Departure lounge ramblings on music, places, climate change and stuff outdoors

Once a town, now a city

Once a town, now a city, Newport is where markontour’s parents were born and bred. They fell in love in the sixth form of Newport Grammar and fifty-six years later the three of us plus Mum’s older brother, my Uncle Malcolm, undertook a pre-Xmas tour of the haunts of their youth. Along the way I learned a thing or two about the Newport Chartist Uprising of 1839, how the snow fell so deep in 1947 that schools were closed for three blissful months, how the New Year was celebrated in the 1950s, and what constitutes a dingle.

Upon entering the impressively curated Newport Museum the first thing on display is a case of memorabilia from Goldie Lookin’ Chain, the rap collective who blessed the world in 2004 with ‘Guns Don’t Kill People, Rappers Do’. That may have been the first time Newport was on the map for most people outside of South Wales, but humans started living here 300,000 years ago. More recently, the Romans maintained one of only three permanent British forts at Caerleon, on the outskirts of the modern city.

Nothing much happened for another fifteen hundred years after the Romans took their pesky central heating away, until a new age of science enabled people to extract and make use of the massive deposits of coal and iron in the Welsh valleys to the north.

Newport, with its easy access to the Severn estuary, quickly grew and briefly became the biggest port in the world by the end of the nineteenth century. Thousands of farm labourers left the land and gravitated to new jobs in the Newport docks, taking up home in the densely populated maze of new streets in Pillgwennly. Among them were the descendants of my paternal grandfather and my Dad was born at number 91 Raglan Street in the epicentre of Pill in 1942, during the Second World War.

Dad grew up in a household of eleven at its peak, with various uncles, aunties and cousins joining his parents and sister. Three pubs and a dry cleaners stood sentry on the four corners of the junction with Commercial Street at the end of the road, in a vibrant community also populated by a multitude of other relations (along with people I grew up calling ‘Uncle’ and ‘Aunty’ but were actually just family friends).

It sounds like it was a laugh, even if there was no indoor toilet or bath. On New Year’s Eve the carpet would be rolled up and French chalk applied to the floor of the living room to assist dancing. Aunty May would be on the piano and everyone would join in singing music hall songs, which three decades later my sister and I also grew up with (a tradition now being passed on to my nieces). Beer, plus port and lemon, was served along with grated cheese on crackers. At midnight everyone ended up doing the conga in the street.

The house in Raglan Street is long gone now, demolished in a 1970s slum clearance, but R.W. Coles where my Dad bought his first pair of glasses is still going.

A few miles across town, my Mum was growing up in a slightly smarter, lower-middle class semi detached house on Hawarden Road. Both areas were at risk during the War from stray German bombs aimed at the docks or steelworks and my Uncle Malcom remembers all the windows of their home at number nineteen being shattered during one raid. A decade later the first car appeared, bought by a man a few doors down who had been lucky enough to win the football pools. But both my parent’s families walked, cycled or took the bus for the whole of their youth, often walking miles to meet up with friends.

There were some nice places to enjoy, away from the industrial grime. The Brecon Beacons and Black Mountains were in cycling distance, but just across the road was, and is, the steeply climbing Beechwood Park. Here was where my Grandma and Grandad would play bowls at the weekend, and where Uncle Malcom would get up to mischief in the dingle, a be-shrubbed valley in the park, where small children could remain out of sight of adults (nb not the dictionary definition). Mum, it seems, was down at Rodney Parade watching Newport Rugby Football Club. More on that another time.

Then, as now, the Transporter Bridge dominated the Newport skyline. Built in 1904 as a kind of aerial ferry, the bridge took workers from Pill to the docks across the tidal Usk, which can rise over 14 metres from trough to peak. It is a magnificent engineering feat and the entrancingly boutique Waterloo Hotel, where we stayed overnight in its shadow alongside the mighty steel cables which anchor the bridge to the shore, must do a good trade in hosting bridge nerds.

The Transporter Bridge is one of two features of Newport that I remember from childhood visits to see grandparents, aunts and uncles, the other being the beautiful murals of the Chartist uprising of 1839. Sadly these painstakingly constructed works of art were taken down to make way for a new shopping centre, but the town museum still has a great little exhibition about the 10,000 workers who marched on the Westgate Hotel to free comrades campaigning for nothing more radical than the right for working men to vote (the movement discussed and decided against also including women). Twenty-two of their number were slaughtered by a handful of well-armed and immeasurably better organised troops and the leaders were sent off to forced labour camps in Tasmania, having initially been sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. Today, however, the Chartists are celebrated across Newport, including in John Frost Square, named after one of their leaders.

Despite Newport’s impeccable industrial and political heritage, nothing that happened in Wales was deemed important enough to be included in the school history taught to my Mum and Dad, a product of an English-centric curriculum until Wales gained its own Assembly at the end of the twentieth century. Docks, coal and iron are also absent from the city’s coat of arms, which instead owes its origins to English Earls of Stafford who ruled in the fifteenth century. But I was delighted to learn that John Squire used the red ‘V’, shield and cherub as inspiration for the cover of the Stone Roses’ ‘Love Spreads’ single cover.

Both my parents were lucky enough to pass the Eleven-plus exam and gain entry to one of Newport’s two grammar schools. They met in sixth form, shortly before becoming among the first of their respective families to gain the privilege of going to university. Mum was working a holiday job in the canteen of Richard, Thomas and Baldwin’s steelworks when news of Marilyn Monroe’s death was announced over the tannoy. In 1965 they were back to get married in St John the Evangelist church, which last week the generous women preparing the Christmas flower displays were kind enough to open up for us, so that Mum and Dad could re-create the “you may now kiss the bride” moment at the end of the nave (see above).

It is in that nostalgic moment that this Newport-past tour must end for now, as the grand children of that union fifty-two years ago demand to go roller-skating and markontour is going to risk broken bones to join in. So for a suitable conclusion I’ll turn to Newport’s most famous offspring – the hobo poet, W.H. Davies, whose celebrated poem, ‘Leisure’, asks:

What is this life, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare?

No time to stand beneath the boughs,

And stare as long as sheep and cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,

Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,

Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,

And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can

Enrich that smile her eyes began?

A poor life this if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

I am so glad that this Xmas that I took the time out to stand and stare in Newport, and most of all that I did it with Mum and Dad.

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