Usk 2023: the Master’s Weekend

Guests and summer arrived together on our first afternoon at Cwrt Bleddyn, the historic manor house hotel playing host to this year’s Master’s Weekend, in Usk, South Wales, from 12 to 15 May 2023. 

Photo of Dewstow Gardens, trees, water & plants
Dewstow Gardens

The Cwrt, which was named after an eleventh century Welsh prince and has links with the great Welsh families of Seymour, Morgan and Tudor,  provided an ideal backdrop to the evening’s champagne reception, followed by a convivial dinner for thirty seven.  Just what was needed to get the Company’s investigation of South Wales and its history off on the right foot.

. . . Except that, as is becoming traditional at these congenial gatherings, a distinguished Past Master discovered he had mislaid some valuable items at an unknown point on his journey to the event.  Were they sitting safe in his distant home, or were they lying in peril next to his last parking place?  Nothing less than an heroic, postprandial return trip would put his and our minds at rest.  Phew! We learned the next morning that all was well.

Caerleon’s Roman amphitheatre was our first port of call on the Saturday.  Each of us empowered his inner Russell Crowe as we fended off lions and devilishly sneaky retiarii in the arena, which had seating for 5,000, a good many of whom might have come from the 2nd Augustan Legion billeted in the barrack blocks unearthed just across the road.

We moved from the barracks to the museum, where the ring of Roman garrison towns guarding the approaches to Wales was mapped, thus confirming cartographically just how troublesome the Welsh have always been to their would-be overlords, over the millennia.  Of course, the legionaries in this Western outpost needed down time, and an ingenious son et lumière presentation showed them swimming up and down the Roman baths next door, the prototype for the public swimming pools of the current era.

Getting back on the bus, we headed for the Roman town of Caerwent, where a buffet lunch awaited at the Coach and Horses Inn, whose car park was buttressed by the thick wall guarding that two thousand year old settlement.  The cold chicken pie went down a treat.  But the afternoon sky had, by now, turned an uninterrupted blue, which was just right for exploring Dewstow’s hidden gardens and grottoes two miles down the road.

Grotto at Dewstow - fountain, water and fish
Grotto at Dewstow
WCSIM members and partners around wooden table having tea in Dewstow Gardens
Around the tea table at Dewstow

If you want a nice garden, it helps if you inherit a fortune at the age of ten.  This is just what happened to Henry Oakley, a gentleman farmer, who bought the Dewstow estate in 1893 and then devoted the rest of his life to turning the grounds around his house into a fabled garden.  This unique horticultural enterprise fell into neglect after his death in 1940, but, following the purchase of the land by the Harris family in 2000, a start was made on restoring the gardens and underground grottoes to their former, magical glory.  Livery members gathered around the sun kissed tea table at the end of the afternoon to attest to the good progress that had been achieved.

Back at the hotel, members of the party undertook bracing exercise at the gym and spa, or else crashed out, according to taste, in preparation for an evening at the White Hare distillery/ Mad Platter bistro in the centre of Usk.  We were treated to a gin tasting, curated by the proprietor, Christos Kyriakidis, the son-in-law of one of our number.  A few people had doubts, in advance, about whether they liked this particular form of strong liquor, but decided, nevertheless, to get into the spirit of things, as you might say.  So it was that we all got to weigh up the relative merits of original, spiced-mandarin, “Hellenic Hare” and pink gins, accompanied by a variety of tonic waters.  There was no unanimity over the winner, but the four shots constituted a powerful aperitif for the excellent supper that followed.  A good night was had by all.

Which might account for the slower gait observable in some of our party on the Sunday morning, when we had the chance to explore Usk itself.  We started at the museum, which was run entirely by volunteers and which, fittingly for a town that was situated in the heart of a farming area and had its own agricultural college, focused on rural life.

Enthusiasts had assembled a memorable selection of exhibits, ranging from scythes through hay wains to tractors.  Some of us with farming connections recognised, with nostalgia, the 1950’s Ferguson tractor on display.  The museum also possessed the inestimable benefit of its own cafe, at which we could recuperate, and from which we could view our next challenge, Usk castle, which sits on a small hill in the centre of the town.

