Starting mileage: 16895 km
Day started: 09:00/11:00
Day ended: 22:00/21:00
It has now been exactly a month since we’ve left London, and we’re finally in Wales. We’ve actually crossed into Wales at the end of day 30.
The B4228 winds like a dying snake between Wales’ great river valleys – Wye and Severn – but unfortunately, due to trees and hedges you only catch a glimpse of either, a limestone cliff here, a bridge pylon there, before the road emerges from among the woods onto the M4 right before Chepstow’s great castle – the oldest post-Roman stone fortress in Britain.
There are about a hundred still standing castles in Wales, and the only way to stay sane is to ignore them completely, save a few chosen ones. Chepstow was not one of those, and it was getting late anyway, so we moved on towards Caerwent, which we knew would be always open (and free).
It seems a bit unfair towards inhabitants of the sleepy village of Caerwent that out of its nearly 2000-years-long history, all us tourists seem to care about is the few centuries when it was under Roman occupation, but there we were, like so many before us, with our backs to the living, and facing the remains of the long dead. In Roman times, this place was called Venta Silurum, and was a capital of the local district of Silures – so important its memory that it had given its name to the later Briton kingdom of Gwent; it was until the semi-legendary ruler of Gwent moved his capital away from Venta that the town’s reputation and population fell.
There was never enough people to fill out the old Roman walls, which made what is left of the town preserved in great detail; the foundations of a temple, forum, basilica, “high street” filled with shops, and a few rich houses are easily accessible and in plain view, as are the walls and gates themselves, some of the best preserved in Europe.
We continued the Roman theme next morning in Caerleon, or Isca Augusta, as it was once known. There are fewer visible remains here, but they are much better reconstructed and very impressive. Isca Augusta was a garrison fortress rather than a city like Venta, and the buildings here have a more military aspect. On the outskirts of the town you can find Europe’s only excavated Roman barracks, complete with ovens, latrines and centurion’s house. The grand baths of Isca were combined with a gymnasium and had an open swimming pool for soldiers (reconstructed in a very neat light-and-sound fashion in a covered building in the town centre); and just off the walls there was a grand amphitheatre, marvelously excavated.
Caerleon is listed as one of the most probable candidates for Arthur’s Camelot – indeed, in the earliest written versions of the myth Arthur resides in Caerleon rather than the fanciful “Camelot”, so if you ask me, there is no debate; and the ampthitheatre is the supposed location of the Round Table – which, again, makes a lot of sense. If I was a 6th century warlord organizing a meet-up of all my warriors in South Wales, the Caerleon amphitheatre, with its massive perfectly round arena and good acoustics, would be just the place.
There is still something oddly exciting about entering the arena of an amphitheatre, even if all that is left now is a rough outline and a few rocks. In most such places in France or Italy, even if the building itself is well preserved, access to the arena is restricted; here, you can enter freely, and believe me – the moment you step into the centre you feel an overwhelming urge to bow and greet the cheering crowds.
The museum is small, but full of artefacts dug up from the entire region, and has a lovely Roman garden based on the finds from Pompeii. Best of all – it’s completely free, like all the other buildings of the complex (as the owner of the first campsite we stayed at explained to us, ‘everything is free in Wales’; he was almost right – although it did not extend to his hospitality :).
From Caerleon we went towards the Fourteen Locks – a remnant of another era, when a canal connecting Brecon’s iron- and coalworks with Newport’s harbour was brimming with life. Sadly, the locks are out of use, and about half of them is dismantled and dry; but it’s still an impressive feat of engineering to witness, and there is a great hope for survival: the grandly named Monmouthshire, Brecon and Abergavenny Canal Trust is working hard on restoring the canals of South Wales to their former glory, including the locks. What a joy it will be to one day sail up these steps again! Make sure to donate a few coins to their efforts here.
Caerphilly was a brief, obligatory stop – we couldn’t not buy a piece of the famous cheese, even if the local production is not what it once was (a sad, but common enough story – just like there’s almost no Cheddar made in Cheddar, there’s just a little Caerphilly being made in Caerphilly); and of course it’s really hard to be in Caerphilly and not see its great castle, famed for its many concentric moats and a leaning tower, recently supported by a curious sculpture of 4th Marquess of Bute, who put great efforts into restoring the castle.
We crossed Cardiff almost as fast as its overly complicated network of roads allowed; it was past 5pm, and the city seemingly goes to sleep at that hour: we barely managed to get a cup of coffee (for free, how else?) at the Plan, and get a few things sent at the post office. At least Waitrose was open till late.
We’ve been to Cardiff briefly before; apart from the castle, which is rather average for Welsh standards, the city centre’s main unique attraction is its network of arcades, spreading in both direction along the high street. Arcades used to be all the rage in the late 19th century, and I am greatly fond of the idea, but apart from a few major exceptions they seem to have been mostly abandoned everywhere except Japan and Wales, which is a pity. A good old-fashioned arcade is a great place to do shopping, at least when it doesn’t close at 5pm.
The Whitehall Farm in Caerwent is a big piece of field at the top of a hill overlooking the Usk valley. The facilities are in fine shape, and the owner is an old talkative Brit who lived for years in Australia and New Zealand before returning to the old country and buying himself a huge farm. The price may seem steep at £18, but it includes unlimited use of laundry which is a saving of between £3 and £5 compared to other sites.
The next day we stayed at Acorn in Llantwit Major, of which I have very little good or bad to say – again, it cost £18 and was quite large and crowded, but not uncomfortably so. It’s in a great location if you want to do a spot of surfing at any of the nearby bays – if the conditions are good.