Day 3. Towards Caerleon and the Roman Fortress

Inside Redwick Bus Shelter

Sustrans route 4 took me out of Chepstow to Caerleon, VENTA SILVRVM in Roman times, but there are no visible remains according to the OS map. My eventual destination for the day promised a Roman Fortress, Amphitheatre and Museums.

First a pretty, but hilly, ride though a wooded lane, and, rounding a corner, a sudden glimpse through an open door of a chapel. I declared a water break and went inside. It was small but beautifully proportioned; from memorials it seemed likely that it had been built by the local estate owner. It was good to  see how it was still being cherished, services were being held and it was beautifully kept: no dust and lots of polish.

When I conceived the tour I had decided to stick as far as possible to the Sustrans route but I realised that my hybrid bike would not cope with 4 panniers and tent on some of the surfaces that were often rough so I had had a sturdy touring bike built by Oxfordshire Bike Works and I was looking forward to see how it would cope on some of their routes.

The map showed some strange looking tracks ahead but first I had to find  the Severn Junction railway station near the coast. Emerging from the bridge by the station I was in another world. The road westward towards Newport was a busy main road, but south of the station and M4 were the expanses of Rogiet Moor which stretched down to the Estuary. Heading southwest was a track, straight for over a mile, and the surface was mainly angular small stones. I could not imagine a worse surface for cycling (except mud) so here was the chance to test the bike. The broad front tyre skittered about the stones but the bike was comfortably stable – all was good with the world.

A roar and over the horizon appeared a large dust cloud with some loud noisy vehicle within it and, as it slowly approached, it became clear that the track was only wide enough for one of us. Size would win so pulled off on to the grass, closed my eyes and stopped breathing until the patter of dust on my face ceased, and quickly closed my eyes again until the foggy dust cloud passed; a large trailer was being hauled, full of rocks. Frequently, more vehicles appeared which I dodged until, after a short dog leg with a final left hand corner to go round,  I could hear another tractor approaching. I could not pull off any more as had a ditch on one side and hedge on the other so accelerated and aimed at a space on the right of the corner where the tractor would swing out to turn. I just got there first and the driver slammed on his brakes and we came to a stop inches apart. We exchanged relieved grins.

The track soon turned into a lane and I was hit by that beautiful, sweet, grassy smell of new mown hay: recollections of a village childhood. Now, instead of moorland, the fields sweeping down to the Estuary had had their hay cut within the last 24 hours, there were swallows sweeping over the fields and a variety of small birds shooting out of the hedge on my passage but then another puzzle. The hay looked of very good quality and I decided this was probably because of the high water table on this old marsh and, with hay crops failing across the country as a result of the long heat wave, this would be valuable.

A small strange ancient looking building then appeared at the side of the road, dovecote holes in the side wall, mounting steps for horse riders then, against the neighbouring church wall, a set of stocks. The front was wholly open, inside an old press and vertical grinder too close together and without apparent motive power and seating. A man approached behind a wheel barrow as he had been tidying the hedge of the village hall opposite so I went over to him and I said how puzzled I was; he stalled but when he saw my genuine interest explained that when some buildings were pulled down, the site, which was on the prominent corner of the village and in front of the church, looked a desolate mess and stayed like that for a number of years accumulating rubbish. There was a lot of discussion about what to do and how to raise the funds and when a retired villager offered to rebuild what had been the bus stop and clear up the area, this was warmly accepted.

Over the next few years he worked on the building which he felt, rightly, needed to be in keeping with that area and adding curious items that he managed to acquire from time to time and creating what was a large covered bus shelter.

