The Trail Description by Chris Barber
(Updated 23rd November 2011)
We begin our journey in the historic town of Monmouth. After parking in one of the town car parks (or getting off the bus at the bus station) make your way to Agincourt Square at the top end of the main shopping street (See stop “A” map). Here you will see the Shire Hall building with its statues of Charles Rolls of Rolls Royce and King Henry V who was thought to have been born in nearby Monmouth Castle. (Inside the building is the Tourist Information Centre).
From the Shire Hall, head in a northerly direction past the Punch House. Do not go up the flagstoned Church Street; instead follow the pavement around into Priory Street to pass the museum on the opposite side of the road. After passing an entrance into the churchyard look out for an interesting building on the right.
It has an ornate window, surmounted by battlements, flanked by gargoyles and beneath it are three carved heads representing a knight, an angel and a miller.
This well-known feature is known as ‘Geoffrey’s Window’ due to the one-time belief that in the room behind it, the monk chronicler, Geoffrey (Gruffydd ap Arthur), once sat to write his famous book, ‘History of the Kings of Britain’. However, this would not have been possible for the building was erected about three centuries after Geoffrey’s time! He may well have been educated in the monastic school, which once stood on this site, but it is more likely that he wrote the book in Oxford where he lived for a number of years.
It was this book, written in about 1135, which introduced the story of King Arthur to a wide readership and its appearance caused quite a stir because it started a new epoch in literature. The story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is part of our national heritage and it was through the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth that it captured the imagination of Europe. His twelve volume Historia Regum Britanniae became the principal source of all the later sources about King Arthur, inspiring such writers as Malory, Spencer and Tennyson.
Return to your car and drive through Monmouth to reach the roundabout at the north end of the town where the A466 meets the A40. Turn right here to follow the A40 (Signposted for Chepstow). On reaching the traffic lights, turn left to cross the Wye Bridge. At the mini roundabout turn right and follow the A466 (signposted Chepstow / Tintern).
It is a memorable 10 mile (16 km) journey from here down through the Wye Valley via Redbrook and Llandogo to your next stopping point the Old Station at Tintern.
After going through Llandogo and passing the turning for Brockweir on your left, look out for a brown sign soon after for the Old Station. Enter the site and park up (pay and display). (See stop “B & C” map).
Make your way to the large wooden statues near the overflow car park. One of the statues is King Arthur. There are also statues of King Tewdrig (his grandfather) and Geoffrey of Monmouth whose window we saw in Monmouth. Why not read the information on the boards nearby? If you have time during the season when carriages are open there is a video telling you all about the six characters that make up the “Circle of Legends”. There is also a chance for a cup of tea and a toilet stop.
Afterwards return to your car. We are now heading for the beautiful ruined Cistercian Abbey in the village of Tintern 1.2 miles (2 km) away. Turn left at the top of the drive, pass through the village and look out for the Abbey on your left. Where you see the brown sign just before the Abbey turn left and follow the road down to the riverside car park at the entrance to the Abbey. (See stop “B & C” map).There are toilets on the edge of the car park.
Why not take a walk around if you have time?
Tintern is a corrupted form of Din Teyrn which means the ‘fort of the king’. An explanation of this name can be found in the ancient Charters of Llandaff in which we are told that in his old age King Tewdrig (Arthur’s grandfather), who ruled this corner of Wales in the 5th Century, abdicated and handed over the government of his domain to his son Meurig. Click here for more information about Tewdrig.
Let us now continue the next 7 mile (11.25 km) section of our journey to the village of Mathern. Continue South following the A466 via St Arvans to reach a roundabout near one of the entrances to Chepstow Race Course. Carry straight on to reach a second roundabout. Take the second exit and continue on to a third roundabout. Turn right here to follow the A48 (signed Caerwent). Descend the hill to pass through Pwllmeyric (this means Meurig’s Pool and it is named after Meurig, the son of Tewdrig). About 100 yards beyond the New Inn, turn left signposted “Mathern ¾ (village only).
