152: Newport & Caerleon

OS Explorer map 152, Newport & Pontypool – I own this map, but had not visited it before starting this blog. Visited for this post 11th February 2022.

Google Maps location links: Newport, Caerleon

Travelling to this map area

Any hypothetical particularly attentive blog readers may be familiar with my friend group from my time in Oxford, made up of such illustrious personages as Unicorn, Ex-Linguistician, No Longer Hairy, Little S, and Lapsed Lawyer – they’ve featured on this blog a few times before, such as in my Maidenhead, Cotswolds, and of course Oxford posts. In 2020 and 2021, I’d been talking to said friends on video calls every few months, where we’d play silly internet games, and in the last one of these, it was proposed that we meet up in-person for the first time in a couple of years (the coronavirus pandemic along with general inertia having got in the way of that for a bit).

A meeting was therefore planned to take place on a weekend in February at Ex-Linguistician and Unicorn’s house in Cheltenham – we’d meet up on the Saturday afternoon and stay over, dispersing on the Sunday. However, I was already going to be in London on the Thursday to Friday for work [1], and it seemed a little pointless to travel back home to Cambridge on Friday evening, only to leave again the next morning.

My pumpkin soup starter as part of GWR’s Pullman dining service on my train from London to Newport

I therefore hatched a plan: I’d take myself on a little micro-holiday on the Friday evening and Saturday morning, using the opportunity to do something I’d been wanting to for a while: I booked myself onto the 1848 GWR train from London Paddington to Newport, which is one of six trains a day that features their Pullman dining service. The train goes on to Swansea, but Newport seemed like a good place to get off to spend the night: it’s about 1h40 out from London, so plenty of time for a three-course dinner, but I could also get off the train at a fairly sociable hour of 8:25pm. There are direct trains to Cheltenham which I could take the next day, plus there were a couple of things in the area I was excited to visit during the next morning – about which read more below!

I got on the train and was shown to my seat, at one end of the first class section which had been laid out for dining already, with paper tablecloths, china plates, cutlery, glasses, menus and the like. The GWR inter-city trains are nicely new and swish, having entered service just a handful of years ago. I think the dark green and grey colour scheme works really well on them; they look very tasteful. The train was not very full, with maybe one in every six seats occupied in the first class carriages: I had a 4-seat table to myself for the trip.

Tiramisù dessert

The meal was enjoyable! For starter I had a very nice pumpkin soup that had rather a kick to it. They’d run out of bread rolls, about which the service manager was extremely apologetic, handing me a £5 voucher, usable for food and drink on any GWR train or station – which’d be useful for my journey home a couple of days later! The veggie main was a bit disappointing, being a fairly mediocre squash curry that, unlike the rest of the food, was not nicely presented, instead just being unceremoniously dumped on a plate together with a too-small portion of rice, which looked rather out-of-place in the otherwise fancy setup. Dessert returned to form though, with a very nice (and pretty) tiramisù.

I… probably wouldn’t go for the Pullman dining again. I’m glad I experienced it once, it was nice; but I just don’t think quite nice enough to be worth the £35 price tag for me, especially payable on top of the price of a first-class ticket, which I don’t usually go for. However, if there are dining seats free after the train leaves, you can dine with a standard class ticket, in which case you get a first-class upgrade for your journey included in the price of the meal, which I can see being worth it especially for a longer trip, such as to Swansea or Plymouth.

In this map area

I arrived in Newport as planned, and made my way straight to my accommodation for the night. I was staying, mildly interestingly, in a student accommodation complex where they clearly rent out their unoccupied rooms by the night on Booking.com. I was therefore in a spacious bedroom with a desk, one of a five rooms in a flat that had a fully equipped kitchen – much better than what one can normally get in a hotel for £35 a night! My walk through Newport was pretty uninspiring that evening: it was dark and I was mostly walking alongside a giant coastal dual carriageway. There was almost no-one around, despite it being before 9pm.

Sunrise over Newport

The next morning, I got up early so as to be able to get in plenty of exploring before I headed over to Cheltenham, starting by walking southwards along the River Usk. The river itself, feeding into the Severn just a little way downstream, is highly tidal in Newport, and so at low tide isn’t all that attractive, sitting as it does at the bottom of a giant muddy bank at either side. This was more than made up for by the sunrise, though!

