Monmouthshire, Wales - A brief history
Monmouthshire, a county of great diversity, is one of the fascinating border counties which comprise the Welsh Marches. Gently rolling hills in the rural north-east of the county meet the wilder hills of the Black Mountain range in the north-west (part of the Brecon Beacons national Park); while the lower, more populated country to the south-west is in contrast to the dramatic gorges of the Wye Valley above Chepstow in the south and east. Now a peaceful and tranquil part of the country, it used to be a great deal livelier with all the border warfare of previous centuries. Prehistoric tribes, Roman soldiers, Christian missionaries and medieval warlords have all made their mark here.
In AD75, the Romans established an important base at Caerleon, which today, complete with amphitheatre and barracks, is one of the most varied and fascinating Roman sites in Britain. Since the Normans came to the area in the 11th century, the Welsh, English and Marcher Lords fought hard over control of the territory. They have left a colourful legacy: there are more castles per square mile than probably any part of the UK. All their fascinating history makes for endless sightseeing opportunities.
There is a choice of towns for shopping. Abergavenny is closest at 15 minutes but Monmouth and Ross on Wye are also close. Hereford is 20 miles away though it a nightmare for traffic and parking.
Grosmont is a delightful village with a shop incorporating a Post Office, a pub (The Angel) and a tea shop (Gentle Jane). Opening times for the shop are 9 til 1 Mon to Sat and afternoons Wed to Friday 3 til 5.30.
Local farmer's markets - The following dates are the normal ones. However, there may be exceptional reasons why one or other is cancelled.
- Abergavenny - Market Hall - 4th Thursday of the month
- Monmouth - Monnow Bridge - 4th Saturday of each month, 10am – 1pm
- Brecon - 2nd Saturday of the month, 10am – 2pm
- Usk - Memorial Hall - 10 til 1pm 1st and 3rd Saturday of each month
- Abergavenny Market - every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday in the Market hall (a mixed selection of products including food)
- Abergavenny Flea Market - every Wednesday in the Market Hall
- Abergavenny Antiques Fair - every 3rd Sunday of the month
Farm shop (closed Mondays all year, and also closed some Sundays in winter) - Giuseppe Lenza has a produce stall just off the Hereford-Abergavenny road at Llanvihangel Crucorney. You will see some signs for PYO etc the other side of the main road where it meets the eastern exit road from Llanvihangel Crucorney. Giuseppe sells a lot of his own produce, which is excellent (especially his pear juice), and also buys some fruit/veg in. He also supplies a really good local Jersey Cream. PYO strawberries and raspberries are very good.
Supermarkets - the best supermarkets in the area for most things are Waitrose in Monmouth (01600 772552) and the larger Waitrose in Abergavenny. There is a Tesco in Hereford (this side of the city), which does a delivery service via the internet. A much better supermarket in Hereford is Sainsbury’s, but is a little further in. It has a good range of organic and specialist products - proceed into the city over the main bridge, turn second left after it, then left again. Avoid Hereford at rush-hour, as it can get very slow getting in and out.
Butcher - there is a good butcher in Abergavenny (H&J Edwards, 01873 853110) in the pedestrianised section of the High Street in the middle of town. There is also a good butcher, Cashels, in Crickhowell.
Chemist - the best chemist is Shackleton’s in Abergavenny, situated at 1 Neville Street (in the middle of the pedestrianised section of the High Street). Tel: 01873 853219. There is also a good-sized Boots.
Shopping and cafes in Monmouth
Monmouth (20 mins):
For an award winning curry visit the Misbah Tandoori in Monmouth 20 minutes away. This family run restaurant is a regular in the Good Curry Guide Top 100 Indian Restaurants and offers the finest Bangladeshi cuisine cooked in the traditional way. Only the finest ingredients are sourced and everthing is cooked fresh to order.
Pizza Express on the main street in Monmouth is a great place for a wide variety of delicious pizzas and a glass of wine, and to learn more about Monmouth with its locally inspired decor.
Monmouth boasts a number of delicious cafes and eateries ideal for lunch such as The Whole Earth in White Swan Court which has a healthy and organic inspired menu. The Thyme Out Coffee Shop (above Salt and Pepper Cook Shop in the main street) offers wonderful coffee, breakfast, lunch or try the yummy cakes at afternoon tea. Sit out on the sun terrace when weather permits and see your food being freshly prepared! Try to resist the shopping, including the great Cook Shop (Salt and Pepper), the Courtyard Clothes Shop (two floors of on trend designer ladies fashions for all ages and occasions) and pop next door to the Gift Shop - this treasure chest of a shop has a gift for everyone.
