Friday 12 June 2015

New horizons on the Gwent Levels

Some images here from a preparatory field visit for my forthcoming PhD research. In looking for a contrasting case study to supplement the study of 'monastic' estates in the south-east Welsh Marches I have been drawn to what is for me a new landscape, both geographically and topographically: the Gwent Levels. This is reclaimed estuarine terrain, occupying a narrow band of coastal alluvium to the east and west of Newport, with much in common with the larger and more well known Somerset Levels across the Severn Estuary.

Unlike the more inaccessible and agriculturally marginal uplands of Wales the low-lying coastal plain of Gwent and Monmouthshire has been an open-door for incursions from the east, most notably by those masters of strategy and technology, the Romans and the Normans. It was during the period of Roman occupation that the first systematic drainage of the Levels began and sea-walls were constructed. This infrastructure having fallen into disuse, the powerful Norman Marcher Lords renewed the perpetual struggle to master the tides and exploit the hyper-fertile potential of reclaimed land in the twelfth century. 

In order to cement their hold on the area and provide compliant labour in a highly feudal period the Marcher Lords imported English settlers to work the land (yes, economic migrants have always been with us) and so, as with the coastal districts of southern Pembrokeshire and the Gower further west, there is a legacy of English place-names (Englishries), and indeed surnames, that remains to this day. The Marcher Lords also granted lands in the area to monastic houses and this is where my research comes in. The coastal wetland strip between Newport and Caldicot known as Caldicot Level was the location for a number of monastic holdings: the Benedictine Goldcliff Priory, of which nothing remains in its original location, occupied a low promontory at the water's edge and had extensive lands in the surrounding area, whilst the Cistercians of the nearby Llantarnam Abbey and Tintern Abbey operated large granges here. Monastic estates in and around Magor, Undy, Redwick, Porton, Goldcliff and Nash were thus key agents in the on-going reclamation and landscape development seen during the medieval period.

My introduction to this table-top flat watery landscape of marching pylons, vast skies, somnolent villages, meadows bounded by reens (drainage channels) and birdsong - hemmed in and encroached upon by the looming but strangely unseen urban edge of Newport and the Llanwern Steeworks complex - will be followed by further visits and discovery. I hope not only to provide further detail on the landscape history of the area, but also to apply a deep topography sensibility; providing some westward psychogeographical momentum, away from the equally estuarine and history-soaked flatlands of Essex and East Anglia


Rippon, S, 1996. The Gwent Levels: evolution of a wetland landscape. CBA.

Williams, D, 1976. White Monks in Gwent and the Border. Griffin Press.

Williams, M, 1975. The Making of the South Wales Landscape. Hodder and Stoughton.