port. "The museum
itself was once a private dwelling, becoming a school for young ladies from 1907 to 1914, a home for wounded soldiers to convalesce during the First World War and, later,
Chepstow District Hospital." There was shipbuilding here, too, which saw a brief revival during that war, and again during the Second World War but then went into decline.
Visitors to the museum will find extensive documentation of the town's seafaring past. Chepstow, however, has not forgotten its maritime traditions and links. The port area
has retained a distinctive and attractive character. This is now a place for leisure and for the enjoyment of the river and its banks. Where once there was a dry dock there is open space. Nearby, wharves and quays have been replaced by green parks complete with a bandstand where, through the summer, there is a rich and varied programme of music for the public to enjoy beside the river. In place of
steam packets arriving from European ports and further afield there is now a thriving boat club with a growing population of private craft. Members have built and maintain pontoon access for the dozens of boats that now use Chepstow. The extreme tidal range of the River Wye means that boating facilities require specially designed pontoons.
The character of the town's relationship with the sea may have changed but it is enjoying a revival. Plans are in place for making more of Chepstow's waterfront opportunities. Town Clerk Sandra Bushell describes the plans for a new facility close to the castle car park and tourist information
office. "It will have a pavilion with a reception area for people boarding river cruises. A specially designed pontoon and gangway will enable safe and easy access to river craft, a real boost to Chepstow's relationship with this famous and beautiful river." There is also a plan to use the space underneath Brunel's railway bridge for outdoor theatre and arts activities. The centrepiece will be another
maritime link - the last Beachley/Aust ferry, "Severn Princess", has been rescued and is beached here to be cosmetically re-fitted and become part of an open-air theatre and arts space.
Those who visit Chepstow, whether by boat or road or rail, will find riverside pubs and restaurants where the story of Chepstow as a port is displayed on wall panels. Standing
outside the Boat Inn for example it is easy to picture the bustling dry dock that once occupied this space. A short walk away there is the town's priory church and, nearby, St
Mary's Street. In this stylish shopping area those searching for something a little different will find St Mary's Collectibles. This unusual cooperative of 22 traders has,
says proprietor Valerie Morgan, "created more of a lifestyle than a shop, where you can find anything from a 20 pence teaspoon to a 300 diamond ring".
Chepstow boasts one of very few remaining family-run department stores, Herbert Lewis. The Griffith family, who have run the store for four generations, took over from Herbert Lewis who founded the store 131 years ago. While they are proud of its longevity and traditions there is no doubt that Herbert Lewis today is a modern store offering a huge range of goods from fashions to furnishings. Andrew Griffith handed over the store to his daughter, Dee, in 2004. He says: "We've always striven to move with the times and give the people of Chepstow everything they wanted from a true department store."
William Williams would have known the Herbert Lewis store. The memorial to him is now only a few yards away from the store's main entrance. The Turkish commander during the Gallipoli campaign was later to become the country's President. Kemal Atatrk, as President, paid homage to the heroes of all nations with the words: "You, the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries wipe your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosoms and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well." Each year, on the 25th April, there is a short, moving ceremony in the centre of
Chepstow. The relatives of Able Seaman Williams and the
people of Chepstow come to mark the valour and sacrifice of one of their own.