Friday, 2 March 2012

A Welsh Tour

Aust Ferry pier
One of the tremendous benefits of travelling by bicycle is the 'Ooh what's that?' factor - the ability to easily stop and look at things of interest en route. We had parked the car in Aust village, just off the M48 (ex M4), intending to head over the Severn Bridge. However I had spotted a small road heading down towards the river bank and guessed that this was the site of the old ferry. 'Ooh what's that?' I said, pointing down the road. We cycled down for a closer look. It was indeed the derelict building that used to house the Aust Ferry, the means of crossing the Severn before the Severn Bridges were built. We picked our way down the derelict pier where Bob Dylan had posed for 'No Direction Home' and countless holiday makers had
queued to cross the Severn. All was quiet now, the only visitors a couple of anglers on the end of the pier and spent an enjoyable half hour examining the remains before returning back the way we had come.

Aust Ferry 1964 with part constructed bridge in background
I think this was the turnstile to the gents toilet

We crossed the old Severn Bridge. Both sides of the bridge have cycle paths and it's nice to stop halfway and watch the water swirling below before coasting down the other side. I was, however, slightly panicky as I did not have a map. Mick was laughing at me.
'Ah, no comfort blanket today? he mocked.
'You won't be laughing when we get hopelessly lost,' I told him.
'But we get lost when you do have a map! Maybe we'll get on better without one.'

So, in the absence of a map we decided to follow a Sustrans Route and see what happened. We decided on Route 4 which after a brief ride up the side of the very busy Wye Valley Link Road turned onto lovely country lanes. The peace was slightly marred by the proximity of the M48 for a short period but then redeemed itself by turning onto a track at Crick which turned out to be the route of the Via Julia or Julia Strata- the Roman road from Bath (Aquae Sulis) to Caerwent (Venta Silurum) and Caerleon (Isca). Caerwent is only a small place now, but as Venta Silurum it was a major Roman settlement. The remains, including long lengths of Roman wall, give some idea of the size of the place. This seemed like an excellent place to have a snack stop so we perched on the end of the wall and tucked into a couple of sarnies.

From Caerleon we headed into Caldicot. Here I could stand it no longer and went into the newsagent to see if I could get hold of a map. I came out with something called Lôn Las Cymru map 8a. On the plus side it was only £1.99. On the minus side it was a map for the wrong area as it covered north of Chepstow and we were headed west. However when I want to cycle from Chepstow to Builth Wells I shall be well sorted.

We pootled along for a while on the Gwent Levels, the counterpart to the Somerset ones with which I am more familiar. As in Somerset, Bronze and Iron age trackways have been discovered here, used to cross the saltmarsh before the area was drained and the estuary held back with defences. And, crucially - like the Somerset Levels, the Gwent ones are flat. Unbelievably Mick complained. 'We are training for Ireland,' he said. 'We need some hills.'

As we headed into the village of Redwick a three legged black and white cat was hunting in the fields with, it must be said, somewhat limited success. As we passed through the village I announced we would be saying farwell to Route 4 and heading north. Accordingly we ignored the next Sustrans signpost. As we left the village Mick looked over to his left. 'Either,' he said, 'there are a lot of three legged cats around here. Or - we are heading back the way we came.'

Damn. I had already become concerned at the failure of the Llanwern Steelworks to appear on the horizon. Even I couldn't fail to spot a 600 acre steelworks, surely, even if it does no longer manufacture steel. I knew we had gone wrong somewhere but I was hoping he wouldn't notice. The tripedal cat gave the game away. I fessed up and we followed the sign for Magor where we stopped for a cup of coffee and got things back on track.
Someone has too much time on their hands

Crossing under the M48, the road north then began a steady climb up through the Penhow Woodlands. At the top of the hill Mick stared across the valley at the even bigger hill in front of us.
'Up there?'
'OK you've made your point. Next time I won't complain about the lack of hills. Lets go another way.'
'Too late!' I said cheerfully. 'We're committed now.'

So we coasted down to and across the A48 and then began the climb up through Wentwood Forest. This, according to the Woodland Trust is a PAW - a Planted Ancient Woodland, an very old woodland which has  since been planted with conifers to provide us with cheap wood. Wentworth it turns out, is a pretty major forest and I feel slightly guilty/ignorant that I have never heard of it. Especially as not so long ago it was the subject of a major campaign supported by the likes of Judy Dench and Bill Bryson (not to mention 15000 or so other folk) who raised funds for the Woodland Trust to buy the wood and commence work to restore it to native species. See here.

We enjoyed the ride up through the Forest, despite the fact it is still mainly coniferous. We emerged onto the Chepstow-Usk Road which meant I had the chance to use Lôn Las Cymru map 8a properly. As we stood on the road junction whilst I checked it, a police car drove past. It then stopped and reversed back down to us.
'Can I 'elp you?' asked one of the police officers. 'Are you lost?'
We explained we were hoping to get back to Chepstow via the scenic route. The two of them had a discussion and then pointed us down the road opposite. 'That's the best way,' he assured us. It tied in with map 8a so I was quite happy to go along with their suggestion.
'Bye then,' waved the officer, running round the car to jump in the driver's seat.
His colleague was already sat in it. 'Oops, wrong side,' he said, sprinting back round to the passenger side. 'I'm always doing that!'
After they had gone Mick remarked: 'How nice - friendly coppers. But - is it me or did it seem to you like they'd been to the pub?'
'No - surely not,' I said. But thinking about it, maybe Mick was right...

It's this way, idiot
After an exhilarating zoom down a long hill we cycled up and down lanes to Shirenewton where, despite the map, I completely cocked up by missing a left turn. Instead of entering Chepstow via the scenic route we hit the A48(T) four miles outside and had to cycle into town along it, which was vile. A quick coffee in Chepstow and then we pressed back over the old Severn Bridge (stopping for an impromptu game of Pooh sticks with banana skins halfway) and returned to the car.

'Not bad, Routes,' said Mick, 'but I noticed quite a few mistakes. Next time, I'll be in charge of the route.'
'Not a chance,' I said.

Our route is here

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