Visit The Newport Medieval Ship In Wales

Newport medieval ship
When the city of Newport, Wales, was building its Riverfront Arts Centre back in 2002, there was an amazing discovery. A large medieval trading vessel was discovered in very good condition.

The ship measured about 85 feet in length and was 26 feet wide at its widest point. The timbers of the clinker-built ship survived the centuries thanks to the oxygen-poor conditions in the River Usk where it was found. This kept microbes from feeding on the ship.

Hundreds of artifacts were recovered during the excavation, including an hourglass, a shoe, a cannonball and Portuguese coins. The most important artifact was a small silver coin found wedged into a hole at the join between the stem post and the keel. This type of coin was minted in France from 1445-1456 and so the ship must date to then or later. Coins were often placed into the fabric of a ship when it was being built as a token of good luck.

While a planned museum for the ship hasn’t been built yet and restoration of the timbers isn’t finished, it’s still possible to visit the Newport Medieval Ship. There are various open days, including one on June 1 and another on June 9. The one on June 1 marks a decade since the ship was discovered. Visitors will get to see the restoration in progress and hear more about the ship and its times from local experts.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Weird monument in Wales has interesting history


If you’re staying in Aberystwyth, Wales, you can see it from pretty much everywhere–a tall tower on a bluff to the south of town. At first it’s hard to see what it is, so my wife, five-year-old son and I decided to walk there and have a look.

It was an easy two or three kilometers from town through a wooded trail up a fairly steep slope. What greeted us once we made it through the trees was rather surprising–a giant stone cannon pointing at the sky. The bluff gave a commanding view of the town, a horse racing track, and the open sea. A little plaque declared that this was a monument to the Duke of Wellington, who beat Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo with some timely help from the Germans. It was erected c. 1852.

WalesBut. . .why? What’s the connection between a Welsh seaside report and one of the British Empire’s greatest heroes? There isn’t even a statue of the Duke duking it out with the undersized French dictator. From town it looked for all the world like the smokestack of some Victorian factory.

The owners of our B&B, the Seabrin Guest House, told us the tale. It’s called the Derry Ormond Tower, after the local landowner who first came up with the idea of the tower. Ormond was a veteran of Waterloo and wanted to honor the general he served under.

Originally the cannon was supposed to serve as the base for a statue of the Duke of Wellington astride a horse, looking suitably imperious. Money ran out, however, and some say the statue languished in a stonemason’s yard in Cardiff until someone with deeper pockets took it off their hands.

So Aberystwyth is left with half a monument. Ah well, at least the view was nice.

What’s your favorite odd monument? Tell us about it in the comments section!

Medieval painted churches in England and Wales

medieval
England and Wales are full of beautiful medieval churches. From the famous like Christ Church cathedral to the lesser-known like Dorchester Abbey, they offer breathtaking architecture and decoration, and since many are free, they make good budget travel destinations.

Some even preserve fragile paintings from the Middle Ages, like this one photographed by Roger Rosewell, author of Medieval Wall Paintings in English and Welsh Churches. This is a thorough and richly illustrated guide to an art form many travelers know little about. He takes us through the history of these paintings and their sometimes obscure meanings, and delves into how they were seen by their contemporaries.

The above illustration shows the “Harrowing of Hell” and was painted in the late 15th century at the church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Pickering, Yorkshire. It’s a scene from The Gospel of Nicodemus, when between Christ’s burial and the third day, God undid Christ’s death and Christ released Adam, Eve, and other righteous souls from Hell. If you haven’t heard of this gospel, it’s because it’s one of the many books that didn’t make it into the final standard version of the Bible we know today. Scenes from this book and many other so-called Apocryphal texts were well-known to medieval Christians, though.

Other subjects include the Virgin Mary, the lives of saints, the Doom or final judgement, and the Warning to Blasphemers–a grisly scene in which those who have taken the Lord’s name in vain are shown tearing apart his body.

Rosewell also looks at the patrons who commissioned the work and the painters themselves, telling us a lot about medieval society. Interestingly, it appears some of the painters were women, yet little is known about any church painters, male or female. There’s also a handy gazetteer and subject guide to help you locate any church paintings along your trip itinerary.

I only have two minor criticisms of this work. Firstly, while Rosewell explains Christian iconography very well, sometimes he leaves architectural terms undefined. Despite having written two books on medieval history, I had to look up “soffit” and “voussoir”! Also, while many of the photos are lovely, some have less than ideal lighting and look like simple snapshots. Granted, many medieval wall paintings are so faded it’s virtually impossible to get good photos of them, yet I feel a bit more effort would have enhanced these photos considerably.

All in all, I highly recommend Medieval Wall Paintings in English and Welsh Churches to anyone interested in the Middle Ages, art, or travel in England in Wales. It’s the perfect mixture of art, history, and guidebook, something I wish the travel industry would give us more of.

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Riding the rails in Wales: a steam train into the Welsh hills

Wales, steam train
If you like old trains, you’re going to love Wales. The region has several narrow-gauge steam locomotives. The website Great Little Trains of Wales tells you about ten of them traveling various routes around the country. Most are clustered in the north and west, which most travelers say has the best scenery.

