Jamie's Blog: Chepstow to Sudbrook
Jamie Owen walks the length of the Wales coastal path in his new series on Radio Wales (Saturdays at 1 PM, repeated Sundays 5 PM). In his blogs he shares his experiences along the way, and tells us what we can expect to hear in the programme.
There is a certain thrill about standing in Chepstow at the side of the river at the meeting point of two of the country’s great walks. One direction begins a journey along Offa’s Dyke walking the length of Wales meandering along the border with England and the other is the start - or is the end - of the Wales Coast Path - which is my destination.
I’m walking the Wales Coast Path making eight documentaries for BBC Radio Wales. I’ve clocked up most of Pembrokeshire, Criccieth to Portmeirion, the Menai Strait and Gower. This week my walk takes me from Chepstow to Sudbrook some seven or eight miles with the odd detour and distraction. This is new territory to me, I’ve never spent much time in this neck of the woods. I’ve driven past countless time travelling in or out of Wales belting over the bridges, but I’ve never stopped and dawdled and enjoyed. This time, I’m going to put that right.
My passing acquaintance with Chepstow and district is perhaps a generational failing. My grandparents from Pembrokeshire were very fond of the area and donkeys’ years ago when we were little, they would tell their small grandchildren tall tales of the epic journeys undertaken travelling to and from Wales before the bridges were built. Their adventures of waiting for ferry boats to cross the Severn in a line of overheating black Hillmans and Austins seemed from another slower, more romantic world.
The Wales Coast Path is a relatively new addition to guide books. We are now officially the first country in the world that you can walk around – if you include Offa’s Dyke. Aside from encouraging our population to enjoy fresh air and the health benefits of walking – the route its hoped will become a huge attraction to tourists, who, will book into B&Bs, spend a while in pubs and then tell their friends what a wonderful new destination awaits them in Wales.
Like every other town centre in Wales, Chepstow is struggling to beat the competition from Internet shopping and out of town retail malls. It has its fair share of charity shops and vacant premises. But you can still buy a brilliant freshly made sandwich and the contents for a picnic lunch at the crack of dawn.
They are early starters in the boating community in Chepstow, used to making the most of the tides. But at this time of year it’s hauling boats out of the river for winter jobs that preoccupies fishermen and pleasure craft owners. It’s not a good start to any walk to stop so soon after setting off, but there is something endlessly mesmeric about watching boats being pulled out of the tide. It’s a vote of optimism that next year will be better, the sun will shine on more days and more fish will be caught.
Whilst I don’t need any encouragement to loiter and look at boats, I’ve never understood the thrill of bird watching. Why anyone would cross continents in pursuit of the lesser spotted whatsitsname has always been a mystery to me. Until now. Outside the pub in front of the beached boats is a man with a huge telescope deep in concentration watching something on the other side of the river. He is a duffel-coated birdwatcher common to these parts apparently except in the harshest of weather. He offers me a look through the viewfinder. Without wanting to sound like a recent convert of one of those television evangelists, I am utterly hooked. In my sights, two Peregrine Falcons sitting on a nest built into the crevice in the cliff. They are looking back at me like neighbours who’ve caught a peeping Tom. This is endlessly fascinating and I now understand the thrill. The peregrines favourite snack is available just over the river where as the world’s fastest creature they feast on Chepstow’s pigeon population. The proximity to the pub behind us takes the edge off the discomfort of this particular outdoor pursuit.
The Wales Coast Path is something of a misnomer and not least here in Chepstow. The gargantuan task of driving a public right of way through over eight hundred miles of property has not been without its challenges. Military ranges, railways and private landowners have here and there provided obstacles to the constant cuddling of footpath to coast. In Chepstow, this means a pleasant diversion away from the water’s edge and into the town.
I lack the discipline to be a proper Wales Coast Path walker. If you love your history then Chepstow Castle and the Chartist story is enough to swallow up your whole morning, but the coast path calls and the local history lesson will have to wait for another day.
