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.



  1. Good luck all the way with this course, I am very envious of the studies and journeys you will take. I once did a diploma course on Wiltshire abbeys, and fell in love with their complex history, Cistercians especially.

    1. Thanks Thelma. Yes, looking forward to the journeys on foot and in mind.


  2. Hi Eddie
    If you haven't come across him already you might be interested in the work of Dr Owain Jones, Professor of Environmental Humanities at Bath Spa University:
    His interests are seriously and deeply rooted in landscape and he was born in the area you've described above where his family had farmed for, I believe, many years, but their farm was compulsorily purchased in the 1970s(?) and they moved to a farm between Bath and Bristol where he still lives. Here's a link to a post on my blog about a project he's involved with - there are a some other links in the post that might be of interest too:

    I've very much enjoyed reading your blog over the last year or so, you articulate beautifully thoughts I've partly had but not been able to pin down and introduce some new perspectives on familiar places. After moving to Bristol well over 30 years ago from West Wales we (husband and self and later with the children) would regularly escape from the 'shock of the urban' back over the Severn Bridge to the Black Mountains and Hereford area and often visited the Wye, Monnow and Honddu valleys, and the Abbeys at Tintern, Abbey Dore and Llanthony so we know a number of the places and landscapes you've written about. The mysterious quality of the deserted monastic sites prompted me to join a University of Bristol evening class in the late 70s with Bryan Little at the dear old Folk House on the history of monasteries and monasticism which proved to be even more more fascinating than I expected - the wool trading of the Cistercians and the international dimension to monasticism, and ultimately the enormous power and control they held through their land was a revelation; it's a topic that continues to intrigue me so I very much look forward to following your PhD research - best of luck! Liz Milner.

  3. Lovely post, Eddie. Came across reens myself lately, or rather rhynes (this is the Wessex area, after all) in a technical work document. Delighted to learn it's a local dialect term, which makes its appearance at work all the more surprising!
    Best, Kieron

    1. Thanks Kieron. Yes, the regional use of reen (Gwent) and rhine/ rhyne (Glos/ Somerset) for drainage channels in reclaimed coastal wetlands is fascinating; and one of many landscape terms not to make it into Robert Macfarlane's Landmarks glossary.

      I intend to find out more about the (common?) origin of these words; perhaps introduced by Flemish drainage engineers.

  4. It is a wonderful wildlife-rich and historic landscape, easy to overlook but much loved locally and extremely precious. The invertebrate community of the reens merits international-recognition as a Ramsar Site - this is Gwent's rainforest. Yet Welsh Assembly Government are intent on putting a new M4 motorway across it, further eroding and damaging what is left. See:
    If you care about this, then the Welsh Assembly Govt will accept objections to the "draft orders" which take forward this road proposal up until 4th May. There are cheaper and less-damaging alternatives, but the road & "economic development at all cost" lobby has been successful so far in whipping up support for this. Gwent Wildlife Trust were served a WAG compulsory purchase order last week for part of their Magor Marsh reserve, a Site of Special Scientific Interest for its priceless wildlife like virtually all of the countryside to be bulldozed and polluted by this new motorway.

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