During the lockdown, many of us made the pilgrimage back to our family homes – and rediscovered them with fresh eyes. Part of the guide, part of the love letter, “Towns of originIs a new series in which we celebrate where we came from. After all, it might take a while before we can move elsewhere …
“What is this life if, full of care, we don’t have time to stand up and watch,” the wandering poet WH Davies’ words seem apt enough to describe visitors to his hometown.
“I changed trains once there” or “I went there to renew my passport” are fairly standard responses when I say where I come from. Either that or “Oh, Pembrokeshire, that’s beautiful.” Uh, no, no this Newport, the coastal town of the same name in Pembrokeshire National Park; I’m talking about rough Newport near Cardiff famous for Goldie Lookin ‘Chain, the TV show Bouncers, and, as the Comic Relief parody song “Newport State of Mind” reminded us, TV presenter Josie d’Arby.
Newport is one of those places people tend not to stop unless absolutely necessary, and if you listen to its locals you don’t blame them. Newportonians can depreciate themselves of their city to the point of denigrating (I myself am guilty). However, I would bet the people of Newport are actually quite proud of their surroundings: its varied history, impressive architecture, and divisive public statues and sculptures (The wave, I am looking at you). Indeed, when a stranger speaks ill of this beautiful city, the Newportons defend it to the end.
The problem is, Newport has a bit of a bad reputation – and not just the aforementioned media attention. It’s seen years of decline since the steel mills – the lifeblood of the city’s job market – were shut down – and, because of the once world-famous docks, it’s always been a bit difficult. But the city has the most illustrious history, much of which can still be seen or experienced in one form or another today (it has a veritable Roman amphitheater to begin with!).
Growing up, Newport always seemed full of life and nervous energy. TJ’s “legendary” club at Clarence Place is said to be where Kurt Cobain proposed to Courtney Love. Viscount Evan Morgan, who lived at the town’s Tredegar house, was known to throw the most extravagant parties all the British socialites of the 1920s wanted to be invited to – if only to be sworn in by his rude parrot.
My Saturdays as a teenager were a bit more shy ritual of heading into town, watching CDs in MVC, and watching the clock crumble and miraculously recover in John Frost Square (Just in time masterpieces). At a certain point, that stopped being cool, and the lack of job opportunities forced me to change the Transporter Bridge for Tower Bridge and the infamous Brynglas Tunnels for the brilliant lights of London over the years ago. 10 years.
After the lockdown, in August of last year, I returned to Gateway City in Wales. After nine months back, I now relish my daily walks to the summit of Ridgeway to take in the views of the mountains – known locally as Little Switzerland – on one side and the Severn Estuary and Somerset from the other. God, the air is cool compared to London. Lockdown aside, I’ve rediscovered the city more widely too, and the closer I look, the more hope I find for the city I love.
I’ve learned that Newport is one of the best places to recycle garbage in the UK – music to my millennial ears. And a stroll around town gives me untold second-hand delicacies, with charity shops making up most of the remaining shops on Main Street. As I laugh, glancing at the ornate historic facades of buildings, I notice that while the big chain stores might have fled, cool little independents are sprouting up.
Hunt the barber shop would not be moved to Shoreditch (although the reception is much friendlier), while Neighborhood Café, with its white tiled interior and avoiding toast and flat whites, easily replaces my local London. And Newport even has a new celebrity to defend our unique accent: RuPaul’s Drag Race superstar Tayce.
So the next time you’re in town for your passport renewal, why not take the time to get up and take a look? You never know, you might even run into Josie D’Arby.
Marvel at Victorian engineering
One of only six still operating in the world (out of a total of 20 originally built), Newport’s towering Transporter Bridge is the longest and heaviest of the lot. An icon of Newport, the Grade I listed structure has straddled the Usk River for 115 years. An ingenious solution to the enormous tidal range of the river (the second highest in the world after the Qiantang), it allowed tall ships to go up and down while carrying vehicles and pedestrians. Trips are currently on hold while the bridge undergoes a multi-million pound restoration, but it’s still worth a visit.
Speaking of ingenious solutions, make your way to Fourteen Locks and take the old canal towpath. In the pre-steam era days, this section of the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal was designed to lower coal and iron ore barges 160 feet in just half a mile in a flight of 14 consecutive locks .
Walk in the footsteps of democracy
The Newport Uprising of 1839 saw nearly 4,000 working class people march from the Newport valleys towards Stow Hill to Westgate Square in Newport in the most physical stage of their petition, calling on the government to introduce a series six political reforms to give more power to the people. . They included votes for all men over 21, MP salaries and a secret ballot. What the protesters did not know was that the Royal Soldiers were waiting at the Westgate Hotel and opened fire on them, killing many – although the Chartists themselves came prepared for the battle. Their bodies are buried in anonymous graves in the grounds of Newport Cathedral at the top of the hill. You can find more information about the Chartists, the most fantastic collection of artifacts spanning the last 2000 years of Newport history and the works of Lowry at Newport Museum and Art Gallery – one of my favorite spaces in the city.
Eat the world
Thanks to the strategic docks, Newport has always welcomed people from all over the world who have brought with them their traditions and culinary heritage. Something of a Newport pillar is New Lahore, serving the best Indian cuisine since 1961. If gourmet Italian is more your style, then the compact Gemelli perched on the corner of a railroad bridge is the place to head. My discovery (and savior) of the lockdown was New Ole, which serves authentic tapas from its small Cardiff Road kitchen. For classic Welsh pub fare, head to Ridgeway Bistro Bar where Tom and the team serve exceptional dishes – think braised pork belly, pork and leek sausage with old-fashioned mustard mash.
Stroll through an amphitheater
You could easily spend an entire day at Caerleon – or Isca Silurum as the Romans called it. Explore its remains of the Roman Amphitheater, as well as the Roman and well-preserved barracks roman baths. Or imagine the legend of King Arthur and his knights as you walk the streets – this is meant to be the site of the Round Table. Stop for a refreshment at the Hanbury Weapons and try to hang the seat from the window overlooking the river, where Alfred, Lord Tennyson sat to write Idylls of a king: “Usk whispers by the windows and I sit like King Arthur in Caerleon.”
Reads like obama
Yes, even Barack himself enjoyed Newport’s delicacies in 2014 at the NATO Summit held at the Celtic Manor Resort. This five-star hotel is home to a first-rate spa, exceptional dining credentials and award-winning golf courses, including the 2010 Ryder Cup course.
If you’re looking for something more boutique-style, try West Usk Lighthouse B&B. This old lighthouse is 200 years old this year. There is a rooftop hot tub so you can take in the views of the beautiful Wales Coast Path Severn Estuary while you soak up.