Monmouthshire NP16
The ancient town of Chepstow on the western banks of the River Wye guards the English southern border with Wales, and is a popular tourist destination.
You don’t need a passport exactly but the first thing you notice is that signage is written in Welsh first with the English translation underneath! As you come across the border the sign says ‘Croeso y Cymru’ (Welcome to Wales).
The River Wye is the physical border between England and Wales and Chepstow is located some 3 miles (4.8 km) north of the Wye’s confluence with the Severn estuary. To the north of the town, the river passes through a limestone gorge, and Chepstow is protected by limestone cliffs to the north, south and east., and a deep valley to the west. Views of the Severn estuary and its suspension bridges can be obtained from parts of the town.
Chepstow has everything visitors expect of such a Border town – a magnificent castle on top of steep limestone cliffs, entry to the town guarded by a crenulated tower, narrow cobbled alleys and an old Priory Church.
The oldest part of Chepstow occupies part of a bend in the River Wye, and slopes up from the river to the town centre and beyond. While keeping all its medieval buildings, this once traffic-ridden, noisy bottleneck has been transformed into a pleasant uncluttered little town so visitors can really see its ancient attractions.
Historic Buildings
- Chepstow Castle
The major building is the superb castle perched on top of the western limestone cliffs, overlooking the Wye. Chepstow Castle is said to be the oldest surviving stone castle in Britain. A Benedictine priory, now St Mary's Parish Church, was also established nearby.
- St Mary’s Priory Church
Founded around 1072 as a Benedictine Priory by William FitzOsbern and his son Roger de Breteuil, 2nd Earl of Hereford. The priory never housed more than 12 monks and was established mainly as a fund raising venture. All that remains of the priory now is St Mary’s Priory Church.
- Port Walls & Tower Gate
The Port Walls and Tower Gate funnel traffic into the town. Originally this was the only landward entrance to the town through the Port Wall, and a point where tolls for those coming to the town and its market were collected. It was originally built, with the wall in the late 13th century. The current archway mainly dates from the 16th century, but has been restored and partly rebuilt on several occasions. It is located at the western end of the town's High Street, and is a Grade I listed building.
- Old Wye Bridge
Not so much an historic building but still a beautiful structure is the Old Wye Bridge close to the Castle. This handsome cast-iron bridge crossing the River Wye was built in 1816 during the Regency period. Splendid decorative ironwork embellishes the superstructure yet the bridge manages to retain its Regency restraint and elegance.
The bridge crosses a river with one of the highest tidal ranges in the world and it used to carry the main A48 road between Newport and Gloucester until 1988, when a new road bridge was opened downstream alongside Chepstow Railway Bridge. The 1816 bridge now carries local traffic between Chepstow and Tutshill and is a Grade I listed building.
These days Chepstow is primarily a centre for service industries for South West England and Wales, and tourism. The town’s location at the southern end of the Wye Valley, together with its own sights including its castle and world-class racecourse, have contributed to its development as a great place to stay; accommodation ranges from hotels to guest houses.
It has over 130 shops including all the major chain stores, within easy walking distance of a large car park. As well, there are 16 hotels, numerous bars and convivial pubs, and 15 restaurants and cafes.
The town is close to other attractions including the Royal Forest of Dean, Tintern Abbey and Wye Valley, and the National Diving and Activity Centre at Tidenham. Several long distance trails such as the Offa's Dyke Path, the Wye Valley Walk, and the Gloucestershire Way pass through or very close to the town.
Starting beside the Old Wye Bridge, the riverbank has been landscaped in association with a flood defence scheme. A commemorative stone marks the start/finish of the Wales Coast path.
People continuously occupied Chepstow from 5000 BC until the end of the Roman period, about 400 AD. During the Roman occupation it became an important trading centre because there was a bridge or causeway across the Wye, about 0.6 miles (0.97 km) upstream of the later town bridge.
When the Romans left, Chepstow was within the southern part of the Welsh kingdom of Gwent and came under the control of the Welsh Marcher lords. The town is close to the southern point of Offa's Dyke, which begins on the east bank of the Wye at Sedbury and runs all the way to the Irish Sea in north Wales. This was built in the late 8th century as a boundary between Mercia and the Welsh kingdoms
The Normans built the first castle at Chepstow in 1067 and from then on it became a key location. As the lowest bridging point of the River Wye, it provided a base from which to advance Norman power into south Wales, and control river access to Hereford and the Marches.
It is hard to believe now that Chepstow could be a port but the River Wye was so deep at high tide that it could accommodate relatively large ships. From mediaeval times, Chepstow was the largest port in Wales.
It mainly traded in timber and bark (used in tanning) from the Wye Valley, but later the town became known for its imports of wine with ships sailing as far as Iceland and Turkey, as well as to France and Portugal.
Cargoes would be broken down for on-shipment up the Wye to Hereford in a fleet of trows, or up the Severn to Gloucester and beyond. Chepstow also traded across the estuary to Bristol on suitable tides to work vessels up and down the Avon to that city's centre.
Chepstow’s success was partly due to the fact that it was controlled by a Marcher Lord, rather than by the King, meaning that it was exempt from English taxation.
The castle and town changed hands several times during the English Civil War when the castle was ‘slighted’ (reduced to ruins)., but the port continued to flourish. Chepstow reached the peak of its importance during the Napoleonic Wars, when its exports of timber for ships, and bark for leather tanning, were especially vital. There were also exports of wire and paper, made in the many mills on the tributaries of the Wye.
The town became an important centre for tourism from the late eighteenth century, when the "Wye Tour" became popular. Visitors regularly took boats from Ross-on-Wye and Monmouth down the river exploring picturesque sites and ruins such as Tintern Abbey and Chepstow Castle.
Getting There
Chepstow adjoins the western end of the Severn Bridge. It is 110 miles (180 km) west of London, 18 miles (29 km) north-west of Bristol and 16 miles (26 km) east of Newport.
Two massive suspension bridges cross the River Severn. The oldest one, opened in 1966 is called the Severn Bridge and has the second longest span of any bridge in the UK. The bridge is unique in being publicly accessible by having a cycle path and footpath running along either side of the roadway.
The second suspension bridge a bit further downstream is named the Second Severn Crossing.
- By Car
The suspension bridges have made access to and from South Wales very easy - Chepstow is located close to Junction 2 of the M48 motorway, at the western end of the Severn Bridge. The M48 motorway now connects Chepstow to Newport and Cardiffto the west, and the M4 to Bristol and London to the east.
To the north, the A466 up the Wye valley connects Chepstow with Monmouth (16 miles/26 km), and to the north-east the A48 links it with Gloucester (29 miles/47 km).
Google Maps - Chapstow