Herefordshire Borders castles and abbeys

PUBLISHED: 16:48 18 May 2010 | UPDATED: 17:12 20 February 2013

Herefordshire Borders castles and abbeys

Herefordshire Borders castles and abbeys

Chris Poole visits the fortifications which define the region's landscape and remind us of its turbulent history

Castles in our air

Chris Poole visits the fortifications which define the regions landscape and remind us of its turbulent history

Think of one singular feature of our region. Something that marks the area out and defines its history. It would have to be the array of fortifications and fortresses that litter our landscape.

From Newport in the far south of the region to Hay and Hereford further north and all along the border lands between England and Wales the evidence of violence and conflict remains. Indeed, the expression marches, often used to describe some of this region, means a disputed area, somewhere over which people are fighting.

There was conflict between tribes in our area well back into pre-historic times. Much later, the Romans also encountered problems. Their response was to build roads, some of which we still follow today, that eased the rapid deployment of troops to trouble spots. At Caerleon, a little outside Newport, the Roman camp with its amphitheatre has been excavated and put on show to the public. Excavated Roman sites, such as this, are rare in Britain and, indeed, in Europe. Caerleon and Wales marked the western-most point of Roman Europe and the fortress here had everything the centurion and his legions might want for their training, rest and recreation. For sporting events in the amphitheatre, though, they might have chosen not to sit in the front row there were no inhibitions about spilling the blood of opponents in those days.

Newport itself has an imposing castle, sitting on the banks of the River Usk. This was one of several sites in our region that J M W Turner painted. His watercolour of Newport Castle painted in about 1796 (now in the British Museum) shows the castle as partially derelict but with boats and boatmen using it. It was not the only place that caught Turners fancy in the area. His paintings of Tintern Abbey, Chepstow Castle and Llanthony Priory are among the many works that emerged from his travels in the region.

Mighty Norman castles are testimony to the border turmoil that existed in their day too. They might well have been wary of the lessons learned in Hereford as it tried to cope with the fighting men from the mountains to the west. In 1053 the garrison here was unable to defend the city against hostile tribes. The city, castle and cathedral were taken and burned.
Some historians say that this stimulated the Normans to build much stronger castles. Finding their early wooden forts no match for the fiery Welsh they set about building bigger structures out of more substantial materials. Chepstow Castle is the greatest of them all. Probably the first castle to be built of stone in an attempt to keep the marauders at bay its massive walls imposed the Norman presence authoritatively on the Welsh/English boundary as the River Wye meets the Severn.

With violence and bloodshed the norm in this region, the Black Mountains were ringed with defences. Some, tactically, were located not so much in an attempt to keep bandits out but rather to catch them as they made their way back with the spoils of their raids mainly livestock, but sometimes human. The front-line defences were at Brecon, Longtown, Hay and Abergavenny with second-line defences at Usk, Grosmont, Skenfrith, White Castle, and Monmouth.

Of these, Abergavenny has a particularly brutal past. Built towards the end of the 12th century it was captured by a Welsh tribal leader who promptly put all within it to the sword. It was eventually handed back to William de Braose, Lord of Brecon. In what appeared to be a gesture of reconciliation His Lordship invited the tribal leaders to a banquet in the castle and then set about his unarmed guests, slaughtering all. Hardly surprising, then, that a degree of distrust between the Welsh and the English existed in those times.

Skenfrith, among the triangle of smaller castles that includes Grosmont and White Castle, has, just outside its walls, the superb small hotel and restaurant The Bell. Travellers and visitors will find a warm welcome here and a range of walking routes set out by Harry and Eira Steggles. A fine way to discover some of the mysteries of our border region.

The Bell at Skenfrith has also published the work of local post woman and poet Ada Pratlett, who wrote, of Grosmont Castle in 1918:

Grey stones and dark green ivy,
A solemn hush oer all.
Faint rustlings, soft breezes stirring
The tall grass by the wall.
The clang of the village anvil
Makes homely music meet
For this ancient stately grandeur,
Where the ghosts of the past retreat

The village anvil may sound no more at Grosmont but everything else in Adas poem will be instantly recognisable to visitors to the castle today.

Historic sites in the area are not confined to defensive needs. Raglan Castle was built primarily as a home. When security permitted, clerics established themselves and their communities along the border. Tintern, in the Wye Valley, remains one of the most spectacular of abbeys. So too is Llanthony Priory set in the stunning scenery of the Black Mountains. Eventually the priests and clerics here had to withdraw to the comparative safety of Gloucester where Llanthony Segunda was developed. In more peaceful times today, Llanthony Priory is an important base for pony-trekking and walking. Further north in Golden Valley, Dore Abbey is another reminder of our heritage and is still in use as a place of worship.

Whichever way you look at it, blood has been spilled in anger and in profusion here since prehistoric times. Today, and into the future, the evidence that is with us in the ruins of castles, abbeys, priories and the like are protected and preserved to draw and attract visitors. But they should remind us too that this was not always the peaceful land that we enjoy today.

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