A tale of two rivers: part 1 – the Ebbw

The Ebbw River at Bassaleg, Newport
The Ebbw River at Bassaleg, Newport

With summer almost upon us and very little local hiking done this year, Harri felt it was time we challenged ourselves to a longish walk. Nothing on the scale of the mammoth treks tackled by those hardcore types at the Long Distance Walkers Association you understand, but something slightly outside our current comfort zone.

If you check out Google maps, you’ll see that our little village of Rhiwderin lies inbetween the Ebbw and Rhymney rivers (though thankfully not so close to either that we’re at risk of flooding). This had given Harri an idea.  Why not walk from our home to Cardiff and back again, following the Ebbw on our outward journey and the Rhymney on our return?

Rhiwderin is a few minutes' walk from the Ebbw
Rhiwderin is a few minutes’ walk from the Ebbw

This made perfect sense to his homing pigeon instincts but left me completely baffled. I could (sort of) understand the outward bit – we’d be joining the Ebbw at the bottom of our lane and following it to the outskirts of Newport where we’d pick up the Wales Coast Path. More perplexing was how we’d find our way home again on what Harri promised would be an almost completely flat route alongside the Rhymney River?

It was certainly a conundrum. Having lived in Rhiwderin for almost a decade and walked from Cardiff to our home on several occasions, I could recall only undulating terrain, with hills and more hills. At one point, I was convinced it was impossible to walk between the two cities without summiting Mynydd Machen (though I later found out this was just a favourite detour of Harri’s).

He estimated today’s walk was likely to be around 23 miles – far longer than anything else we’ve tackled recently – so we mentally prepared for a long day.

The Ebbw is accessible at Tredegar Park
The Ebbw is accessible at Tredegar Park

The Ebbw begins life high on Mynydd Llangynidr in the Brecon Beacons and the main river is formed at the confluence of Ebbw Fach (small) and Ebbw Fawr (large) at Aberbeeg. The frequently fast-flowing river meanders for just over29 miles and passes through Crumlin, Newbridge, Abercarn, Crosskeys and Risca, before joining the River Usk in Newport.

For more than two hundred years, the Ebbw River played an important role in the industrialisation of the valleys. Iron works were established at the heads of both the Ebbw Fach and Ebbw Fawr, and the river became a depository for waste from the coal and steel industries. The demise of these industries has seen the Ebbw’s waters flow clean again and its natural life restored.

I have a certain affection for the Ebbw, particularly as its riverside path provides a useful shortcut to Risca and access to some of the only flat (well, it’s all relative) running in this locality.

It didn’t take us long to reach the Ebbw, just a short stroll along Pentre Tai Lane and then through the horse field at the bottom. The plan was to stick as close to the river as possible, without having to scramble along overgrown sections of riverbank. Fortunately, Harri runs off-road so he knows the local footpaths like the back of his hand.

It's difficult to believe this was once a golf course
It’s difficult to believe this was once a golf course

Following a river might be a sure-fire way to reach the coast (our aim), but it’s certainly not the quickest. An hour after setting off, we’d barely emerged from the long-abandoned former site of Tredegar Park Golf Club.

The golf club had already re-located in readiness for a proposed new housing development when we moved to Rhiwderin; however, the landowner was initially refused planning permission due to concerns about flooding (by the Ebbw) so the site remained untouched.

During the intervening years, it become popular with dog walkers, walkers and runners, and provided a pleasant way for pedestrians and cyclists to avoid traffic-jammed Forge Lane at rush hour. Gradually, the fairways and greens disappeared, the gravel walkways became subsumed by indigenous plants and nature once again triumphed over man. It was a very real example of re-wilding and we’d witnessed it season by season, year by year.

 

The 'golden mile' is set to earn more money for landowner
The ‘golden mile’ is set to earn more money for landowner

Despite the abundance of new growth, a long, straight bank is still clearly visible (though it is now fenced off).  The Tredegar to Newport tramway (and later the once travelled along this bank, passing through land belonging to the wealthy Morgan family of Tredegar House and enabling them to impose a toll as the coal was transported from the Sirhowy valley to Newport docks. The vast income generated for the Morgan coffers led to the coining of the phrase ‘the golden mile’.

Then, as now, land ownership enabled the wealthy to become even richer. Planning permission for a residential development was eventually granted, on appeal, on the condition that robust flood defences were put in place in adjacent Tredegar Park. Now a large section of the site has been fenced off and we were forced to take a less direct route to the underpass which links the site to Tredegar Park.

Here developers have done a great job with the flood defences – there’s even a pleasant, level path above the river, with picnic benches dotted along it and a mile route thoughtfully marked out (presumably for runners).

Crossing the Ebbw in Newport
Crossing the Ebbw in Newport

In contrast, the amenities provided by Newport council are rapidly disappearing. The popular children’s water park closed in 2014 due to the costs of maintaining it and though the council website mentions there are public toilets in the park, they have been closed on several occasions when we’ve needed them.

After the park, we crossed the Ebbw on a road bridge, headed through Maesglas, walked underneath the Southern Distributor Road and joined Lighthouse Road. Here, we couldn’t help notice that some off-road sections of the Wales Coast Path looked rather overgrown. It seems Harri was right when he predicted that leaving the maintenance of the route to local councils rather than granting it National Trail status was always going to be problematic.

Newport Transporter Bridge (with the tip to the right)
Newport Transporter Bridge (with the tip to the right)

No-one could claim this stretch offers much in the way of scenic landscapes so I’ll just say it was interesting. We could see Newport municipal tip in the distance, and the Transporter Bridge beyond that. Ahead of us was Uskmouth Power Station, with its single iconic brick chimney (there were once three) and two modern additions, which were far less pleasing to the eye. On our right were reens and fields of grazing cattle and somewhere to our left, hidden by vegetation, was the Ebbw itself as it hurtled towards its ultimate destiny – the River Usk and the Severn Estuary beyond.

A network of reens drain the levels
A network of reens drain the levels

Having travelled inland for several miles in order to cross the Usk, the Wales Coast Path finally emerges on the coast again at the Wentlooge Levels. This flat and fertile landscape has been drained by a network of reens and ditches for centuries, making farming and human habitation possible.

Nowadays, the sea wall offers protection to the reclaimed land, but back in 1607 a flood devastated the levels and many people drowned. A plaque inside the porch of St Bride’s Church marks the highest point the water reached.

The fine weather had attracted other walkers and for a while we passed people walking in both directions. One of the prettiest attractions along this stretch of coastline is the West Usk Lighthouse, just south of St Bride’s. Erected in 1821, it was the first of the 22 lighthouses build by the Scottish architect James Walker. It’s hard to imagine now, but until 1856 West Usk stood on its own little island. It was only when the surrounding land was reclaimed that it became part of the ‘mainland’. It was decommissioned as a lighthouse in 1922, although it was used as a look-out post during the Second World War.

Cows grazing in front of West Usk Lighthouse
Cows grazing in front of West Usk Lighthouse

The lighthouse is now run as an upmarket bed and breakfast establishment, and if the blue police box standing on its terrace is anything to go by, you just never know who you might bump into there.

We had completed the Ebbw stretch of our walk; however, we would not be joining the Rhymney for a few miles yet.

 

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