As you enter this village you will see a road sign bearing the words Mathern - Merthyr Tewdrig, the latter being the old Welsh name for the place which has been anglicized to Mathern. Records show the change of name took place between 1128 and 1200.
Drive through the village passing the Millers Arms on your left. Go under the bridge and look out almost immediately for Tewdrig's Well on your right, which is surrounded by a wooden fence. Park carefully and visit the well (See map stop “D”).
A metal plaque informs the visitor that:
By tradition at this spring King Tewdrig’s wounds were washed after the battle near Tintern about 470 A.D. against the pagan Saxons. He died a short way off and by his wishes a church was built over his grave (now Mathern Church).
After examining the ancient well, which has unfortunately been ‘improved’, return to your car and carry on along the road. Bear right near Little Innage Barn and continue for a short distance to reach Mathern Church. It may be necessary for you to collect the key from the nearby vicarage.
Meurig’s mud and wattle church was replaced in the 12th Century by a Norman building and additions were made in the 13th, 14th and 15th Centuries, culminating with Bishop Marshall of Llandaff building the tower. Restoration of the church was carried out in 1881.
Of special interest inside the church is an inscribed stone tablet, which can be seen on the north wall of the chancel. It was erected by Bishop Godwin during 1618 and tells the story of the last days of King Tewdrig.
“Here lyeth entombed the body of Theoderick, King of Morganuck, or Glamorgan, commonly called St Tewdrick, and accounted a martyr because he was slain in battle against the Saxons, being then pagans, and in defence of the Christian religion. The battle was fought at Tintern, where he obtained a great victory.
He died here, being on his way homeward, three days after the battle, having taken order with Maurice, his son who succeeded him in his kingdom, that in the same place he should happen to decease a church should be built and his body buried in ye same, which was accordingly performed in the year 600.”
Bishop Godwin, having studied the ancient Charters of Llandaff, became intrigued with the story of King Tewdrig and arranged for the supposed site of his tomb to be excavated in order to check out the truth of the matter. A 5th Century stone sarcophagus was revealed containing a skeleton with a badly fractured skull. The bones were then replaced and the tomb covered over. Godwin had the tablet inscribed and placed on the wall above the burial site. He based the wording on the account given in the Charters of Llandaff, but unfortunately post-dated the event by about one hundred years. Note also Tewdrig’s name has been spelt in the Nordic form of Theoderick and Maurice is the Anglo-Norman version of Meurig.
Mathern Church is important as the tomb of King Arthur’s grandfather and if we examine various place-names in this locality we can find some interesting family connections:-
Pwllmeyric has been anglicised from Pwll Meurig and commemorates Meurig the son of Tewdrig. This pool was once a tidal reach of the River Severn before silting prevented the water reaching this far.
Meurig had a daughter named Gwenonwy and a document dated 1131 mentions a place called Tref Elenni, which was subsequently shortened to Trelenny and was in fact the site of the village of Gwenonwy named after the daughter of Meurig and the sister of Arthur. A chapel dedicated to her used to stand in a hollow between Pwll Meurig and Mounton and at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries in 1534 it belonged to Chepstow Priory.
We will now continue on the next 3.2 mile (5 km) section of the trail to Black Rock. Return to the A48, turn left and after passing the entrance to St Pierre Golf Course the road ascends to a roundabout. Turn left here, following the sign “Caldicot 3, Magor 7 (Portskewett 2).” Very shortly turn left along the road signed “ Portskewett 2, Sudbrook 3.”
On reaching the outskirts of Portskewett turn left down Black Rock Road (signed “Black Rock Picnic and Lave net fishery Site”). It leads down to a car park beside the Severn Estuary and from here there are fine views of the two Severn bridges. (See map stop “E”).
