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Friday, 10 July 2009

Build on high ground

If the story of Gwynlliw and the little church he built on Stow hill is true then St. Woolos is one of the oldest churches in Britain. The original wooden building was burnt and rebuilt many times after Irish, Saxon and even Welsh attacks. In 1402 for example Owain Glyndwr completely destroyed it. This was bloody inconvenient.

Newport was still largely a tidal swamp, the sea coming right up to Stow hill during high tides. It was then the church acted as a lighthouse, aiding ships at night making their way through the treacherous waters near the Wentloog levels.

Other than a small area between Baneswell and Mill Street, which was farmed by Welsh and Saxon peasants, the entire area was either forest or swamp. The only means of travel was via the Ridge ways, which Celts, Romans, and later Normans used. This high route saved a traveller from enormous tidal surges as well as from the inconvenience of wading through marsh.

I used to live in Malpas, just on the edge of Newport. Many the nights we’d spend in the Three Horse-shoes earnestly discussing the origin of the name…err…not really. But names have meaning. It’s just nice when there’s agreement, and when a pub sells nice beer.

Some say Malpas got its name from the Roman words Malus Passus – loosely translated as ‘bloody hell that was hard’; probably an understatement. Malpas then was a very dangerous marsh.

"The marshes within the confines of the Crindau Pill were nothing better than a swamp and formed almost an island near the mill; the marshes from Town Pill to Pillqwenlly were a water-soaked and swampy fen, a veritable quagmire; the Town Pill ran up to the present day Bryngwyn Road, making Stow Hill a peninsula; and the sea came up nearly to Bassaleg Church. The land within the embankments of the Caldicot and Wentloog levels extending from Goldcliff to Cardiff and the land whereon stands almost the whole of Newport is reclaimed."
An extract from Historic Newport by James Matthews 1910. Describing Newport as it was in the C18th. What was like in the Middle-Ages, and what might it revert to as sea levels rise?

But away from these flights of fancy and back to the prosaic.

Archbishop Cox, writing in 1797, believed that Malpas got its name from the Welsh, Malp Aes meaning 'a plain within hills'. What the rest of the world call a swamp, the Welsh call a plain. Tough little buggers. Time for another pint.
(Marsh pictures by courtesy of Andy Southwales)

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