Places To Explore In Newport, Wales

PUBLISHED: 10:48 09 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:55 20 February 2013

Newport City Centre

Newport City Centre

Many of us only glimpse Newport as we hurry through on trains or motorways; but Annabel Hughes points out that it holds unexpected delights worth exploring. Photographs by Jeff Morgan.

Many of us only glimpse Newport as we hurry through on trains or motorways; but Annabel Hughes points out that it holds unexpected delights worth exploring. Photographs by Jeff Morgan.

When the Ryder Cup is staged for the first time in Wales next summer the focus of millions will turn to a city which most only recognise as the name on a motorway sign or railway timetable. Yet Newport has many unexpected treasures to offer - prehistoric, Roman, medieval, Victorian and modern-day.

The city has more bridges than any UK city except London, the only castle other than the Tower of London with a watergate, Europe's largest transporter bridge.... It also boasts remarkable examples of public art and a legendary nightspot - TJ's Disco - once featured in FHM as one of the top '50 Big Nights Out' in the world (where performing bands have ranged from Catatonia and the Manic Street Preachers to Oasis and Primal Scream).

In the early 1970s I remember splashing out a few pence to take my Mini across the River Usk on the Transporter Bridge - still Newport's most recognisable symbol. This Grade II listed structure, opened in 1906, is one of only eight transporter bridges remaining worldwide, and the oldest of its type in Britain. Among many claims to fame it featured prominently in the 1959 film 'Tiger Bay' starring Hayley Mills.

At the time when I joined the local paper, the South Wales Argus, the venue for the Ryder Cup - now The Celtic Manor Resort - was a maternity hospital. The manor house had been built in 1860 by the world's first coal millionaire, Thomas Powell, and given to his son Thomas Junior and his wife as a wedding present. After the couple died on safari in mysterious circumstances it was leased to various tenants before being purchased in 1915 by Sir John Beynon, who improved the manor and added a new wing.

The property was donated to the local health authority in 1930 and later became the Lydia Beynon Maternity Hospital. From 1940 to 1974 60,000 babies were born there, including the present owner, Welsh billionaire businessman Sir Terry Matthews (and several of my friends).

Not far away is the Roman fortress at Caerleon. Built in 75AD, it was one of only three permanent legionary fortresses in Roman Britain. The museum contains hundreds of artefacts, the most complete Roman amphitheatre in Britain and the only remains of a Roman legionary barracks on view in Europe.

On the western outskirts of Newport Tredegar House, set in a beautiful 90-acre park,

is a fine example of a 17th century Charles II country mansion. For centuries it was the home of the Morgan family, later the Lords Tredegar, whose lives impacted on the population of southeast Wales socially, economically and politically.

Their influence peaked in the 19th century as they developed the industrial and commercial potential of their enormous land holdings. Sir Charles Morgan set up the Tredegar Wharf Company, which encouraged the construction of the docks and development of the neighbouring Pillgwenlly area.

Godfrey Morgan, who took over the estate in 1875, survived the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava. He attributed his survival to his horse Sir Briggs, who was brought back to Tredegar House and is buried in the Cedar Garden. Godfrey, who became 1st Viscount Tredegar in 1891, was a public benefactor and philanthropist, donating land for many local landmarks including the Royal Gwent Hospital and Belle Vue Park.

Perhaps the most intriguing of the Morgans was Evan. who took over the estate in 1934. Guests at his legendary house parties included HG Wells, Nancy Cunard, Prince Paul of Greece and Aleister Crowley, dubbed the 'most evil man in Europe'. He had a menagerie which included Blue Boy the parrot, Alice the bear and Somerset the boxing kangaroo.

The Morgans' links with the estate ended in 1951. Tredegar House was bought by the Newport Corporation in 1974, giving rise to its tag 'the grandest council house in Britain'.

At the beginning of the 19th century Newport was a small fishing port and market town. But, with the development of the canal system to bring coal and iron from the valleys for shipment abroad and around the UK, it became one of the busiest ports in Britain. The neighbourhood that grew up around the docks still retains many historic features. At The Waterloo restaurant, for example, the original clock tower and clock have been painstakingly restored and the colourful, enamel-tiled Victorian bar takes pride of place.

Local journalist and author Mike Buckingham says that, in the early 20th century, The Waterloo's position at the dock gates made it 'the second busiest pub in Britain'.

