British History Unwinds along the Wye

The Wye River valley

The Wye River valley

O sylvan Wye! Thou wanderer/Thro’ the woods…

Poet William Wordsworth is one of the many artists to be inspired by what is arguably the most beautiful river valley in Britain.

Emptying into the estuary of its larger sister the Severn at the ancient Welsh border town of Chepstow, the Wye has meandered 210 kilometres (130 miles) from its source in the Welsh mountains.

Chepstow, or Cheap-stow (“the market town”) was originally called Ystraigyl, Welsh for “the bend in the river.” The name was sometimes anglicized as Strigoil. Here is one of the best-preserved Norman castles in Britain. The Doomsday Book of 1086 records that “Castellum de Estrighoiel fecit Wilhelmus Comes,” that is, “Earl William built the castle of Estriguil.”

William Fitz Osbern, lord of the small Norman town of Breteuil in Calvados, was a close political colleague and companion in arms of William the Conqueror. The Conqueror made Fitz Osbern the Earl of Hereford a few months after the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and William built the first castle at Chepstow as a base for his conquest of Wales.

At Chepstow, the river Wye had cut into the northern flank of a long, narrow ridge of limestone. The high cliffs that resulted created a natural, impregnable barrier and it was here the castle was built.

Also in Chepstow is the start of Offa’s Dyke, the 240-kilometer (150 miles) long defensive barrier built by King Offa of Mercia who ruled most of middle England from 756-796AD. The dyke is now a well-marked hiking trail.

The Normans found the Welsh hard to subdue and total conquest was to take some 200 years. Meanwhile, the Welsh border remained ill defined, with either Offa’s Dyke or the river Wye as the generally accepted boundaries.

By 1300, Wales was divided into Crown lands and numerous lordships, the March of Wales, controlled by Anglo-Norman families. Today, the term “Welsh Marches” still refers to the English-Welsh border areas.

Side trips off the main A466 road north to Monmouth along the Wye valley reveal quaint medieval villages such as St. Briavels. The castle here was a favourite hunting lodge of King John who enjoyed chasing the wild boar and deer in the area.

Just eight kilometres (five miles) north of Chepstow are the starkly beautiful ruins of Tintern Abbey, which inspired one of Wordsworth’s most famous poems, “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798.” Tintern was a medieval monastery established for the monks of the Cistercian order by the Norman lord of Chepstow, Walter Fitz Richard de Clare in 1131.

Eleven kilometres (seven miles) south of Monmouth the road crosses the Wye out of Wales and back into England. Monmouth itself is famous as the birthplace of Henry V and Charles Rolls, creator of the Rolls-Royce automobile. .

Just north of Monmouth on a side road and on a double loop of the Wye is Yat Rock. Looking northeast from here there is a superb view of the old market town of Ross-on-Wye and the tiny village of Goodrich with its tall-towered medieval castle.

Stay on the river or get back to the A466 to the history-haunted town of Hereford.

Behind the cathedral the spectacular Gothic college cloisters should not be missed. One of the most photographed sights in Hereford is the 17th-century black timbered “Old House,” immediately adjacent to shops selling the latest in appliances and computers.

At Hereford, the Wye and the A466 part company with the river branching northwest into the Welsh mountains. At the village of Hay-on-Wye, the river, Offa’s Dyke and the Welsh border again converge. Hay-on-Wye has undergone a commercial resurgence in recent years by billing itself as the “Used Book Shop Capital of the World.” The town is brimming with used book stores, each advertising its own specialty, and has become a “must see” on the itinerary of bibliophiles visiting Britain.

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