A tale of two rivers: part 2 – the Rhymney

One of the Rhymney's pebble beaches
One of the Rhymney’s pebble beaches

Rivers that don’t flow into one another are generally separated by a stretch of coastline. Thus, having walked miles downriver to the mouth of the Ebbw, we now had some coastal walking to do before we reached the Rhymney. Fortunately, this was mostly along the Wentlooge Levels section of the Wales Coast Path where there is plenty of visual interest.

The high tides carry trees some way onto land
The high tides carry trees some way onto land

One of my favourite places along this stretch of the coast is Lighthouse Park, a pretty little retirement village right there alongside the Lighthouse Inn (which incidentally has very good reviews on TripAdvisor). Gorgeous as the place looks from the sea wall – just how I imagine 1950s small town America was, all perfectly manicured and pristine – I was nevertheless mortified to realise I’d met the resident age qualification a full five years ago.

We passed what I jokingly now call ‘Newport beach’ after we dropped down onto it one time we were walking with our grand-daughters. It kind of disappears at high tide, and at low tide, there’s rather too much mud for my liking. But time it right and you can sit on the small sandy patch at the top and breathe in lungfuls of salty air.

Newport's riviera for peaceful bathing
Newport’s riviera for peaceful bathing

Coming from the east, there’s actually an earlier, sandier beach but access to it is near impossible unless you are prepared to risk life and limb to clamber over the huge boulders that have been put in place to protect the sea wall.

As you walk along this section of the coast, it’s impossible to miss the lines of wooden batons leading from the shoreline into the water. These frames are all that remain of the old putcher ranks which, for centuries, were used to catch salmon. The putcher baskets were placed inside the frames. At high tide, the unsuspecting salmon swam into the baskets and became trapped; at low tide the fishermen waded into the mudflats to collect their haul. This form of fishing is no longer in use; however, the old ranks remain.

Old putcher ranks - or groynes?
Old putcher ranks – or groynes?

On the other hand … the official Newport Coast Path leaflet claims these wooden structures are groynes, which were ‘built to check the erosion of the shore’ (p23).  Now far be it for me to argue with the experts at Newport council, but they really don’t look like groynes to me. For a start, they’re too flimsy – groynes generally have wooden panels inserted between the upright posts and are much, much sturdier looking. I may be wrong, but I still believe what you can see is the remains of the putcher ranks.

The Wentlooge Levels are actually a rather wonderful place to stroll, with their varied bird life (we spotted herons, egrets and lapwings on the coast) and panoramic views across the sea to the North Somerset coast.

The gout itself is quite interesting feature as it enables the fresh water collected in reens and ditches to be discharged into the Severn Estuary at low tide. The simple tidal flap system is apparently similar to the one used by the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago (Newport Coast Path leaflet).

Peterstone gout
Peterstone gout

Never forget that the Bristol Channel purportedly has the second highest tidal range in the world (after the Bay of Fundy in Canada), which means there’s enormous energy in that water. True, it means there’s a lot of rich alluvium silt exposed at low tide (mud!), but unless you’re planning to go for a swim it’s really not a massive deal.

(Incidentally, if you’re wondering at what point the Severn Estuary becomes the Bristol Channel, there is apparently no absolute defined boundary, although the ‘open sea’ – roughly from around Aberthaw on the Welsh side – is as good an arbitrary line as any.)

Anyway, we ambled along enjoying the landscape and the wildlife, and encountering far fewer people now we were a considerable distance from a car park (the old twenty-minute rule never fails). Soon the coastal mountain of rubbish that is Lamby Way ‘recycling centre’ appeared on the horizon.

Heading inland in search of the Rhymney
Heading inland in search of the Rhymney

The summer before the Wales Coast Path opened, Harri and I decided we’d attempt to walk from Newport to Cardiff following what seemed (to us) the most obvious route. We had naively expected to saunter from one city to the other simply by following the sea wall; however, our plans were cruelly thwarted just after that awful rubbish mountain. Having struggled along the spectacularly ugly and rubbish-strewn mouth of the Rhymney River, we found ourselves face-to-face with some very large steel gates. Locked and chained gates. Harri rattled them for quite some time in frustration, but ultimately we had no choice but to turn and retrace our steps.

It transpired that we should have headed inland at Parc Tredelerch, itself once earmarked for tipping waste, but now peaceful and a haven for wildlife. We bade farewell to the coast and headed inland along a gravel track alongside a wide reen, passing the occasional coot and swan. By now we were starving and away from the coastal breeze it was hot and airless. Despite the pretty surroundings, the next few kilometres felt endless.

Unfortunately, the need to cross Lamby Way momentarily catapults you back into the fast-paced 21st century, with a strong whiff of decaying human detritus thrown in for good measure. Thankfully, this ugly intrusion of city life is brief and the moment we stepped into Parc Tredelerch, we were again surrounded by tranquillity and natural beauty.

Harri at Lamby Lake
Harri at Lamby Lake

From our vantage point close to the lake, we enjoyed the antics of various feathered ‘families’. A cormorant waited patiently at the water’s edge, barely acknowledging the return of its mate from a diving session and hardly flinching when said mate shook its wings so vigorously the first bird got a soaking.

A couple of swans were leading their large brood on a full lap of the lake, and we were entertained by the ‘bottoms up’ antics of some nearby ducklings. Swimming slightly farther out were a family of coots and on the far side of the lake across a boardwalk, several coarse anglers waited patiently for tench or carp to yank at their line. It was all rather delightful and we could have sat there all afternoon had we not had a second river to locate.

