The Journey

GWTTA: Newport, South Wales (Casnewydd)

It seems appropriate for Newport to be the first place visited on the Great Welsh Tea Towel Adventure. It is here, after all, that I finally passed my Mod 2 exam, thereby earning my motorcycle license.

It is appropriate, too, because Newport exemplifies how utterly random is my tea towel map. I can think of very few scenarios in which I would suggest Newport as a place to visit. I doubt many Welsh people –– including and especially those from Newport –– would tell you to visit, either. Newport is not a place to go to of your own free will; it is a place to ridicule.
Literally translated, the town’s Welsh name, Casnewydd, means “new hate,” but, of course, this name is almost certainly a mishearing of whatever people were calling it centuries ago. That happens a lot in South Wales. Cardiff’s Welsh name, for example, is Caerdydd, which literally translates to “Day Fortress” (a). The name of the town I live in, Penarth, translates to “Bear’s Head” (b).

According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, Newport’s original Welsh name was Castell Newydd ar Wysg, meaning “New Castle on the River Usk.” The castle being referred to there hasn’t been new since about 1087. Get used to this sort of thing as the Great Welsh Tea Towel Adventure rolls on: stuff is really old here. Sadly, this particular really old stuff is no longer visible, its crumbled remains having been buried under rubble created by railway work in the 1840s.

That’s not to say Newport is sans castle. After all, Wales is home to more castles and fortresses than any other country in the world –– for a city to be without one would be gauche, darling. A new, new castle was built around 1327. Within two centuries, it had fallen into disrepair but it was used by various invading forces off and on right through the inaccurately named English Civil War (c).
These days the castle is little more than a miserable pile of rocks, occupied primarily by dodgy-looking teenagers. “Dodgy-looking” is a descriptor that can be used for almost everything in Newport: buildings, people, cars, rail-road tracks, even the River Usk as it churns wide and muddy through the middle of the city.
In case you’re wondering, Newport smells as bad as it looks.
Still, for some reason I can’t quite fathom, I have a little soft spot in my heart for Newport. That is to say, I don’t outright hate it. I guess the fact I passed my motorcycle test there plays a part in this. Along with the correlating days I spent riding all around the city in training for the test.
Located less than 15 miles from Penarth, it is a place to which I will often ride when I want to refresh certain skills. The almost-always-empty car park for Newport Stadium is a good place to work on slow-speed manoeuvres. The width of the roads through city centre make them ideal for practicing the art of filtering. And overall, the city’s roads are pretty quiet, except for certain roundabouts connecting the major arteries of the Sirhowy, Ebbw, Ebbw Fach, Llwyd and Usk valleys.

All of these road junctions are in the north of the city, where the M4 runs past, exporting goods and talent to Cardiff and the more profitable towns and cities of Southwest England. And therein lies the only thing that Newport has ever had going for it: it’s conveniently located near better stuff.

During the Roman occupation it was conveniently located near the legionary fortress of Caerleon. During the Industrial Revolution it was conveniently located between Wales’ ore-rich valleys and the sea. These days it’s conveniently located between the major cultural centres of Cardiff and Bristol. However, its interminable ugliness and notoriously drunken and drugged-up residents mean it hasn’t really been able to shape itself into a commuter town.

Newport’s most famous residents, comedy rap group Goldie Lookin’ Chain (who achieved their greatest fame with the songs “Your Mother’s Got A Penis” and “Guns Don’t Kill People, Rappers Do“), are a mocking but equally accurate portrayal of the sort of person you’re likely to encounter in the city: dirty, bedecked in discount leisurewear, under the influence of at least one kind of substance, but ultimately convivial and open to conversation. Newport, in other words, is one of those places that apologists like to describe as “having a lot of character.”

And, indeed it does. Or, rather, it should. If you look at Newport, it seems to have all the elements necessary to be a cool, quirky, artist haven like London’s Camden neighbourhood, or Brooklyn’s Williamsburg. But it isn’t. The artists aren’t here; they won’t come. It’s just an ugly place full of scary people that, because of its general desolation, happens to be a good spot to practice riding one’s motorcycle.

I rode into the city taking the old Newport Road out of Cardiff, a route that was long ago superseded by the adjacent A48, and thereafter the M4. As such, Newport Road is relatively quiet. It is one of the few places in Britain where you can cheerfully putt along at the speed limit without having other road users aggressively trying to force you to go faster. At St Mellons, it joins up with the A48 for a few miles but this section, too, is almost always quiet.
Reaching the city boundaries I began looking for something to take a picture of. Anything. This was something of a challenge because the look of Newport is generally one of two things: 1) crumbling post-industrial decay; or 2) a flat space where crumbling post-industrial decay has been levelled and replaced by a McDonalds or KFC.

Eventually I settled on the Transporter Bridge.

Built in 1906 as a unique answer to the problem of getting people across a river that is also used for shipping, the Transporter Bridge features a sort of platform gondola that hangs from wires. Within a few years it was being used as a setting in the film Tiger Bay, which highlighted how utterly shit life in South Wales was in the 1950s. A few decades later, the bridge ceased operation because it had fallen into disrepair and there was no need for it; industry was dead.

These days it is just a tourist destination that struggles to stay open because there are no tourists. When I stopped to take pictures, a woman at the bridge’s shed-sized visitor centre asked me if I was lost.

She explained to me the bridge was closed for the winter. Should I be keen to return in summer there are specific open days during which I can ride the bridge’s gondola back and forth to my heart’s content and climb to the top of the structure all for the low price of £2.75. It’s an unmitigated bargain, to be sure, but the problem is that it requires you spend time in Newport.

After finishing the cup of tea the woman had kindly offered, I decided I had spent enough time here and packed up to move on. If the goal of this whole adventure is to improve my opinion of Wales, it was probably best to get Newport out of the way as soon as possible.

(a) Most people agree that Caerdydd is a bastardisation of “Caer Daf,” which would mean “Taff Fortress.” That name makes sense, considering Cardiff began life nigh 2,000 years ago as a Roman fortress on the banks of the River Taff.

(b) Although Penarth Town Council have embraced the bear’s head theme, even going so far as to incorporate several images of bears into the town crest, Penarth’s name is probably a mishearing of “Pen y Garth,” which means “top of the hill.” And surprise, surprise, Penarth is located at the top of a hill.

(c) Which took place in the 1640s. If you’re unfamiliar with the English Civil War, here it is explained in two and half minutes through the medium of song.