Usk – a place to take pride in

PUBLISHED: 14:30 26 November 2010 | UPDATED: 17:58 20 February 2013

Usk – a place to take pride in

Usk – a place to take pride in

From fascinating architecture to a castle and a superb trout-fishing river, there's plenty to be proud of in Usk

The town with character

From fascinating architecture to a castle and a superb trout-fishing river, theres plenty to be proud of in Usk

As we sat, with the room laid out for a charity event, that door just behind the magistrates chair quietly swung open, then closed with its distinctive click. Nobody had come through and there was no one behind it.

If you meet Mayor Alec Leathwood of Usk you will readily agree that there is nothing about him to suggest a man given to flights of fancy. As he describes this, evidently supernatural, experience it is all the more significant because he is the very epitome of a solid citizen three times mayor, an impeccable background in the Prison Service and the Trade Union movement. We met in the Sessions House in this picturesque Monmouthshire town and, in particular, in its immaculately preserved Victorian courtroom.

There can be few town councils fortunate enough to have offices of such character. Not only is the courtroom itself preserved but so is a library (the Mather Jackson Library) containing hundreds of leather-bound legal volumes some dating back to the 17th century. Were very happy to show all this to visitors, says Jenny Mee, town clerk and the mayors consort. Weve worked hard to preserve its unique features and were able to let some of the building as office space which helps to offset the running costs. Among the many treasures in the building are the ships bell from HMS Usk (a frigate, sunk in the Suez Canal in 1956) and the regalia of the two Town Constables who are appointed to attend ceremonial occasions.

The Sessions House sits, appropriately enough, alongside the prison. Indeed, from the dock in the courtroom there are steps down to an underground passage linking the court to the gaol. The Prison Service brought Alec Leathwood here from Yorkshire. I came in 1966, he says and fell in love with it. Theres such a strong community spirit and its well known as one of the prettiest towns in Wales.

And it looks at its prettiest, perhaps, when competing in the annual Wales in Bloom competition in the summer. Usk has won the best in its class award a staggering 29 times. Not content with this, for the past 16 years Usk has had an Open Gardens event this year raising 10,500 for charities and good causes which makes around 145,000 raised over the 16 years. All this from a population of a little over 2,000 and its visitors.
Some of those visitors come to see the towns museum the Museum of Rural Life. John Evans, its secretary, describes it as an eccentric collection with artefacts dating from about 1850 to 1950. Of its origins he says: Some years ago local farmers started to collect things they no longer used and eventually it all came together here in an old malt barn.

But this is not a static museum. John explains: We do a lot of work with children and go out to schools showing them something of rural life in the past and helping them to understand their own heritage. Sometimes weve arranged for our more senior residents to talk to children using our agricultural exhibits to describe life here as it once was. The Museum is open from April to October details at www.uskmuseum.org.uk.

The history of the town and the region has another important representative in Usk. There is a castle. Nothing like as grandiose or imposing as nearby Raglan or Goodrich, it is, nonetheless, rather special. Usk Castle is privately owned. Rosie Humphreys, whose family owns it, explains: We believe that heritage can be overdone almost airbrushed. What we try to do here is keep the castle looking as though it hadnt been touched. So we have sheep that graze the grass rather than having it mowed for example.

Conservation work at the castle is going ahead but at a slow pace. The scaffolding, explains Rosie is the start of ensuring that the banqueting hall is safe and sound for visitors. Then we can have events in it rather than in marquees.

Usk Castle certainly has a charm and a natural feel. Various farmyard animals roam about, including a spectacular and very grand cockerel I thought about calling him Chanticleer, says Rosie. The castle is open to the public during reasonable daylight hours and is free to visit although visitors are encouraged to leave a donation towards its upkeep. Website: www.uskcastle.com.

Of all of the areas physical features, though, it is the river that dominates the town, influencing its past and dictating its future. Some have described the Usk as the equal of its better-known sister, the Wye.
Rising in the Brecon Beacons, by the time the river reaches the town it is a genteel affair though not without a temper as serious flooding in 1960 and 1979 showed. Flood defences now protect the town from intemperate outbursts. According to local estate agent and passionate angler Chris Brain the Usk is a superb trout-fishing river and a dependable river for salmon. Its a spate river, relying on rainfall which affects fishing conditions.

The town has had its fishing legends. Lionel Sweet became European casting champion in the 1930s and a fishing tackle shop, near the Three Salmons Hotel, still bears his family name. Its sign carries a logo depicting a famous salmon fly pattern known as an Usk Grub.

Usk is a charming town, full of character and with a very real sense of civic pride. You can see this reflected in the detail and care that is going into creating an Usk tapestry in one of the rooms at the Sessions House. Visitors are assured of a warm welcome here. From its human occupants that is.

But do stay alert for doors that swing open unexpectedly and footsteps that ring out along deserted corridors.

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