Out Now!

Friday, 25 January 2019


Last week we drove up the road to Caerwent, wondering why, in the forty or so years we’ve been in the Monmouth, Newport area, we’d never gone there before. Caerleon, on the outskirts of Newport, was one of the three major Roman legionnaire bases in Britain, the other two being Chester and York, and yes we’ve been there many times, so why not Caerwent just twelve miles away?

A section of the South wall showing the ruins of an octagonal tower.

Caerwent can boast to being the first town in Wales and was initially built to tempt the newly conquered Silures down from their hill forts. A few years of hypocausts, forums, basilicas, hot water and baths, and the formerly warlike Silures were completely won over. Caerwent became a trusted and  self governing town, a settlement for retired legionnaires, and allowed to defend itself with a spectacular wall, most of which is still intact two thousand years later.

This is just one of the many Roman remains within the village. It is what's left of the Forum, the foundations of the Basilica to the right. Venta Silurum housed luxurious mansions, temples, baths, shops and houses. The remains can be see wherever you go.  

The walls enclose the entire village and were probably built as a defence against Irish pirates in the latter half of the Third Century.  

Originally called Venta Silurum it was strategically placed, where the road between Gloucester and Caerleon met the North South road from Shrewsbury via Monmouth and Trellech. By the Sixth Century, and after the Romans had left, it became more commonly known as Caerwent or ‘Fort of Gwent’.

We walked the length of the West, South and East wall before cutting into the village. The photos tell you everything else. Over a mile of the 5 meter wall still exists, though when it was built it was 7 metres high.

Looking  back at where we've walked
Still a way to go

Close ups reveal what a work of art it is.

On top of the wall looking back. The field to the right is still to be excavated.
And to the side of that field, the Church of St Stephen and St Tathan. 

On the East Wall looking down on the road and development outside of the settlement

We're now approaching where the wall breaks to allow access to the main street

Access to Caerwent's main street from the East Wall. 

And most importantly, within the walls and amidst the beautifully excavated ruins, stands the The Coach And Horses,  which sells very good beer.  

Whilst I'm drinking, there' s more information here. 

Thursday, 17 January 2019

The whiff of an age gone by

My grandfather survived the First World War and outlived two pacemakers, but he never forgot one incident in the war. His horse was shot from under him. He fell with the horse’s neck across his leg and its eye fixed upon him. My grandfather lay trapped there watching the light slowly die from his horse’s eye.

There are as many years separating us from the Great War as separating those who fought it from the Battle of Waterloo, and yet even now, most families have their own generational stories to tell.

This latest book from William Cross focuses on the Hoare, Lindsay and Munday families, scions of the Morgans of Tredegar, all of whom lost lost loved ones in the carnage of France. Peter Jackson’s wonderful film, ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ focused largely on the working class, boys with wonderful smiles and poor teeth. My own Grandfather was a docker from Liverpool. It is salutary to remember that the privileged too were shaken by tragedy.

Lieutenant Archibald Thurston Thomas Lindsay was killed by a sniper’s bullet. He received his commission in October 1914 aged seventeen and died at twenty one in 1918. His Company Commander wrote from the heart to the grieving family, and you wonder how many letters he found himself writing during these years:
"For myself I am absolutely heartbroken, for I really loved him. He wa absolutely fearless and cool under fire, and apart from being a very great pal, I have lost one of the best officers one could possibly have.”

Poor consolation for the Lindsay family who lost their three sons in the space of ten months.
The Hoare family, too, lost a twenty-year-old son. Charles Hoare was enlisted as second lieutenant in the 15th Hussars in 1912. On the 15th June 1914, he joined his comrades at the Hotel Metropole in London for the regimental dinner. Within weeks he was dead – as were many of his fellow Hussars at that dinner. What makes it poignant is that after their meal, they lustily sang the Regimental Song ‘Sahagun’ commemorating one of the most brilliant exploits of the British Cavalry in the Peninsular Wars. 

What they were singing about
Sahagun 1808

Unfortunately for those singing, the cavalry charge was approaching its sell buy date. The machine gun settled the matter.

The 15th Hussars met their nemesis at the village of Blaugies. As the Regimental History later records:
‘All ranks were filled with the greatest desire to meet the enemy with cold steel; Lieutenant Whittle gave the order to draw swords. The squadron formed line of extended files and galloped for the village of Blaugies.’ It was carnage. The streets were narrow, squashing the hapless Hussars as machine gun fire raked them from every side.

So on to the book, beautifully produced, well researched, and one that will appeal to both collectors and those interested in the relatively arcane. Tragedy and the minutiae of an aristocratic scion may not appeal to a wide public,  but the book is riddled with evocative photographs and tales of tragic courage. A whiff of an age gone by.

Friday, 11 January 2019

Bishop's Castle


The Kerry Way, an ancient Bronze Age track in Shropshire, runs from the village of Kerry to Bishop’s Castle, but the history of Bishop’s Castle begins when the Saxon Edwin Shakehead was miraculously cured of the palsy by St Ethelbert—or was it just his tomb—who knows? But it is to be found in Hereford Cathedral if you're interested. In gratitude, Edwin gave land to the Bishop of Hereford who promptly built a castle on the largest hill there. 