Route 4 then took me into Newport and then transferred onto routes 47 and 88 which went straight up the river front towards Caerleon. Leaving Newport from the north, lost the signs, the problem was that there had been substantial road changes and the signs had gone. Asked a fellow cyclist for help and he immediately gave me that kind Welsh response I had been receiving during the last two days and he told me to follow him and he would put me back on the route which was along a scenic cycling and walking route above a river. I asked him for advice as to where to eat, he suggested The Bell Inn for its excellent food. Arrived at the B & B and there, 100 yards up the road, was The Bell Inn. Checked in and dashed up the road to get there by 8.30 in case they stopped serving then. He had been right about the food and there was good real ale and a cheery atmosphere. Arrived back replete but shattered and decided to leave tomorrow until tomorrow and went straight to bed. The landlady had been surprised to hear that the Tourist Office at Chepstow had found her; she was not on their list.

Day 1. Off to Wales

Into Wales

Lock the door, cross the road, down the path on to the Flitch Way, a former railway track now for public use leading to Braintree Station and also part of the Sustrans Cycle network. Intend to follow Route 4 from the Severn Bridge to St David’s, the most Western point in Wales.

Bikes and trains have a difficult relationship; bikes need to use trains, the train companies encouraged to accommodate bikes, but often seem reluctant. Not Abellio, though, a Dutch bike-friendly company which runs our train to London. It has put in new cycle racking at their stations and, ignoring some indignation, has converted some formerly first-class carriages by including a row of tip-up seats so space can be created for wheelchairs/pushchairs/bikes.

Stood with bike loaded with 4 panniers, tent and sleeping bag outside Liverpool Street Station apprehensively viewing the maelstrom which is the City, which needed to be crossed to the cycle super-highway along the Thames. There were scuttling pedestrians glued to phones, cyclists dashing everywhere. The trick, I discovered, was to become a “vehicle”, get well into the road and become part of the slow-moving traffic. It does not make you popular, but everyone can see you.

The super-highway is mostly separated from the traffic, its main problem along the Embankment being tourists obliviously wandering about taking photographs. Left the Embankment at The Houses of Parliament to connect to the cycle path along Birdcage Walk. Rounded the corner at the top – two large white horses were marching towards me so exchanged glances with the two mounted police and immediately decided it was now a horse path and shot into the tourists and stopped. A section of troops passed by and there were tourists were swanning everywhere: I had just missed the Changing of the Guard.

Escaped into the peace of Hyde Park, and had the pleasure of riding along the bank of the Serpentine where Ian has often taken me to see the wide variety of birds and their families. Then it was over the road to Paddington Station to join the crowd watching the destination board to see the allocation of platforms. Dashed to the Bristol train as the allocation was put up uncomfortably close to time of departure.

You have to book beforehand to take a bike on an express train and are also given a seat allocation: mine was coach J. When walking through the barrier I enquired where the bike store was; some deep thought and was told it was at the far end. The express stretched way out of sight around a curve in the platform but spotted the store fortunately just 20 yards from the barrier and secured the bike.

Staggered off down the platform carrying 4 panniers, bar bag, light hiking tent and sleeping bag. No sign of coach J and the lettering of the carriages lost their sequence. Tried to fight down growing panic when saw Porter – “Where is coach J”? “There isn’t one on the new trains, that was for an old train. Just get on here.” “But I’ve got a seat booked in J”, “GET ON!”. Collapsed puffed out into seat in nearly full carriage shortly followed by politely protesting English voice also wanting coach J and then saw large Scandinavian, being very firm in that Scandinavian manner, but quietening when she saw that the few remaining seats were being filled up. Her approach had some effect because, when the snack bar opened, a sheepish conductor arrived with a peace offering of a sandwich, muffin and drink which she, grumbling, accepted.

Had identified a local train from Bristol which went to Avonmouth and then continued along the bank of the Estuary in the direction of the Severn. Not only would this take me nearer the crossing, but it had the great advantage that I would not have to cycle though another city. At Bristol station I could find no indication where it left from until someone directed me to a siding in the invisible far reaches of the Station where a veteran two carriage diesel train arrived to eventually deposit me at a small station where the towers of the bridge beckoned me towards Wales.