During lockdown, many of us made the pilgrimage back to our family homes – and rediscovered them through fresh eyes. Part guide, part love letter, “Home towns” is a new series in which we celebrate where we’re from. After all, it could be a while before we can go anywhere else…
“What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare,” seem pretty fitting words from vagabond poet WH Davies for describing visitors to his hometown.
“I've changed trains there once,” or “I went there to get my passport renewed,” are pretty standard responses when I say where I'm from. Either that or, “Oh, Pembrokeshire, how lovely.” Um, no, not that Newport, the coastal town of the same name in the Pembrokeshire National Park; I’m talking about the rough Newport near Cardiff, famous for Goldie Lookin’ Chain, the TV programme Bouncers, and, as the Comic Relief “Newport State of Mind” parody song reminded us, TV presenter Josie d’Arby.
Newport is one of those places that people tend not to stop in unless completely necessary, and if you listen to its inhabitants, you wouldn’t blame them. Newportonians can be self-deprecating about their city to the point of denigration (I’m a culprit of this myself). However, I’d wager that Newport folk are actually rather proud of their surrounds: its varied history, impressive architecture, and divisive public statues and sculptures (The Wave, I’m looking at you). Indeed, when a stranger speaks badly of this pretty, s****y city, Newportonians will defend it to the hilt.
The problem is, Newport has a bit of a bad rep – and not just from the aforementioned media attention. It’s seen years of decline since the steelworks – the lifeblood of the city’s jobs’ market – closed and, because of the once world-famous docks, it’s always been a bit on the rough and ready side. 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 an actual Roman amphitheatre for starters!).
Growing up, Newport always seemed full of life and an edgy energy. The “legendary” TJ’s club in Clarence Place is allegedly where Kurt Cobain proposed to Courtney Love. Viscount Evan Morgan, who lived at the city’s Tredegar House, was known for throwing the most extravagant parties, which all of Britain’s 1920s socialites wanted an invite to – if for no other reason than to be sworn at by his foul-mouthed parrot.
My Saturdays as a teenager were a rather more timid ritual of heading into town, checking out the CDs in MVC, and watching the clock fall apart and miraculously put itself back together in John Frost Square (In The Nick Of Time artwork). At a certain point it stopped being cool, and the lack of job opportunities meant I switched the Transporter Bridge for Tower Bridge and the infamous Brynglas Tunnels for the bright lights of London more than 10 years ago.
Post-lockdown, in August last year, I moved back to Wales’s Gateway City. After nine months of being back, I now savour my daily walks to the top of Ridgeway to take in the views of the mountains – known locally as Little Switzerland – on one side and the Severn Estuary and Somerset on the other. God, the air is fresh compared to London. Lockdown aside, I’ve been rediscovering the city more broadly, too, and the closer I look, the more I find to give me hope for the city I love.
When a stranger speaks badly of this pretty, s****y city, Newportonians will defend it to the hilt
I’ve learnt that Newport is one of the top places for recycling waste in the UK – music to my millennial ears. And a scoot around town offers me untold secondhand delights, with charity shops making up most of the remaining stores on the high street. As I mooch about, glancing up at the ornate historical facades of the buildings, I notice that, while big chain stores might have fled, cool little independents are sprouting up.
Hounds the Barbershop wouldn’t look out of place in Shoreditch (though it comes with a much friendlier reception), while Quarters Coffee, with its white tiled interior and avo on toast and flat whites, easily substitutes my London local. And Newport even has a new celebrity to champion our unique accent: RuPaul’s Drag Race superstar Tayce.
So next time you’re in town for your passport renewal, why not take the time to stand and stare? You never know, you might even bump into Josie D’Arby.
Marvel at Victorian engineering
One of only six working left in the world (from a total of 20 originally constructed), Newport’s towering Transporter Bridge is the longest and heaviest of the lot. A Newport icon, the Grade I listed structure has been straddling the River Usk for the last 115 years. An ingenious solution to the huge tidal range of the river (the second highest in the world after the Qiantang), it allowed tall ships up and down while ferrying vehicles and pedestrians across. Journeys are currently suspended while the bridge undergoes a multimillion-pound restoration but it’s still well worth a visit.
Talking of ingenious solutions, head to Fourteen Locks and walk the old canal towpath. In the age before steam railways, this section of the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal was designed to lower coal and iron ore barges down 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 down Stow Hill to Westgate Square in Newport in the most physical stage of their petitioning the government to introduce a series of six political reforms to give more power to the people. They included votes for all men over 21, wages for MPs and a secret ballot. What the protesters didn’t know was that royal soldiers were waiting at the Westgate Hotel and opened fire on them, killing many – although the chartists themselves had come prepared for battle. Their bodies are buried in unmarked graves in the grounds of Newport Cathedral at the top of the hill. You’ll find more information about the chartists, the most fantastic collection of artefacts spanning the last 2,000 years of Newport history, and artworks by Lowry at Newport Museum and Art Gallery – one of my favourite spaces in the city.
Eat the world
Thanks to the strategic docks, Newport has always welcomed people from across the globe who have brought with them their traditions and culinary heritage. Something of a Newport stalwart 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 railway bridge is the place to head. My find (and saviour) of lockdown has been New Ole, which serves authentic tapas from its tiny Cardiff Road kitchen. For classic Welsh pub fare, head to the Ridgeway Bistro Bar where Tom and the team serve up exceptional plates – think braised pork belly, pork and leek sausage with wholegrain mustard mash.
Roam around an amphitheatre
You could easily spend a whole day in Caerleon – or Isca Silurum as the Romans called it. Explore its Roman amphitheatre remains, as well as the roman barracks and well-preserved Roman baths. Or imagine the legend of King Arthur and his Knights as you wander the streets – it’s supposed to be the site of the Roundtable. Stop for refreshment at the Hanbury Arms and try to snag the window seat overlooking the river, where Alfred, Lord Tennyson sat to write Idylls of a King: “The Usk murmurs by the windows and I sit like King Arthur at Caerleon.”
Bed down like Obama
Yes, even Barack himself enjoyed the delights of Newport back in 2014 at the Nato Summit held at the Celtic Manor Resort. This five-star hotel houses a top-rate spa, stellar dining credentials and award-winning golf courses including the 2010 Ryder Cup course.
If you’re looking for something more on the boutique side, try West Usk Lighthouse B&B. This former lighthouse is 200 years old this year. There’s a hot tub on the roof so you can enjoy views of the wonderful Wales Coast Path Severn Estuary while you soak.