Herefordshire and Monmouthshire
Herefordshire and Monmouthshire are the two last counties on the Welsh "Marches," where the ruins of many stern old Norman keeps tell of lands taken and held by the sword.
Herefordshire is quite English in every way; but Welsh is still spoken in the west and north of Monmouth, and the outlandish names on the map have been given, not by the Saxons, or English, but by the Britons, or Welsh. Many of these names begin with Llan, the Welsh word for church; perhaps in the days of early British Christianity there was a church in each such place. Other names begin with Aber, river mouth. Hard though as many of the names are to pronounce, they usually have a meaning which describes the place.
When the Normans came, they built castles up and down Hereford; and in Monmouth, the ruins of not fewer than five-and-twenty of these Norman keeps are still to be seen. Monmouth was in those days really a Welsh county, and each Norman baron had only what land he was able to take for himself and guard from his own castle. In no other part of England are there the remains of so many old keeps as between the fair sister rivers, Usk and Wye.
Some people say the Usk, some say the Wye, is the prettier of these two lovely rivers, which both unite their waters with those of the Severn in the Bristol Channel. They flow side by side through Monmouth; and between them is ten or twelve miles of country, fair and fertile as a garden, with apple orchards and corn-fields, pear orchards and deep green meadows, with woods and hills and little vales, watered by many streams which join the Usk on the one side or the Wye on the other.
The Wye belongs equally to both counties; it rises in Plinlimmon, close by the Severn, and into the Severn mouth it flows; but the Severn takes a grander sweep than the modest Wye. The Wye enters Herefordshire out of Wales, and flows across the county to the city of Hereford, through a wide and lovely valley. The city itself is pleasantly placed, and the beautiful cathedral stands by the river. Many notable events have taken place in this old city; among the rest, here—along with many others of Queen Margaret's friends—was beheaded Owen Tudor, a Welsh gentleman who had married "Kate," the widow of Henry V., and who was the ancestor of our great Tudor kings and queens. He was among the prisoners taken by the Yorkists at Mortimer's. Cross, where one of the great battles of the "Koses" was fought; the Queen's party was defeated. A pillar marks the battle-field, which is about six miles from Leominster. After the Wye leaves Hereford, it goes in and out and round about, but does at last make its way southward to Ross, on the Gloucester border. Between the towns of Boss and Monmouth is perhaps the most beautiful bit of river valley in England, where the Wye, overhung by trees, makes endless loops and windings round great masses of rock.
It is not only Wye Valley which is thus beautiful and fertile; there is scarcely any waste land in the whole county. Stand on level ground, and you think the country all around is one great garden, what with the tall hops, the waving corn, and the green crops, crops of one kind or another growing even between the rows of fruit-trees in the orchards. From a hill, you might suppose the whole county a forest, what with the actual woods scattered about, the bushy hedges between the fields, and the apple-trees and pear-trees everywhere. But, look round from such a hill in the springy and you are sure the shire of Hereford is one huge orchard, white with pear-, or rosy with apple-blossom.
Do the children eat all the apples and pears? Not so, or else there would soon be no children left. The juice is pressed out and made into cider and perry, as good as any wine made from the grapes of the Rhine or of southern France. The best kinds are bottled by the Bristol merchants, and sent away to be sold to the rich citizens of America.
The cattle of Hereford are famous, and so are the sheep; but the folk of this shire are so busy about their crops that they have no time to make butter and cheese, even for their own use, so get what, they need from neighbouring counties.
The towns of this county are, as you will suppose, simply market-towns. Ledbury and Bromyard are both old towns. Leominster, or, as the people call it, Lem'ster, on the Lug, a tributary of the Wye, is a pleasant, busy town, with a curious old carved butter-cross, where Herefordshire butter was sold in the days before fruit-trees were much grown in the county.
Kingston, on the western border, is also a market-town. A range of hills crosses the north-west corner, and the Black Mountains of Wales enter the southwest.
II. More About Monmouthshire
When the Wye reaches Monmouth, it becomes a border river, dividing the shires of Monmouth and Gloucester. Monmouth is a very old town, standing, with its ruined castle, in a nest of hills just where the Monnow joins the Wye. This ruined castle was once the gay home of princes; here Henry IV. best liked to dwell, and here his great son, Henry V., Harry of Monmouth, was born. The ruins of the very room are shown, and even a queer, ancient cradle in which the little prince is said to have been rocked.
The Wye winds less here than in Herefordshire, but it is no less lovely; and very fair is the prospect from Beacon Hill, which rises close by the west bank of the river.
Lower down is Tintern Abbey, beautiful for situation—close by a loop in the river, embowered among trees—and most perfect in itself, with "forms of beauty" in arch and column not to be forgotten. Save that it has lost its roof, the abbey is nearly as perfect as when the monks of old chanted within its walls. To this old abbey we owe a very delightful poem. Mr. Wordsworth tells us that many a time after he had visited it, the memory of beautiful Tintern would rise, "in lonely rooms," "in hours of weariness," like a picture in his mind, and that whenever this sweet memory came, it refreshed him and made him feel both glad and kind.
Chepstow stands at the mouth of the Wye, a mouth wide enough open to let in the tide; and what tides the spring-tides here are, when the sea rushes in, bearing all before it, and often rising to a height of sixty feet! The old castle of Chepstow, with its thick walls and lofty towers, rises from a rock overhanging the Wye. Large vessels come up the Wye as far as Chepstow, which is rather busy about this shipping, and is also a market-town.
Newport, at the mouth of Usk river, where, also, the spring-tides rise high, is a much busier port, a port which sends out coal and iron, and all kinds of iron and steel goods. For West Monmouthshire, where the people speak the Welsh tongue and have Welsh ways, is a "Black Country." Here the puddlers may be seen at work in hundreds of fiery furnaces, and many blast furnaces belch out flame and smoke. It is a mountain country; several ranges of bare hills run from end to end of this western piece of Monmouth, and below the hills and valleys lie the coal-measures, a piece of the great South Wales coal-field. Iron is found also, so there are many mining villages, as well as some large towns where both iron and steel are manufactured, and where all kinds of iron and steel goods are made,—Tredegar, Blaina, Pontypool, and Newport itself. There are coal-mines and iron-works near Abergavenny, too, which stands among the Usk meadows and in a nest of hills; but Abergavenny itself is chiefly a market-town. The Usk comes straight into Monmouth out of Wales, and does not enter any other English county. It has upon its banks the ancient towns of Caerleon and Usk, whose very names call up many a pleasant old-world tale; for they were both stately Roman and British towns, and Caerleon had its Archbishop long before Augustine came to Canterbury. Nothing is left now of its splendid palaces, its baths and temples; but to this day many of the houses in the village are partly built with Roman bricks, and Roman pillars hold up the market-place.
It may be that the old castle, whose ruins still overhang Usk, was one of the homes of the hero-king, Arthur, and perhaps Merlin, the mighty magician, helped to make the city beautiful after the Romans had left it.
The coast of Monmouth along the Bristol Channel and Severn mouth is flat, low, and marshy, and the sea is kept out by embankments and sea-walls. Between the Wye and the Usk it is called Caldicott Level, and Wentloog Level, to the west of the Usk.
The Black Mountains come down out of Hereford into a narrow strip on the north-west of Monmouth—three ranges, with wild glens between them.