On Newport Wetlands

Much has been said and written over the years about Cardiff’s various relationships with other cities, especially Swansea, Bristol and London. But Cardiff’s relationship with Newport, its nearest neighbour and Wales’ third largest city, has never even been referred to in passing let alone examined in any depth. This is odd when you think about it; akin to the intimate, parallel and interacting economic, historic, geographic, political, cultural and sporting connections between, say, Liverpool and Manchester being completely ignored. In fact, given their very similar circumstances and very close proximity, this seems rather like two people shipwrecked on a tiny desert island pretending the other doesn’t exist.

It’s a walkable 12 miles from Cardiff Castle to Newport Castle; yet it might as well be 12oo for all the sense of common purpose in this pair of ex-coal ports on the Severn. From a Cardiffian perspective, which I unavoidably possess, Newport is scarcely on the radar: at best unconsidered and unknown; at worst scathingly dismissed as an unadulterated dump. Some bother with anti-Newport jokes (A travelling salesman new to Newport and with time on his hands asked a passer-by where the red light district was. “Not today mun, it’s ‘alf-day closing,” replied the local), and some indulge in withering put-downs (Newport Council’s strap-line in the 1980s was ‘Visit Newport – only two hours from London!’), but most never give the place a second thought. Whereas from a Newportian (is that a word?) perspective, which I’m perfectly capable of slipping into, Cardiff is likewise held in general contempt – but for a much wider gamut of reasons, ranging across pomposity, pretension, greed, money, sinfulness, racketeering, exoticness, high-falutin’ airs-and-graces and onward, deeper, into the unlanced boil of lingering Anglo/Welsh inner-conflictedness. If Newport and Cardiff were two people they could, on a bad day, be personified as a sulky outsider and a puffed-up braggart.

Cardiffians rarely set foot in Newport unless they are compelled to by work. A surprisingly numerous 10,000 are in just that position and make the awful daily commute eastwards along the A48, A48(M) or M4. Most toil at the monitor-face in one of the multitude of menacing, malignant UK government departments repeatedly bestowed on Newport over the years (the better to bind it to Brit bootlicking) like the Patent Office, the Office of National Statistics and the Passport Office. These short-straw Cardiffians don’t hang around after clocking-off time to sample the retail delights of Commercial Street or indulge in a glass of chilled white wine at The Riverfront arts centre. They shoot home westwards without a backward glance, refusing to spend a moment more than necessary in the intriguing city on the muddy Usk, Casnewydd-ar-Wysg.

Actually, Newport has much that Cardiff has either thrown away or never had. There’s the obvious, like the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal, the Transporter Bridge, working docks, the Roman amphitheatre and the Newport Ship, and then there’s the less obvious: the people. Knowing yet naive, disputatious yet friendly, outgoing yet introverted, sardonic yet supportive, they’re Newport’s trump card, and a downbeat antidote to the Pollyanna-on-MDMA tendency so rife in contemporary Caerdydd.

Those who run Cardiff have been mistreating Newport ever since the Bute Estate’s machiavellian machinations got the Rhymney Railway to terminate at Cardiff instead of Newport in 1864, so diverting most of the Gwent valleys’ coal traffic to their Cardiff docks and away from the more natural outlet at Newport. In recent decades Cardiff’s authorities have treated Newport as little more than an overflow car park; so I’d advise Newport to view the capital’s recent ‘Severn Partnership’, ‘City Region’, ‘City Deal’ and ‘Core City’ overtures for what they are: transparent excuses for time-servers in suits to enjoy loads of all-expenses-paid luncheons, booze-ups, shindigs, weekend conferences, luxury hotels and exploratory overseas trips – while Newport’s usual role, breathing in the fumes from Cardiff’s exhaust pipe, will remain unchanged.

Rather like Cardiff, Newport has long been plagued by dreadful local government. I am spoiled for examples, but few better encapsulate the current Council’s rottenness and stupidity than the shocking and completely unjustifiable destruction of the Chartist mural at John Frost Square in 2013, carried out secretly in spite of city-wide opposition. The mural was Newport’s solitary memorial to the 1839 Newport Rising, a seminal event in Welsh history and the last armed, revolutionary, mass insurrection in the UK (to date). To make way for a shopping mall (the latest in a catalogue of always doomed Newport attempts to be a pale version of Cardiff), the 200,000-piece tile and glass 1978 work of mosaic master Kenneth Budd (1925-1995) wasn’t just eradicated, it was smashed to bits to ensure it could never be re-assembled. Contemptuously offering the vague possibility of a replacement memorial when funds permit at some unspecified distant date, the Council stated that “the mural has served to remind us of Newport’s past, but we must now focus on Newport’s future” – as if the past and the future were mutually exclusive and not intimately interdependent! This type of brazen attack on collective cultural history is nothing new in Wales, and is particularly prevalent in Gwent. The 700 year-old kingdom of Gwent was the first part of Cymru to fall to the Norman invaders in the late 11th century and has been a test-bed for the inculcation of the colonial mind-set ever since. Anywhere else in the world an event of the magnitude of the Chartist uprising would be shouted from the rooftops, but it’s not even on the curriculum in Newport schools and now the last reminder of Newport’s radical, rebellious, republican past has been erased. For 1,000 years the people of Gwent have been urged to betray, abandon and forget their Welshness; an onslaught of whitewash, censorship and historical revisionism that shows no sign of letting up.  As Voltaire (1694-1778) put it, “history is the lie historians agree upon”; the British nationalists, imperialists and stooges who control Gwent never cease trying to camouflage lies as truth.