For the best part, the path is well marked - you won’t need to be a brilliant map-reader – just follow the Coast path signs. Whilst you’re beside the water its easy – though not so clear when you’re diverted into surburbia. Bonny Tyler sang ‘Lost in France,’ but I have to admit to getting lost - albeit briefly - in the backstreets of Chepstow, but not for long.
Like Milford Haven and Swansea, the walk from Chepstow to Sudbrook isn’t the prettiest in Wales - its busy, its heavily industrialised and this corner of South east Wales is home to a large population, but what it lacks in unspoilt peacefulness, it more than makes up for in its epic scale. When the Coast Path rejoins the River Severn through achingly pretty woodland on the far side of Chepstow, the majestic sight of the mighty river hoves into view, framed on either side by the first Severn Bridge and the Second Severn Crossing. There is a third engineering marvel here too - but I won’t see that until my destination at Sudbrook. But it is the river that is the star of the show. Even in the few minutes of standing still and taking pictures it seems to have risen a little and changed course, its currents frothing as if alive.
You meet an eclectic bunch of fellow travellers on the coast path. I’ve brushed shoulders with bird watchers, seal spotters, rock climbers and ramblers, but this is the only part of Wales where I’ve bumped into a professional forager. The banks of the River Severn don’t look promising to the untutored eye, but for Henry Ashby who collects wild food from the hedgerows and seashore - this is the country’s best food shop. To a generation more used to paying an increasing fortune for food flown half way across the world in a supermarket, I admit this will seem a little whacky. But Henry is simply revisiting how we used to gather ingredients before we all forgot that nature provides food for free - so long as you know where to look. Tonight his basket of wild leaves will grace the plates of one of the country’s top restaurants and all picked beside the River Severn.
For those who perhaps yearn for something a little more substantial than a plate of salad, Sudbrook is also home to some doubty fishermen. These are not rod and tackle merchants but part of an historic line of traditional salmon fishermen. Just off the coast path at Black Rock near Portskewett you’ll find a man-shed that most of us can only dream of. Here you’ll find the Lave Net Heritage Fishery, where despite some of the most dangerous waters in the world, generation after generation of men has pitted their wits against tide and fish and walked into the water to wait for a splash in the net. You could have walked here a century ago and seen much the same ritual. These are the last Lave net fishermen in Wales standing in the giant shadow of the Second Severn Crossing. Ancient and Modern, cheek by jowel.
When you spend so much of the day walking between the two Bridges it’s easy to forget the triumph of the Victorian engineers who were the first to tame the challenges of the River. Not for them a crossing built over the water but instead a tunnel beneath the waves. These days its almost forgotten, unless you travel by train, hidden under the water beneath the waves. In the village of Sudbrook, in a brick built cathedral-like temple to Victorian determination, I’m going somewhere I’ve never been before. This is the pumping station that three hundred and sixty five days a year, twenty-four hours a day, spews out millions of gallons of water from the spring that would otherwise flood the Severn Tunnel.
This isn’t on the tourist trail, and if you didn’t know what was here, you’d walk past and admire the architecture of some past industry, not knowing that a small army of staff are inside, sitting in a tardis-like control room, watching banks of turbines doing battle with the Severn. I’m taken down in a small lift just large enough for two and drop a hundred feet into the earth. In the din of heavy machinery, hard hats on, we crouch through a small tunnel too low to stand in. My guide pulls back the floor board beneath our feet, and there, silenced by the roar of turbines all around us, the sight of rushing water, the Severn spring floods into view, a torrent rushing beneath our feet, powerful and unnerving this far beneath the ground.
Back on the surface, the dingy darkness of the bowels of the pumping station are exchanged for fading evening light. Some distance from the shore in Sudbrook a fishing boat is making tortured progress up the English side of the Severn. The current allows the vessel a little forward progress before throwing it backwards. A hard day’s fishing on a bitter winter’s day.
Jamie Owen's Wales - Saturdays at 1 PM - and for seven days afterwards on BBC iPlayer