Soon, I was able to see the object of my little walk, the Newport Transporter Bridge! Transporter bridges are a very cool concept: designed to let tall shipping pass underneath, they don’t have a bridge deck at all. Instead, there’s just a high gantry across the river, sitting atop a tower at each end. From this gantry is suspended a platform carrying a little bit of road, which cars and pedestrians can drive onto at one end; for it to then move across the river and let them off at the other end – sort of like a ferry, but dangling above the river on cables instead of floating on it! It’s one of only two still-operational transporter bridges in the UK, and not that many more in the world.

Unfortunately the Newport bridge was out of action for maintenance during my visit, as was its associated visitor centre, so I couldn’t go across. Nevertheless, I got to admire it from the riverbank. I then walked through central Newport, getting myself some breakfast in a Greggs and having a chat with Vesper on the phone. While some of the outlying areas were rather dingy (and not very pedestrian-friendly), the town centre was rather nice, and much more lively than I expected for 8:30am on a Saturday!

Newport Castle

I admired Newport Castle briefly – it’s a fairly impressive ruin, though only the side of it facing the river still stands, there now being a giant roundabout taking up much of what was once its courtyard –  before crossing the river to find the bus stop, where I could catch one of the regular buses out to the nearby town of Caerleon. When it arrived, I was interested to see that it was a battery-electric bus!

I didn’t manage to photograph the electric bus I took to Caerleon, but here’s an identical one I spotted at Newport’s bus station later that day!

Caerleon is well-known for its Roman remains, which are some of the most interesting in Britain – and the main thing that made me excited to visit this map area. It was, as I learnt in the museum nearby, one of only three permanent legionary bases in Roman Britain – the others being at York and Chester – and there’s a lot to see: besides the museum, there are the ruins of an amphitheatre, baths, and some substantial barracks.

Caerleon’s Roman amphitheatre

The amphitheatre was the main thing I knew about before arriving, and was indeed very impressive: Roman remains in Britain, Hadrian’s and the Antonine Wall excepted, tend to be fairly small, more of the “few walls and a mosaic” variety; but the amphitheatre is on a completely different scale.

The remains of Caerleon’s Roman baths

However, I was particularly struck by the baths: they’re the remains of a giant complex catering to the resident legion, including not just the usual indoor baths and outdoor exercise area, but also a long, narrow outdoor swimming pool, and a cathedral-sized indoor sports hall. The remains of the baths had a water effect projected into them, which was interesting.

A model of what the baths would once have looked like. The pool shown in my first photo above is the outdoor swimming pool in the courtyard.

The museum was very good too, with a very varied collection (not all local, though mostly so) including lots of inscribed grave slabs, arms, jewellery, and piles of coins. I’m not normally that interested by jewellery, but there were some little jewels carved with incredibly intricate tiny little images of heroes and gods, which I found very impressive.

From Caerleon, I got the bus back to Newport and then a train over to Cheltenham, which I reached by around 1pm, where my satisfyingly full morning was followed by a great afternoon and evening catching up with my friends as planned, after our long absence from each other. We enjoyed some truly giant pizzas, and I also got to see Ex-Lingustician and Unicorn’s new home for the first time, and to meet their cat Percy, which was delightful. It was a delightful weekend, rounded off by one more stop on my way home on the Sunday, which you’ll have to read about it my next post!

[1] I live in Cambridge, but work for a charity based in London; the long-term arrangement is that I work remotely from home 3 days per week, and from the London office the other 2 – though at various points in the last couple of years that’s been interrupted by pandemic restrictions.

I ususally work in London consecutive days, so that I can stay over the nights between to reduce the travelling. I’ve been staying in cheap hotels, which has gone surprisingly well – I wouldn’t have predicted that I’d consistently be able to find a room for in central London for £35-45 per night every week, but that turned out to be possible pretty consistently in winter and spring, by the simple rule of “book the cheapest room on Booking.com within 30mins’ travel of the office every time”; I’ve usually ended up staying in one of the hotels near Paddington station, though a couple of times I’ve been up in Golders Green. In summer I’ve been disappointed to discover it’s got rather more expensive, to more like £55-75 per night, but discovering universityrooms.com has helped with that!

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