To take home? Make sure you bring your basket!
Wigmores or 'Wiggies', in St Mary's Street, has been Monmouth's favourite local bakery for the past 100 years and still uses the same traditional fermentation cycle keeping the art of bread making very much alive. If you want to take something home to cook buy your 'Wiggies' loaf and head up Church Street to Le Gourmet, a local independent butcher. Proprieter Duncan Wills is a favourite with locals and his fine quality meat is sourced locally from named breeds and farms. He stocks homemade pork pies and is famous for his faggots, all made on the premises. The shop also has an array of delicatessen items that will delight your tastebuds.
Just across the street visit the local Greengrocer Munday and Jones and pick up seasonal local fresh fruit and veg and organic fair, all weighed and wrapped by Phil Munday in the traditional way. Buy local milk, butter, cream and any other essentials along with local honey, preserves, pickles and more exotic cooking ingredients. Both Phil and Duncan are local legends for their friendly banter and promoting real healthy foods and traditional shopping habits - stand back and watch the hustle and bustle of the customers - the quality speaks for itself!
Then head downtown to Fingal-Rock, local wine merchant and deli who - "sidestep the mass market monsters and offer better quality at reasonable prices." Guaranteed to "positively excite the palate."National route 46 passes about 400 metres from the farm and the Four Castles cycle route is about a mile distant, and can be linked to using local lanes. The Four Castles route takes a tour of four of the most spectacular castles in the Welsh borders and gives a wonderful view of the beautiful countryside along the way. We have good quality bicycles (not mountain bikes) available at Blaentrothy Farm here for free (part of our green policy), though many prefer to bring their own or rent them. There is an excellent hire centre in Abergavenny (Bike Base). There is plenty of excellent cycling around the lanes from Blaentrothy Farm and from the other cottages. Alternatively, there are dedicated cycle paths nearby, such as the Peregrine cycle path along the Wye from Monmouth to Symonds Yat. In the Royal Forest of Dean (30 minutes drive) there are thirty five square miles of beautiful ancient forest to explore with many circular routes - perfect for everyone, from young children to experts. Over 200 bikes are for rent at Pedalabikeaway Cycle Centre at the centre of the forest cycle route network. They sell maps, rent out equipment, and have every possible facility for the cyclist, including a cafe. They have a good range of every type and quality of bike (including tandems and weatherproof buggies to pull small children along behind). As it is open all year, you don't need to lug your bikes here if you don't want to. Additionally, there is quite good cycling along the canal near Abergavenny, and, for the more adventurous, excellent mountain biking in the Brecon Beacons.
The Monnow valley forms a break in the natural defences of the southern part of the Welsh border, which is the reason why the Normans built a trio of castles to guard this particular route of communication. There are plenty more in the county – and in the surrounding counties, but Grosmont, Skenfrith and White Castle are the most important in the immediate locality. White Castle, just a few miles from Blaentrothy Cottage, is very impressive, as it is the most complete of the three, and has a full moat and a wonderful view.
Llanthony Abbey, a Cistercian monastery in the Black Mountains just below Offa’s Dyke path, is definitely worth a visit, and conveniently has a pub right within its walls.
Interesting churches abound, and among the best are in Grosmont, Cwmyoy, Partrishow, Kilpeck and Abbey Dore.
Blaentrothy Farm is situated in the middle of an important SSSI an area protected for its natural grasslands and wildflowers. They contain a wonderful range of the most beutiful wildflowers including orchids, Betony, and many more. The meadows are just yards from Blaentrothy Cottages and can be accessed by public footpath.
The Black Mountains, forming the eastern part of the Brecon Beacons National Park, are home to a wide variety of wildlife. Numerous well-kept ancient hedgerows in the area make this the perfect habitat for many species. They also provide sustenance for the birds of prey: kestrels, hawks, merlins, buzzards and red kites thrive here, the latter having increased in number recently. Widen the net to include the Brecon Beacons themselves, and the South Wales Valleys, and you will find some of the best wildlife reserves in Wales.
