Notes on Newport, Gwent (May 2023)

Newport’s Commercial Street (which is becoming increasingly a misnomer) is an index to the dysfunctions and preoccupations of our times. In place of so-called ‘quality’ stores, such as British Home Stores, C&A, Littlewoods, and Marks & Spencer (which Mam dragged me around when I was a child in the 1960s and early 1970s), there’re now mobility-scooters suppliers, pawnbrokers, money lenders, vape retailers, charity shops, nail bars, and phone-repair services.

In the doorways of the too many shops that have been too long closed, flimsy tents are now pitched to ‘house’ those who’re experiencing homelessness. On the plazas, middle-aged men sit in silence with their heads bowed, staring at the ground. Young men in expensive white trainers scurry shiftily, with hands buried in pockets, looking for their next hit. Others stagger aimlessly in a state of confusion and alarm, talking into the air (as do those of a ‘sound mind’, with a mobile device in their ear). From an injury-insurance claims stand on Commercial Street, the music to ‘When You’re Smiling (The Whole World Smiles with You)’ reverberates.

When visiting Newport, I always meet with a friend from my time at the local art college during the late 1970s. Over a pub meal we talk for hours about our contrasting experiences of art education, current projects, and plans for the future. He and I recognize that whatever years remain to us represent the ‘last chance saloon’ in which to fulfil our outstanding ambitions. It’s now or never. Therefore, we resolve to abandon the desirable in favour of the essential, and the merely interesting in favour of the absolutely necessary.

Our custom is to take a roll call of former colleagues: those whom we either have lost contact or rarely communicate with, and the few who’re no longer in this world. Thereafter, he and I ‘beat the bounds’ of the city, retracing the journeys made as students between the art college’s annexes and the main building at Clarence Place.

As a mark of respect, I habitually pause at the entrance to the Westgate Hotel on Commercial Street. On November 4, 1839 it was the site of the Newport Rising, when 3,000 Chartists marched on Newport seeking democratic rights for all men. They were confronted by 60 armed soilders and police. In the ensuing battle, between 10 and 22 Chartists were killed. Their bodies were buried in unmarked graves at the churchyard of what’s now St Woolos Cathedral (Newport Cathedral). We weren’t taught about the history and cause of Chartism in my school (situated only 16 miles north of Newport). It was my paternal grandfather who first pointed out to me the bullet holes in the columns that bracketted the hotel’s entrance, into which I’d insert my finger like doubting Thomas.

Woolos, it’s claimed, is the anglicisation of the name Gwynllyw. (How’s that even possible?!) He was a late-5th century warrior king, whose lands that lay between Glamorgan and Gwent. Following his conversion, he was subsequently sainted. Gwynllyw was told in a dream to follow a white ox to the top of a prominent hill and build a church there. The present cathedral occupies the same site. It’s architecture and fittings cover a very broad span of history. The oldest elements are two Roman columns that were, in all likelihood, brought to this country around AD 75 by the legion based at Caerleon, nearby. The most recent feature is the chancel; it was rebuilt and enlarged in 1960-64, and features a stained glass window by John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens.

Not far below the Cathedral stands Havelock Street Presbyterian Church. It was built in 1864, and rebuilt in 1878 to designs suupplied by a local firm of architects. Like many Welsh chapels, the building has historical aspirations and resonances that belie its relative recentness. (One wonders whether the church was consciously trying to compete with St Woolos’s truly ancient credentials.) The chapel is constructed in the Italianate/Lombardic style of the 6th to 11th centuries. The polychromatic stone work, which is typical of the Italianate vocabulary, is made up of a ballast stones cast overboard from ships docking in the Newport harbour. It’s a clumsily vulgar but hugely enjoyable example of Welsh Nonconformity’s ‘Grand Manner’.

See also: Intersections (archive);  Diary (September 15, 2018 – June 30, 2021)Diary (July 16, 2014 – September 4, 2018); John Harvey (main site); Instagram.

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