One of the most pernicious and enduring lies about Gwent is the hoary old myth that it is not in Wales at all. A few dyed-in-the-wool Empire loyalists actually still claim that Monmouthshire is in England and campaign for its “return”. Selecting the 1536 violent, unilateral and non-negotiable annexation of Wales by England as their start point, a despicable endorsement of might-is-right totalitarianism and illegal land-grab in any case, these far-right Little Englanders then proceed to completely misinterpret and twist London’s organisation of Wales into shire counties on the English model so that the placing of the newly-created Monmouthshire into the English judicial circuit is hailed as some sort of clinching proof – when it was simply a bureaucratic arrangement for the travelling convenience of assize judges. The map of Wales had been re-drawn into 13 counties and the quarter-session structure imposed meant there was one left over, hence most easterly Monmouthshire was lumped in with adjacent Gloucestershire and Herefordshire. Even the wicked 1536 Act composed in Westminster makes it clear that Monmouthshire is unequivocally a part of Wales, explicitly stating that the shire, plus Breconshire, Denbighshire, Montgomeryshire and Radnorshire, were being created out of the “many and diverse Marcher lordships within the country or dominion of Wales” and that the shire is “formed out of lands in the country of Wales”.  But these sections of the Act don’t stop the demented Cymruphobes asserting that Abertyleri, Brynmawr and Cwmbrân are English towns; neither does the inarguable evidence of Gwent’s origins, history, religion, character, politics, sport, allegiance, language and culture; all these inconvenient facts, like the Newport Rising, are just ignored.  In the words of the great peoples’ poet of Gwent, Idris Davies (1905-1953):

…those who know her people

Among the smoking vales

Proclaim with pride that they were born

In Monmouthshire, Wales.

As a result of this relentless airbrushing of Wales out of Gwent’s consciousness, only 60% of people in today’s Gwent identify as Welsh (old Gwent/Monmouthshire is currently made up of successor authorities Blaenau Gwent, Monmouthshire, Newport, Torfaen and eastern parts of Caerffili). Given that outright hostility to the very idea of Wales has been the prevailing orthodoxy since the Anglo-Norman shock troops finally overcame Gwent resistance at the Battle of Caerllion in 1217, the resiliance of Welshness is amazing as well as encouraging.

It was also encouraging to see Newport people come onto the streets and protest about the Council’s vandalising of the Chartist mural, and now rally against the entirely unnecessary M4 relief road proposals that would cripple Newport docks and slice through precious wetland habitats on the Caldicot and Wentloog Levels. Much much more of this attitude is needed across Gwent. For instance, I’d like to see campaigns to restore proper, standard Welsh place-names in the many Gwent communities where hideous, nonsensical, profoundly insulting atrocities were imposed by map-makers and English colonists in the 19th century. Gwent has more of them than anywhere else in Wales. Until the likes of Kemeys (Cemais), Livox (Llwyfos), Llangattock Vibon Avel (Llangatwg Feibion Afel), Kathlea (Cellïau) and, I kid you not, Cape of Scotland (Cae Pysgodlyn) are removed, the legacy of oppression and dispossession cannot be shaken off.

Returning to Newport’s relationship with Cardiff, it has lately been expressed in tangible, visible, three dimensional terms with the creation in 2000 of the Newport Wetlands Nature Reserve on the east bank of the dramatic confluence of the rivers Usk and Ebbw with the Severn. 438 hectares of what had been Uskmouth power station’s ash-covered waste tip were cleaned, cleared and re-landscaped, specifically to mitigate the loss of the wildlife habitat of Cardiff Bay following the construction of the Barrage. I went to Newport Wetlands for the first time last week and spent a marvellous day wandering through a sublime waterworld of saltmarsh, reed beds, wet grassland and saline lagoons. Watched over by the squat, snow-white East Usk lighthouse, I drifted along floating bridges and past exquisitely crafted hides down to the sea wall and the pre-existing mudflats and rock platforms along the Severn shore. In the mellow light of autumn equinox, Newport looked serious and authentic in its girdle of metal works, pylons, chimneys, bridges and cooling towers, a proper port, intensified by the tempting green hills of Gwent stacked up on the northern horizon.

I will be a regular visitor, particularly when migratory birds arrive to over-winter. Yes, Newport Wetlands are fantastic, but one thing’s for sure – they are no substitute for the highly rarified 200 hectares of inter-tidal mudflat habitat where the rivers Taff and Ely once reached the Severn at Cardiff. Quite simply, Newport Wetlands are not inter-tidal mudflats and thus cannot mitigate the loss of the shelduck, redshank, dunlin and curlew that used to make south-east Wales their home. Guess what? Hold The Front Page! It was all a load of PR twaddle cooked up by the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation!

So Cardiff’s loss was Newport’s gain, as Newport servitude merely gave Cardiff more service sector jobs while Cardiff mendacity endowed Newport with a priceless new asset. The mighty tides of the Usk could, at last, be turning.