Close to Pontescob Cottage (from the direction of Llanvihangel Crucorney) is a fascinating SSSI, Coed y Cerrig, an important National Nature Reserve. Part of this belongs to The Countryside Commission of Wales, so that some access is possible via raised walkways. It is a rare example of wet woodland or alluvial forest, with indigenous trees historically coppiced for charcoal (hence the origin of the name for the local hamlet of Forest (char)Coalpit. Nothing to do with coal mining! Alder and willow enjoy the wet valley bottom, while the sides are clothed in hazel, birch and ash. Large beech and oak trees crown the tops of the valley sides. The SSSI is rich in fauna and flora: in spring, purple orchids and bluebells can be seen on the drier slopes, while marsh marigolds, mosses, lesser pond sedge and golden saxifrage populate the bogs. The SSSI is an important habitat for the dormouse, and many different kinds of birds and insects. On a fine day, an amble along the board walk is a magical experience.The red sandstone uplands comprise moorland populated by raven, wheatear and red grouse. In parts of the hillscape, where sheep cannot penetrate, some unusual northern alpine flowers can be found.
The steeper sides of the fertile river valleys are clothed in wonderful ancient woodlands of oak, ash and hazel. They are alive with the song of woodland birds. The two major rivers, the Wye and the Usk are well-known for salmon, and brown trout is a staple of all their tributaries.
Meadowlands, such as at Blaentrothy Farm overlooking the Black Mountain range (a Site of Special Scientific Interest and home of Blaentrothy Cottage), where nitrates have never been used nor the soil ploughed, are rich with wildflowers. Growing in profusion where the fields are set aside for hay and where sheep do not graze are bee orchids, globeflowers, ox-eye daisies, violets, harebells and vetches, amongst many other species.
A recent early spring visit to Blaentrothy Farm by the Gwent Ornithological Society revealed sightings of the following: sparrow hawk, buzzard, pheasant, curlew, stock dove, collared dove, wood pigeon, greater spotted woodpecker, skylark, robin, pied wagtail, blackbird, fieldfare, song thrush, redwing, long-tailed tit, marsh tit, coal tit, blue tit, great tit, nuthatch, tree creeper, magpie, rook, carrion crow, starling, chaffinch, greenfinch, bullfinch, and red poll. Later, in June, goldfinches are plentiful and, of course, the regular summer visitors, house martins and swallows nest in huge numbers around the farm buildings, as does the wren and the sparrow. Visitors to Blaentrothy have also spotted mistlethrush, jackdaws and dunnocks. Barn owls and little owls are heard calling on still nights, and the eerie sound of the vixen is heard in the cubbing season.
Close by, up on the Craig, a hill overlooking the Black Mountain range, ancient woodlands are filled with a mist of bright blue when the bluebells are out in April and May. Yew trees seem to grow wild here as well, although there is a local story that they were once planted for their wood for the manufacture of bows for the archers stationed at the local Norman castles.
Pwll y Wrach, an SSSI, is one of the best wildlife reserves in the area – about half a mile south-east of Talgarth. There are interesting and well-marked walking trails through some of the most significant woodland in the whole of Wales, including the fascinating Geological Trail. Keen birders should visit Brechfa Pool, a small lake eight miles north-east of Brecon. Migrating wading birds visit in spring and autumn, and teal populate it in winter. But it is also a stopping-off point for many an interesting species.
A superb site for bird-watching, the Magor Marsh Reserve is the last precious remnant of fenland on the Gwent levels and a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It is a perfect example of the progression of plant communities from open water to marsh and scrub woodland. It is also an important Bronze-age site. (Situated near Magor Village on the B4245 near junction 23A on the M4.)
The Silent Valley Reserve is positioned just south of Ebbw Vale and is one of the best reserves in the area. It proves, interestingly, that beautiful and important countryside can thrive cheek-by-jowel in post-industrial areas of the country, reclaiming what was until recently a landscape left scarred by mining. A large part of this wildlife reserve was designated in 1984 as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It is open woodland, interspersed with wet areas and former meadowland. The woods form part of one of the most westerly and highest natural beech woods in Britain.
Pontescob Cottage Trout and Salmon fishing is available on the Grwyne River at the bottom of Pontescob garden, which is part of the Usk river system: £10 for a half day payable to Mr Peter Lewis, who farms the land around the cottage. It is an excellent little river for fishing and protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
For Blaentrothy Farm, the nearest fishing is a couple of miles: there is the Garway Flyfishers club and Kentchurch Estate which has seven miles of the Monnow River which flows into the Wye with Chub, Perch, Dace, Pike, Brown trout. Contact Berrington Estate office 01981 570727
Trout - 3rd March to 30th September. You can keep these!