"Newport hides its light under a bushel but to me it has an undeniable charm - albeit a bit more 'robust' than that of Cardiff or Bristol. There's a certain vibrancy and the people have a sort of 'gallows' humour that you don't find elsewhere. In many respects it reminds me of a self-conscious mid-West town in the US - anxious to find its roots. But you don't have to dig too deeply to engage your attention. Within two miles of my office you have an almost intact 19th/20th century shipping community, a Neolithic burial site and a rapidly developing modern city centre.

"Because Newport was built on many different levels it has some very interesting rooflines. And, if you look above the chain stores, you'll see wonderful examples of copper-sheathed turrets and barley twist, cast-iron drain piping which conjure up images of Victorian and Edwardian street scenes."

Newport's Victorian indoor market is an early example of a large, opencast iron-frame building featuring a glass-filled barrel roof. It has more than 100 stalls spread over two floors.

"Some redevelopment might be vulgar but in a sense that is Newport - constantly reinventing itself," says Mike. The riverside development isn't exactly gorgeous but it's opening up vistas that haven't been seen for centuries."

The ruins of Newport Castle, built in the 14th century, dominate that 'new' city centre riverscape. Its main use was as an administrative base for the Lordship of Wentloog. In the early 15th century it was occupied by Humphrey Stafford, 1st Duke of Buckingham, but then abandoned. It is the only castle in Britain, apart from the Tower of London, with a watergate.

Nearby, in 2002, the remains of a large medieval ship were discovered on the banks of the river during construction of the Riverfront Theatre - a find equated to that of the Mary Rose. Supported by a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, an international team of specialists is cleaning and recording timbers from the 15th century vessel to determine its size and shape, where it was built, the ports it sailed to and the cargoes it carried. Several hundred objects have been found, including a stone cannon ball, grape seeds, a damaged hourglass, an expensive shoe, pieces of cork and some Portuguese coins. It is thought the ship may have belonged to, and was being repaired for, the Earl of Warwick.

Along the riverside and throughout the shopping centre are fascinating examples of public art. Peter Fink's Steel Wave sculpture reflects Newport's history of steel manufacturing and the foundation of the town on the banks of the Usk. Erected in 1990, the 14-metre sculpture contains 50 tons of sheet steel.

Sebastien Boyeson (whose father worked for Picasso) created The Pig (behind Newport Market), The Ox (at the side of Littlewoods) and The Ancient Mariner (at Gilligan's Island).

In Commercial Street a controversial statue of 'The People's Poet' W.H. Davies (1871-1940) by Paul Bothwell-Kincaid was unveiled in 1990 on the 50th anniversary of his death. Another, by Epstein, is in Newport Museum and Art Gallery. Born in Newport, Davies spent a significant part of his life as a tramp in the US and UK but became one of the most popular poets of his time. Related to the actor Henry Irving and a friend of Belloc, Shaw and de la Mare, Davies is best known for the lines:

What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

John Frost, prominent leader of the mid-19th century Chartist Movement for electoral and social reform, was also born in Newport. In 1839 he led protesters from the mining valleys to storm the Westgate Hotel. Twenty-two people died and fifty were injured in The Newport Rising. John Frost was tried for high treason and was the last person in Britain sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered although, following a public outcry, the sentence was commuted to transportation for life. After serving his time in Tasmania Frost lived in the US before receiving an unconditional pardon.

The site of the Westgate is now a shopping mall and entertainment complex but bullet holes are still visible in the entrance and a statue of Frost dominates the city's main square bearing his name.

Local historian Richard Frame urged me to mention that some of Newport's most accessible - and interesting - history lies in the rural areas, which extend as far east as Penhow. "All around the outskirts of Newport there are fantastic prehistoric features."

Within Wentwood Forest are the remains of an Iron Age hillfort, Roman camps and Norman mottes and baileys.


There have also been remarkable archaeological finds in the Caldicot and Wentloog Levels (collectively known as the Gwent Levels), including late Mesolithic human footprints and a third-century Romano-British boat. At different times parts of the Levels have been reclaimed from the sea, preserving evidence of distinctive patterns of settlement, enclosure and drainage systems. Newport Wetlands Reserve, covering more than 1,000 acres of the Caldicot Level, is an important RSPB attraction.

Perhaps some of the above will tempt you to give Newport a second, or maybe first, look.

As a teenager I visited Newport on a school trip to the Welsh tennis championships, played the week after Wimbledon and attracting legends like Rod Laver, Margaret Court and Billie Jean King. I have since discovered that, in 1906, Newport hosted the World Group ties of what is now the Davis Cup. Britain won the championship - for the fourth time. Maybe, a century on, Newport will prove a lucky venue for our golfers?

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