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Saturday, 8 August 2009

Where the ghosts are placed

If I live in a place, I like to know where the ghosts are placed. If I lived in anyone of the three houses numbered, 27 to 29 Stow Park Avenue I’d like to know I was drinking my coffee on the site of the Motte and Bailey Castle that Robert Fitzhamon first built there shortly after 1093; look out my window and see my fifteen serfs and cottars cultivating my surrounding 150 acres of arable land. Further down I’d glimpse the brown river that periodically engulfed the land, dismal mudflats and marsh as far as the eye could see.

Walking down Stow Hill I’d join the ghosts of C19th Chartists who, without any clear plan of action, allowed themselves to be dispersed by gun fire from the West Gate Hotel, remember that Eddy Curran’s grandfather was working on the newly build St Mary’s Catholic Church as the Chartists passed.

In the main street I’d imagine the 247 burgages, cattle pens, fish ponds and allotments; see the more substantial castle guarding a ford on the River Usk along with the four major roads leading to it. Now it hums with traffic, then it held five watchmen, six mounted and ten un-mounted soldiers with a larger force of three hundred men held in reserve. Without buildings to hinder my vision I’d see Robert de Hais’ estate at nearby Basseleg and my other knight’s estates at Maesglas, St Mellons and St Brides, know that each of them along with others owed me forty days of castle service, mounted and in full armour.

Despite a population of less than 600, it would have been a busy place. Protected by a castle and positioned at an important crossroad, Newport was a natural market town. Pedlars were encouraged to set up shops which in time became the present High Street. The main market was held once a week, each stall holder paying a tax to the Lord of the Manor, and an annual 15 day fair was held the 15th of August – the Feast of the Assumption.

As the market became more established the Normans decided that the ford, the main access point to the market, was no longer good enough. A bridge was needed.
The first bridge was very narrow, just wide enough for two carts to pass. The timber would have creaked and groaned along the full length of its 500 ft span under the tremendous tidal stresses it faced. It also seems to have been burnt or damaged on a fairly regular basis.

In 1377, Hugh, the second Earl of Stafford granted land between Stow Hill and the River Usk shoreline to the Hermits of St. Augustine. They were called the Austin Friars and from that time on the people of Newport got used to the black gowned and hooded friars wandering around their streets. Pastry, shoe, and sportswear shops, the occasional pub, now occupy where their small abbey once stood. It was a place of refuge for the sick and blind, the homeless. The ghosts of the friars are still there amongst the pushchairs and shopping bags, the nightly drunks.

Perhaps, too, is the ghost of Henry II, Henry Plantagenet, ruler of an empire stretching from Scotland to the Pyrenees. Originally Duke of Anjou he inherited England and Normandy from this maternal grandfather William the Conqueror, swallowed up Brittany, and after snaffling up Eleanor on Aquitaine in marriage, controlled more of France than the French king himself. On hearing the legend that a freckled king who lost his freckles in the River Usk would one day rule all of Wales, he put the legend to the test, washing his face vigorously in the turgid river. His freckles remained but he seemed fairly philosophical with the result and Wales remained relatively free.

Ghosts however don’t have freckles so it seems unlikely that the turbulent king is still cleansing his face in the river, not when he has the Occitan to haunt. Newport is magical and seedy. It is also often wet and over crowded with ghosts.

The dispersal of the Chartists in C19th Newport

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