Salmon - 3rd March to 17th October. There is a mandatory catch and release period from the 3rd March to 15th June. Coloured fish caught after this period should also be released. Methods Fly only for trout and fly and spinning for salmon.
Environment Agency Fishing Licences Wherever you fish in England and Wales you have to have a licence from the Environment Agency. These are valid for one day, eight days or a whole season. They can be bought for trout alone or trout and salmon. They can be bought online or from any post office (a day's trout licence cost £3.50).
Riding, Horse and Pony trekking is a hugely popular activity in the area and there are numerous riding schools in additional to the famous trekking in the Llanthony vally. Professional horse racing and point to pointing is also popular, and there are many professional stables: the winner of the Cheltenham gold Cup 2008 Sam Thomas comes from Grosmont, less than a mile from Blaentrothy Farm. For those who are happy to go slightly slower and enjoy the scenery ring:
Triley Fields Equestrian Centre, Upper Triley Farm, New Hereford Road, Abergavenny, Monmouthshire NP7 8DF is an all year showjumping and riding centre with a full range of lessons for all ages situated 10 minutes from Blaentrothy Cottages and Pontescob. Tel: 01873 890523
Grange Pony Trekking, Capel y Fin
Tel : 01873 890215
Trevelog Farm Trekking, Llanthony
Tel: 01873 890216
Offa, who gives his name to the old Welsh-English boundary dyke, was king of Mercia from 757 to 796 AD. His kingdom comprised a central tranche of England, from the Welsh Marches in the west to the Fens in the east; from the Mersey in the north to the Thames Valley in the south. At his mightiest, his control spread further, including Kent and East Anglia. He also had political alliances with Northumbria and Wessex, created by the marriage of his two daughters to their kings. King Offa was also influential on the continent, having strong political and trading links with Charlemagne. He instituted the use of the penny as the standard monetary unit in England. It had the same silver content as the coins in circulation in Francia, which served to boost international trade.
It is uncertain as to exactly why Offa’s Dyke was built, whether as an agreed boundary or as a fortified response to events in the area. Any fortifications, if they were ever there, have long gone. What we know, is that the dyke is a linear earthwork consisting of a ditch and rampart. The ditch part of it is on the Welsh-facing side, appearing to be constructed so that an open view into Wales is possible along its length. It reaches from sea to sea and roughly follows today’s Welsh-English border. Much of the Dyke is still traceable for about 80 miles from its southernmost point. Parts are still very obvious, and parts are no longer visible due to farming practices over the centuries.
Whatever the origins of Offa’s Dyke, it is a boon for walkers. It lies in some of the most beautiful and unspoilt parts of the country, and comes within a few miles of Blaentrothy Farm, comprising dramatic mountain views as well as more bucolic scenery. It connects some charming border towns and villages, such as Hay-on-Wye and, although one can walk through deep countryside, one is never too far from a pub, an inn or somewhere to get refreshment. Some walkers do parts of the Dyke, and others, such as the more ambitious ‘Dykers,’ walk the whole 182-mile length of it from Sedbury to Prestatyn and never stray from the path itself.
Being in very short supply, Welsh gold is the most valuable of precious metals. Worth three times more than ‘ordinary’ gold, it is more expensive even than platinum. Its rarity makes it an attractive commodity, but it is also the fact that it has always been associated with kings, queens and Celtic chieftains. This tradition has been continued by our royal family: the Queen’s wedding ring is made out of Welsh gold, as are those of the Duke and Duchess of Wessex. Welsh gold was used to fashion the crown for the Prince of Wales’ investiture, as well as a brooch for the Queen Mother.
The Welsh gold belt stretches from the Mawddach estuary through the wooded countryside of Coed y Brenin to the Ffestiniog – some of the wildest and most beautiful landscape in Wales. This fascinating area is bristling with abandoned goldmines from the nineteenth-century. Boom times may be over but, on a clear day, the views over to Cadair Idris are probably the closest you will get to pure gold.
Only one working mine remains: the Gwynfynydd mine. There, underground mining has stopped and entry is barred to the public, but some gold is still being retrieved from the surface. They reckon that there is only two more years’ worth of Welsh gold left. If you are desperate for a piece of jewellery made out of Welsh gold, all is not lost. A company called the Cambrian Goldfields Ltd have managed to obtain a license to scour the area around the old mines for remains of Welsh gold. They have found enough to produce a range of pure Welsh gold jewellery. Beware, though, of companies who produce pieces made ‘with a touch of Welsh gold’ and similar phrases. Their products are very diluted.