Love is ... showering your mate with water
Love is … showering your mate with water

It’s hard to believe that two decades ago the 40,000 square metre Lamby Lake didn’t exist – it was dug out of an old river bed in 2001. That’s some digging!

We crossed the footbridge over the main railway line, followed the edge of a buttercup-crammed field and emerged in Rumney, an area which was arbitrarily ‘moved’ from Monmouthshire to Glamorgan on April 1, 1938 under the Cardiff Extension Act of 1937.  It was our first time in Rumney and we found it a pleasant and leafy place, lined with solid-looking semis and lots of green spaces. I was particularly impressed with an enormous slide built into the hillside in the children’s play area (itself once a quarry) – and was itching to have a go. Unfortunately, this being a glorious sunny afternoon, the park was filled with real children (and their parents).

The remains of the old Rumney Castle were excavated nearly forty years ago and given Harri’s enthusiasm for devising walks from castles, we could well find ourselves visiting this area again. Today, however, there simply wasn’t time to go off hunting for historic ruins.

Leaving Rumney proper, we crossed the main Newport road and headed into Rumney Hill Gardens, which is one of those places you pass umpteen times over the years but never quite get around to visiting. The gardens opened in the late 1950s and occupy around 3.5 hectares of land.

A field full of buttercups
The field of buttercups

A 1941 map of the area shows that the land was designated as a burial ground; however, it does not appear to have ever been used for this purpose. In the Rumney Gardens Management Plan 2010-14, Cardiff council suggests the proposed burial site ‘may have been developed as part of the preparation for wartime in the late 1930s or possibly as an extension of the churchyard at St Augustine’s Church on the opposite side of Newport Road’. Whatever the truth, the brick building at the park’s entrance (built between 1935 and 1941) is all that remains of the cemetery that never was.

Our first glimpse of the Rhymney
Our first glimpse of the Rhymney

Emerging on the far side of the gardens, we were finally united with our second river of the day – the Rhymney. Like the Ebbw, its source is high in the Brecon Beacons, after which it runs through Rhymney, New Tredegar, Bargoed, Ystrad Mynach and eventually through the little towns of Bedwas, Trethomas, Machen and Draethen which are close to Rhiwderin. After that, the 48-km (30-mile) Rhymney heads west towards Cardiff where it flows into the Bristol Channel.

Until 1887, the Rhymney formed a natural boundary between the counties of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire; now the area either side of the river is divided arbitrarily between Newport, Caerphilly and Cardiff.

The Rhymney was another casualty of the industrial revolution. It was not until the demise of the South Wales coal industry in the late 1980s that its waters became clean enough to again support wildlife.

Harri’s trail runs frequently take him to the banks of the Rhymney, and occasionally the fields either side are flooded. Most of the time, however, the river is shallow and easily accessible from the riverbank.

Following the Rhymney under the road
Following the Rhymney under the road

The plan was to join the cycle path which follows the Rhymney as far as Cefn Mably, before rejoining the network of lanes that would eventually lead us back to Rhiwderin. Yes, the very same labyrinth of lanes where I’ve twice walked alone, got lost and needed Harri to come to rescue me. Believe me, those undulating, high-hedged, endlessly-twisting lanes can be extremely confusing when you are not a homing pigeon.

One of the weirdest aspects of this afternoon’s walking was realising how closely our route trailed the A48 (M) – we could even hear the traffic at times. All those years of driving to and from Cardiff without ever knowing I could have gone by foot via a footpath through the Rhymney Valley.

There was an amusing moment when we’d been following a couple in their late twenties for fifteen minutes or so and gradually catching up with them. The path had become quite overgrown and all four of us were sidestepping quite a few muddy puddles when the man suddenly turned around and asked us if we had any idea where it led? It’s good to know walkers exist who are even more clueless than me when it comes to knowing where you’re going.

Going fishing
Going fishing

It may have been the weather, but the Rhymney was definitely attracting the crowds today. A teenage couple, the red-haired girl sporting thigh-high black socks, over-sized check shirt and the skimpiest of shorts, a cluster of pubescent boys charging past us with a lone bright-yellow fishing net, the family of four lazing around on one of several of the river’s accessible and pebbly beaches. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to be riverside on this gorgeous June afternoon.

On a slope above us stood another grand house associated with the Morgan family of Tredegar House. Cefn Mably near Michaelston-y-Fedw was built by the Kemeys family in the 16th century on the site of an earlier property, and was later expanded to include a new wing and a chapel. Deer roamed in its 6,000-acre grounds and it was described as one of the finest county seats in Wales.

The property came into the hands of the family when Courtenay Morgan, then Lord Tredegar, purchased the property in the 1920s and leased it to the local authority as a tuberculosis sanatorium (it was later converted to a hospital). Cefn Mably was almost destroyed by fire in 1994, but has since been restored and converted into luxury apartments.

It was getting late in the day and, being out of practice of walking such long distances, we were rapidly tiring. The climb from Cefn Mably fishing lakes offered spectacular views across open countryside, with distant views towards Mynydd Machen and Twm Barlwm, but all I could think about was my poor aching feet.

It was just after 6pm when we finally hobbled up our garden path. We’d done what we set out to do – walked down the Ebbw and up the Rhymney – and seen some breathtakingly beautiful landscapes, coastal and countryside, new and familiar. Best of all, everything we’d seen was within a day’s walking of our home.


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