Having never been on a steam train and knowing it would be a guaranteed hit with our five-year-old son, we took the Vale of Rheidol Railway from Aberystwyth up into the Welsh hills to Devil’s Bridge. Our train, the Prince of Wales, dates to the 1920s and has been lovingly restored. It makes the 12-mile run in about an hour.

We set off to much chugging and hooting, which was taken up by all the children on board. As we cleared the station we saw that strangest of British animals, a trainspotter, filming our departure. Leaving Aberystwyth and the trainspotter behind, we picked up speed and soon started to ascend into the hills. Parts of the route are very steep and winding, which is why a narrow-gauge is used, and goes along the southern side of the Vale (Valley) of Rheidol. To our north the valley opened up to view, a gleaming strip of river winding far below, and here and there a farm. Only a few farms and houses stood near the rails and most of the time we were in countryside. A Red Kite flew by looking for prey. The engineer said that buzzards are a common sight too.

%Gallery-129371%One thing that was very noticeable was just how loud steam trains are. Our forefathers did not get a quiet, relaxing ride!

We continued to climb up the side of the valley past a few farms, thick woodland, and fields covered in wildflowers until we made it to Devil’s Bridge, where the trainspotter from Aberystwyth was waiting to film our arrival. There’s a beautiful waterfall tumbling through thick greenery here, and three bridges passing over it. The lowest bridge is said to have been built by the Devil in an attempt to get an old woman’s soul. The woman was too clever for him, though. You can read the story here. Two trails offer views of the falls.

There’s also a Robber’s Cave that local folklore says was used by three thieves–two brothers and their sister. The cave was a great hideout and they managed to live a life of crime for many years until they accidentally killed one of their victims. The locals came out with dogs and traced them to this cave. The men were hung and the woman burnt at the stake.

If you’ve never been on a steam train before, it’s a fun novelty and a great way to see the countryside. Our son loved it, of course, and all the other kids seemed to be entertained too!

Exploring the Welsh coast: Aberaeron and New Quay

Welsh coast, New Quay
Yesterday I mentioned that Aberystwyth is a good base from which to explore western Wales. On our second day in Wales my wife, son, and I hopped on a local bus and went south down the Welsh coast to the ports of Aberaeron and New Quay. Aberaeron is about 40 minutes from Aberystwyth and New Quay is only about 20 minutes further south from Aberaeron.

While we didn’t have long in Aberaeron, we liked this tidy little Welsh town with its brightly painted houses and fine view of the sea. There are plenty of shops, restaurants, and pubs and we got the impression that it might be a better place to stay than Aberystwyth. Like in Aberystwyth, we heard a lot of people speaking Welsh. Most signs are in both languages. It’s nice to know that the language is surviving in the age of globalized English.

At New Quay we stopped for lunch at a pub on a cliff overlooking a sandy beach and broad harbor. The view was nice but service was slow and the food substandard. Sadly, this was the case with all too many of our meals in Wales, even though we usually followed local advice as to where to eat.

%Gallery-129265%The famous writer Dylan Thomas lived here for a time and New Quay was the inspiration for his fictional town of Llareggub (“bugger all” spelled backwards). Visitors interested in literary tourism can follow the Dylan Thomas Trail.

We’d come to take a boat trip instead. My five-year-old had never been out to sea so we decided to remedy that by going on one of New Quay’s many dolphin tours. Dolphins are abundant in these waters; we’d seen several from the window of the Seabrin Guest House in Aberystwyth. We chose a tour run by the Cardigan Bay Marine Wildlife Centre, which uses its profits to fund research into the sea life on this part of the Welsh coast. The sea was calm and the sun shone fine so we weren’t worried as we stepped aboard an inflatable motorboat with a half dozen other people.

This good weather was our undoing. The calm conditions had made the fish move further out to sea, and the dolphins had followed them. As we made our way down the coast on our one-hour ride we saw exactly none. Oh well. It’s best to remember that nature isn’t there for our amusement.

This stretch of Welsh coastline is beautiful, with jagged rocks rising high out of the sea. The strata of the rocks is clearly visible, which allowed me to give the kid a lesson in geology, and the cliffs are dotted with numerous caves that smugglers (our boat captain called them “pirates”) used to elude the customs agents. My son was more disappointed about there being no pirates than he was about the lack of dolphins! All was made better when he got to sit in the captain’s chair.

One local told me that New Quay isn’t the most pleasant place to be at night in the summertime. A lot of rough people come into town to get drunk and start fights, and two of his friends got knifed in one incident. We saw a big fight in Aberystwyth too. This isn’t unusual in the UK. When I lived in London, I regularly saw fights on the street on Friday and Saturday nights. It’s just a sad fact of life in this part of the world.

Still, we had a nice day and the kid had a great time and got to experience something new, which is what really matters. Tomorrow I’ll be blogging about a steam train we took through some beautiful Welsh countryside. Unlike my last two posts on Wales, this one will be entirely positive!