It was here at Black Rock that Arthur may have gathered his army prior to fording the Severn to fight the Battle of Mount Badon at Bath. This was his finest victory in which the enemy suffered a crushing defeat and there followed a 50 year period of peace.
The Mabinogion story titled ‘The Dream of Rhonabwy’ tells of Arthur gathering his army together on the bank of the Severn to wait for the tide to go down so that they could ford the river and ride to battle. He is described as sitting on a flat island just below the fording point and he is accompanied by Bishop Bedwin. It is significant that just below the ancient crossing point is a strip
of land still called the Bedwin Sands. It connects with Denny Island, which may be the island mentioned in the ancient tale.
We are now going on a 4.5 mile (7.25 km) drive to Caerwent. Drive back up the road to Portskewett and turn left to pass through the village. On reaching a roundabout turn left. Take the next turning on the right (brown Caldicot Castle Country Park sign) to pass the ‘Tippling Philosopher’ pub. Take the next main road on your right (marked with a brown castle sign) to pass the Castle Inn and the entrance to Caldicot Castle Country Park. You could use this site for a toilet stop.
Otherwise carry on to reach a roundabout. Bear right and pass through a modern housing estate to reach a second roundabout. Bear right again and continue out of the town. In due course the Roman Walls of Caerwent will be seen on your left. At a cross roads turn left and pass through the village. Look out for a car park on your right as you leave the built up area (See map stop “F”). Near the entrance to the car park is a building complex including an open barn with 5 panels about the history of Caerwent. There are also toilets, including disabled access.
If you have time use the site map and follow the accessible route around the village taking in the walls, church and Roman shops. (Please note some of the route is on grass).
Caerwent was known in Roman times as Venta Silurum and it was built as a civil town for the benefit of the local tribe called the Silures and they lived here in peace for several hundred years.
When you stand on the walls of Venta Silurum and look to the north a tree covered hill can be seen about 2 miles away. This is the site of an Iron Age hill fort known today as Llanmelin, but previously called Caer Melyn which may well be the origin of the romantic name of Camelot. The 9th Century manuscript of Nennius lists 28 cities of Britain and includes the name Caer Calemion (the fortress of Celimon) a name, which may well be derived from Caer Melyn.
It is an elaborate example of a multi ramparted hill fort dating back to the later part of the Iron Age, and during the time of the Roman invasion it was an important central headquarters of the Silures. It was used by the famous Celtic warrior Caractacus, who led the Silures in many a battle against the Oman invaders. It would seem only natural that Arthur as a hereditary king of the Silures would also have made it his main base.
After following the map route under sections of the Roman walls, return to Caerwent Church, which is of considerable historic interest. The first church was established by St Tathan who set up a monastic school here in the 6th Century. He was the son of Amwn Ddu (Annun the Black) and Anna the daughter of Meurig ap Tewdrig, which makes him the brother-in-law of Arthur. Just outside the east gateway is the vicarage orchard, which is believed to be the site of St Tathan’s collegiate church.
Return to your car for your next 10 mile (16 km) section of the route to Caerleon. Continue along the road out of the village to join the A48. Turn left and follow the road towards Newport. After passing through Langstone, watch out carefully for a right hand filter lane with a small sign ‘Catsash 1/2 mile’. Follow this road (Catsash Road), go straight on at a mini roundabout, and when you reach a T-junction turn left to follow the old Roman road past the Celtic Manor Golf Course. Turn right on reaching the B4236 (signposted Caerleon) and descend a steep hill to reach a “T” Junction. Turn right, cross the bridge over the River Usk, to pass the Hanbury Arms, where the poet Tennyson once stayed whilst writing his Arthurian poem ‘The Idylls of the King’.
Pass through Caerleon with the Roman Baths Visitor Centre on your right. Turn left opposite the Museum to reach car parking near to the Roman Amphitheatre (See map stop “G”).
There is much to see in Caerleon and while the visitor’s attention is largely drawn to the Roman remains, the Arthurian associations are also of special interest.
