Day 17, December 26, 2019. Boxing Day
Croeso Cymru… That’s welcome to Wales.
The first time we came to this part of the country was on our first trip here – back in September 1995. We were staying for a few days in Gloucester with Grant’s aunt and uncle. I couldn’t fathom that in less than an hour we could be in a different country. (It’s just 36 miles from Gloucester to Chepstow.)
We drove through the Forest of Dean (Grant lived in a couple of these villages before they moved out to Australia), crossed the River Severn, and we went to the markets at Chepstow Racecourse. Grant bought some cockles – served in a plastic bag with vinegar and pepper – which we ate as we walked around in the rain.
I remember that the rain eased to a steady drizzle when we got to Tintern and we had Sunday roast at a hotel across the road. The pork tasted so much porkier than any pork we had at home and where we sat we could see the abbey clearly across the road. For years after I had a photo of the abbey that I’d taken through the window of that hotel on our wall at home.
(As an aside I also have a vintage china dinner set in the Tintern pattern by Alfred Meakin (C1930s) at home. I collected it piece by piece after that trip.)
We revisited both Chepstow and Tintern on our last trip in 2015 (the post is here) and it was drizzling then too so when we woke this morning to a cold and drizzly Boxing Day it felt like the perfect weather to be heading off to Wales.
Oh, a note on the photos – the weather was gloomy, so they’re not great.
At first glance Chepstow is a town on the river with a castle, a town gate, and some pretty streets.
There’s actually more to it than that. The castle, dating back to about 1067, is said to be the oldest surviving stone castle in Britain.
Then there’s the town itself which was, from medieval times, due to favourable tax arrangements, the largest port in Wales. Ships sailed as far as Iceland and Turkey, and across to France and Portugal. Chief exports were timber for ships, bark for leather tanning, and wire and paper manufactured in the mills along the Wye Valley; imports were chiefly wine.
At its peak, during the Napoleonic Wars, the port at Chepstow handled more goods than Newport, Cardiff and Swansea combined.
With the River Wye forming the border between England and Wales, Chepstow is a lovely border town – it would, however, be nice to see it in the sunshine sometime!
A final note on the river – it happens to have one of the largest tidal ranges in the world. The third highest tide, if we want to be detailed about these things – and can rise over 13 m (or 44ft) in 4 hours.
And see that muddy bank in the pic below? One night, a few weeks after our very first visit to Chepstow, Grant and I stayed here overnight on our way to Tenby in Pembrokeshire. We paid a premium at a riverside pub for a view of the river and woke the next morning to see…nothing but muddy banks. The tide was out.
Okay, so this one dates back to 1100ish. I remember, upon seeing it that first time, feeling completely incredulous that anything could be that old. I guess that’s a ruction of having grown up in Australia.
Anyways, this has the usual story ie fell into ruin after the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century.
Since the 18th century, the abbey in all it’s ruined splendour has been celebrated in art and poetry. William Wordsworth wrote one rather catchily titled: “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey.” Then there was another by a poet I’ve never heard of (and won’t bore you with) that was even more catchily titled (wait for it): “Original sonnet composed on leaving Tintern Abbey and proceeding with a party of friends down the River Wye to Chepstow.” These guys sure had a way with words.
Aside from romantic poets, the abbey was also a favourite with artists – although back in those days it wasn’t fenced off and you weren’t charged to enter – and has also appeared in a number of gothic novels.
Because it was Boxing Day there was very little else open. The mill that I recall visiting in the past was definitely closed.
Lunch was at The Anchor Inn. This place dates back to the 12th century – which makes sense given that’s how long the abbey’s been around for. It was originally a grain store and cider mill for the abbey and the restaurant itself used to be connected to the abbey’s water gate and was the Ferryman’s cottage.
Anyways, Grant and I shared a very good but massive Welsh Rarebit (£10.95) while Sarah had a disappointing arancini.
From the little gift shop next door, we bought some Welsh cakes to take back to Tetbury with us. With butter and jam, these could possibly be my new favourite scone-like snack. Big call. Apparently, they’re a traditional treat for St David’s Day (which falls on March 1) so I’m going to have to try making them at home.
After lunch it was back over the border to Gloucester and a family Boxing Day gathering for us. Tomorrow we’re off to our next accommodation in Wyck Rissington.
This was an excerpt from my travel diary. You can access other posts in this series here.
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