The South Wales valleys have a very strong tie to the game of Rugby Union. It was a game played by ‘ordinary people’, including miners - unlike in England and Scotland, where it was very much dominated by public school graduates. And even though Welsh Rugby Union was the last of the home unions to be formed (in 1880), this localised element tied the game to the area, making south Wales a spiritual home to the game.
The early form of what we now know as Rugby (League as well as Union) began, so it is widely told, at Rugby School. A pupil at the school, William Webb Ellis, purportedly picked up the ball during a soccer match in 1823 and ran with it towards the goal. It is not known how this behaviour was received at the time, but this ‘freer’ kind of play obviously appealed to his contemporaries and, no doubt, his teachers, as the game developed from there. The game in its early days was more static: the thrower could not run with the ball while throwing, and the catcher, as well as all the other players, had to stand still until the ball was caught. By the 1840s, however, the game had developed to the more fluid version it is today where throwing and catching can be done while running.
The game spread from Rugby school to other public schools and throughout the world via the colonies. By 1870, rugby was a popular game, but played to a variety of rules. This created confusion when schools and clubs played each other. In order to create a formalised code of practise, the first Union, the Rugby Football Union, was born on the initiative of Edwin Ash, Secretary of Richmond Club.
Blaentrothy Cottage is ideally situated for exploring this part of the world, as well as for a visit to the wonderful Cardiff Millenium Stadium. One of the most spectacular in the world, it is located on the site of the old Cardiff Arms Park in Cardiff city centre and a short walk from the railway station as well as all the other attractions of city centre activity. As you enter the stadium to witness a Wales home match, you can’t fail to be impressed by the drama of the place: the stands rise steeply up from the pitch so that the view of the action is second to none - no matter where you are seated. The singing sea of red is a riot of sound and proves that a Welsh crowd has perfect pitch. Welsh rugby is emerging out of the doldrums, so a visit to a rugby match in the Millenium Stadium is now well worth it.
Golf has traditionally been closely associated with Scotland and, as a result, many golfers rush off to the famous courses there without thinking of the alternatives. Wales has some stunning courses in very pretty countryside – and the climate is a great deal better than Scotland’s, especially in the south-east.
Golfers travel from all over the world to visit Celtic Manor in Newport. Less than seven years after it was founded in 1955, it was chosen as the host course for the 2010 Ryder Cup. One of the most important golfing complexes in Europe, Celtic Manor’s three splendid courses are complemented by a £10,000,000 clubhouse and a floodlit golf academy. The courses were designed by the Robert Trent Jones family. Robert senior built golf courses in 600 locations the world over before returning to his roots and celebrating his Welsh nationality by concentrating his energies at home. He designed two of the existing Celtic Manor courses, the Roman Road and the Coldra Woods courses, before Robert Junior created the impressive and difficult Wentwood Hills course on the slopes overlooking the Usk Valley.
The Rolls of Monmouth Golf Club is another prestigious club near Blaentrothy Holiday Cottage. One can safely call it the Rolls Royce of golf courses, as this was where the Rolls Royce engine was in fact built! Such big names as Greg Norman and Tony Jacklin have both enjoyed this testing course surrounded by the beauty and tranquillity of the Monmouthshire countryside. Under the distant gaze of the Black Mountains and the occasional deer, this course has a rare tranquil atmosphere. The clubhouse is situated in the former workshop and garage of the 18th century house, which belonged to Charles Stuart Rolls, the early aviator and motoring pioneer.
The Marriott St. Pierre Golf, Hotel & Country Club near Chepstow is on what was originally the estate of St. Pierre of Caen, one of William the Conqueror’s most faithful lieutenants. As a reward for his loyalty he was given a domain overlooking the Severn Estuary which became the site of a 14th century manor house. It was here that King Henry V, who came from nearby Monmouth, stored the Crown Jewels during the battle of Agincourt. The house now forms the heart of the Marriott St. Pierre Hotel, and two golf courses were created around it amongst the ancient specimen trees in the 400 acres of beautiful parkland. St. Pierre has hosted the Dunlop Masters and the Curtis Cup and, in 1996, staged the Solheim Cup between the USA and Europe.