The ancient name for the first settlement here was Caer Wysg (Fortress on the Usk), and it was a centre of trade used by the Britons, long before the Romans arrived. But when the legions, led by Julius Frontinus, came in 75 AD they abolished the old British name and called their fort Isca after the Celtic word for water. This was one of three legionary fortresses established in Roman Britain and their chief city in Wales. The name Caerleon is a Welsh rendering of Castra Legionum and the abbreviated title of the Legion’s name - LEG II AVG - has been found stamped on countless bricks uncovered during many years of archaeological excavation.
There are lots of things of interest to see today. The first and most important due to its link with King Arthur is:
The Roman Amphitheatre at Caerleon which is one of several places identified as the site of King Arthur’s Round Table and one must admit that it would indeed have made a very fine council chamber. As the centuries passed, the amphitheatre became a grass covered bowl-like depression in the ground and at one time it was even marked on the map as ‘King Arthur’s Round Table’. Large numbers of people used to visit Caerleon at one time just to see the site of this magic place and people firmly believed that the cup-shaped hollow was the scene of the Arthurian tournaments and jousting described by Sir Thomas Malory and Alfred Lord Tennyson.
In 1926-7 the well known archaeologist, Dr Mortimer Wheeler (later knighted) carried out a major excavation on this site, involving a large body of workmen, two horses and a complicated railway system. Some 30,000 tons of earth were removed to reveal the finest example of a Roman amphitheatre in Britain. It was large enough to accommodate 6,000 spectators - the entire garrison of the Roman fort of Isca.
It was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s description of Arthur holding court at Caerleon which probably inspired the romantic idea of Camelot being the capital of Arthur’s kingdom. Not that Geoffrey used such a name, but he did bring Caerleon into his ‘History’ no less than thirteen times. Having lived at Monmouth, just 20 miles away, he had no doubt ridden down the Roman road to Caerleon and visited the impressive ruins, which still remained of Isca Silurum at that time.
Geoffrey tells us that after his first Gallic campaign, Arthur held a plenary court at Caerleon, which was attended by the earls and barons of the kingdoms, the vassal kings of Wales, Scotland, Cornwall, Brittany, of the conquered islands and the European provinces. For more details click here.
If you have time use the map to find your way to other places of interest such as:
The remains of the Barrack buildings at Prysg Field (not far from where you have parked) provide the best example in Britain of how a Roman barracks was laid out complete with washrooms and a communal flush toilet system.
The excavated remains of the Roman Baths
The National Roman Legion Museum : Has an entrance constructed in the style of a Greek temple and inside are many interesting relics including a great marble tablet dedicated to the emperor Trojan in AD100 by the Second Augustan Legion.
The Ffwrwm: One man who is convinced that Caerleon is the true site of Arthur’s fabulous court of Camelot is Dr Russell Rhys who has established a visitor centre called the Ffwrwm, which is Welsh for ‘Seat’. Within the 18th Century walled garden of Caerleon House (built in 1760 on the site of the Roman Main Gate) he has established an amazing arrangement of sculptures, including a series of Arthurian thrones, carved in wood by the sculptor Ed Harrison. Dr Rhys’s intention has been to have seats carved for all the significant members of the Round Table as a token of his own faith in Caerleon’s claim to be the site of Arthur’s Court.
This brings to an end our journey in search of the real King Arthur and his associations with the beautiful and historic ancient county of Gwent.
Chris Barber is a well-established author. His book “Journey to Avalon” (published in 1993), written jointly with David Pykitt and recent “The legacy of King Arthur” provide the most convincing and detailed accounts of King Arthur and his times that has ever been compiled. It explains the true identity of Arthur, the 6th Century king of the Britons and also locates his courts and long forgotten battle sites such as Badon and Camlann. It is an intriguing work of historical detection, which does much to solve one of the greatest mysteries in the world.
Enquires to Blorenge Books Tel: 01873 856114 or visit www.blorenge-books.co.uk