It was built in 1087, a dangerous year for the Normans. William the Conqueror had just died and the Welsh were one of many who saw it as an opportunity to try their luck.  It survived several Welsh attacks and survived until the C18th when it endured the ignominy of being turned into a bowling green. Much of its stone had long been cannibalised to transform a growing town—predictably named Bishop's Castle.

 Golf Green where once stood the Motte
The C18th hotel built from castle stone

Many of the buildings below were built from Castle stone
A winding lane leading to the main street

The main street leading to the church.

Known as the House on Crutches

The main street is a nice mix of Tudor and C18th.

   It doesn't take long to walk to the church and an interesting splash of colour

The cottages make up for a grey and misty day

My favourite building, predictably, is the Three Tuns brewery. Established in 1642 it is the oldest licensed brewery in Britain. Remarkable in itself but then 1642 was a remarkable year. It marked the start of the English Civil War, a time when people had good cause to drown their sorrows. The Men of Clun and Bishop’s Castle formed a militia loyal to neither king nor Parliament. Their sole intent was to preserve the safety of their respective towns against both sides, though since neither town was of great strategic importance, their impartiality was never challenged.

I first drank in the Three Tuns some decades ago. Then it was an austere place with beautiful beer. They didn’t sell crisps and disapproved of those who went to the Fish and Chip shop next door. Both foods greased the lips thus marring the unique taste of the beer. Not quite a religious experience but more enjoyable than many. Now, all has changed. The Three Tuns has expanded and has a fine restaurant, though I would still advise one to drink first and eat afterwards. 

And after a few pints, rest assured, you're not hallucinating. Bishop's Castle is that kind of town.

It even has a lyrical ambulance for poetical emergencies

Friday, 4 January 2019

Truth is what you make of it

My iphone informed me I’d walked 47 steps and used up 2 calories on Christmas Day. Not a cause for despair. The 47 steps, I imagine, recorded the trip from bedroom to lounge, where I placed my phone on the couch and forgot all about it. That’s the problem with ‘smart phones’ and apps like Pacer that record your activity. They’re not very smart, which poses a problem.

Somewhere that data is stored and potentially available for those who sell insurance or who have other reasons to monitor health and activity. Data is big business; experts pore over it with finetooth combs. But if the data has been measuring only the couch and not the potato what then? Or if the data is inherently faulty?

My wife’s fitbit for example is generous, far more generous than my Pacer app. We go on the same walk and she invariably takes a thousand or more steps than mine. A smaller stride is one obvious answer, but she also walks a mile more than me, too, even when walking side by side the entire route. It mounts up. Based on such data I’m for an early grave and my wife will live to a hundred.

‘Experts’ we all know are wonderful, even when they speak nonsense with or without dubious data.
This was tested recently and I’m not talking about Public Health England, which has just come out with the idea of a calory chart dictating how much we should be allowed eat in restaurants and takeaway meals. The last time we had rationing, there was a war on. Now we’ve all been enlisted in a war against people who’ve lost control of their appetites. This calory control nonsense may prove the breaking point in our trust of ‘experts.’ Up until recently, we’ve been as gullible as sin. 

Like I said, this has been tested.
‘Coffee drinkers can add three more years to their lives and save the NHS millions if they stir their cups thoroughly. Doing so reduces inflammation and reduces blood sugar levels.’  Or consider this:’ carbon emissions could be cut by 30 tonnes a year by limiting the use of hand-dryers to three minutes a session.’ Drivers, too have a responsibility. ‘The U.K could meet its climate targets if we reduced the number of right hand turns.’ These three claims are fictitious, created by social scientists testing the limits of public credulity. Britain proved less credulous than Americans, but only just. That’s the point of course. We’re bombarded with exhortations and soundbites and it’s easier to accept—and ignore them than put them under any form of scrutiny.

What to make, for example, of the cardiologist who last week renounced decades of exhortation in favour of healthy vegetable oil? Apparently we should now be consuming the new healthier option of saturated fats. For one who loves his toast and dripping, that suits me just fine. And what about male and female green peppers? Facebook told me one pepper had four bumps on the end, had more seeds, and was sweeter for eating raw. The other sex had only three bumps and was better for cooking. Muggins, here was often to be found in the vegetable aisle groping green peppers – until last week when Facebook informed me it was a myth debunked by Snopes. If you can’t trust Facebook, who can you trust? I blame it on the Russians.

The last such claim to catch my eye—and I think it is genuine—is that a weak handshake denotes an early death from lung cancer. I remember the headline but can’t now recall the evidence: Does a strong handshake prevent lung cancer, or does it merely denote its early symptoms? Such is my continued trust in experts I take no chances, subjecting all meet to eye-watering grips. A shame my iphone can’t measure my grip. It might add another year to my life.