The medieval fortress could be reached either by walking along the river, then looping back via the wildlife trail, or else by a direct, frontal assault from base camp.  The less energetic took the latter, shorter option.  But, whichever way you got there, the views from this privately owned citadel, out through the heat haze to the four corners of Monmouthshire, were stunning.

Senior Past Master with wife and dog at Usk Castle
Senior Past Master adopts the chateleine’s dog, Usk Castle

All this walking, climbing and gazing worked up an appetite, and we felt wholly justified in tucking into Sunday lunch, provided in a private dining room at The Three Salmons Hotel, a seventeenth century coaching inn located in the centre of Usk.

We climbed back on the coach, replete after our meal, and set out for our final historical venue.  Leaving the gently rolling hills of east Monmouthshire behind, we travelled into the valleys to the west of the county to explore Wales’s industrial heritage.  Our destination was the ironworks at Blaenavon, and we were fortunate that Mike Woodward, with his background in the modern steel industry, agreed to be our tour guide.

Mike explained how the early iron masters found the steep sides of the valley a boon, as there was easy access to the top of the blast furnaces when they had been built into the side of the mountain.  But while iron drove the early stages of the industrial revolution, by the middle of the nineteenth century, steel was the coming thing, although still fiendishly expensive.

We all know that Henry Bessemer’s furnace allowed steel to be mass produced, but we learned from Mike that his revolutionary furnace was useless, as first designed, for most iron ores, because their phosphorus content made the steel brittle.  It took the work of Sidney Gilchrist Thomas, working at Blaenavon over twenty years later, to solve the problem, when, in 1879, he introduced a limestone refractory lining to react with the phosphorus.  The products of reaction floated to the top and left good steel below.

Top of the blast furnace, Blaenavon
Top of the blast furnace, Blaenavon

Iron and steel workers were in high demand in the nineteenth century, and the factory owners provided cottages for them, which we walked around.  Nothing to write home about now, but top of the range back then, and some of the dwelling were, after running water and electricity had been laid on, still inhabited until the 1960s.

Boasting our newly acquired credits in metallurgy and sociology, we now boarded our bus, for the last time, to make our return journey over the top of the mountain to Brynmawr, and then down through Crumlin.  The greening of the valleys, once all the coal mines closed, was immediately apparent to all those who were able to resist the temptation to rest their eyes at the end of another full day.

Cwrt Bleddyn laid on a splendid buffet supper on Sunday evening to mark the end of formal proceedings, followed by another fine breakfast on Monday morning.

Then, at the end of a fun weekend, and with some sadness, valete!

Postscript by Past Master Ron Summers

My story kicks off with Mick Lynch and his influence, for good or ill, on the course of our weekend.

Upon finding out that there are two trains that run, each day, from Penzance (home) to Newport (the gateway to the Usk valley), the decision to “let the train take the strain” was an unthinking formality for Marg and me.  In point of fact, there are 32 stops between Penzance and Cardiff, with Newport the penultimate.  You will not be surprised to learn that the train calls at Plymouth, Exeter and Bristol on the way.  But, to appreciate the charm of Cornwall, you need to know it also halts at Menheniot, a one carriage stop between Liskeard and St Germans (which are not much bigger themselves, by the way) before it leaves the county.  Menheniot is sure to be an answer on some TV quiz of the future!  You heard it here first.

Of course, Mick Lynch deemed our date of travel a ‘strike day’, which meant there was nothing for it but to re-arrange our trip and arrive a day ahead of schedule.  But arriving 24 hours early gave Marg and me the opportunity to assess the advertised delights of the town of Usk before everyone else arrived for the week-end.

The taxi, laid on by Cwrt Bleddyn, arrived promptly and transported us the four, scenic miles to Usk itself. The initial auguries seemed propitious, and our subsequent inspection of this pretty market town, in its bucolic setting, revealed nothing untoward. The river walk was peaceful, the rural museum interesting, the Welsh cakes were gratefully received.

But we began, eventually, to wonder how we would make the return journey, back to Cwrt Bleddyn.  Easy, right?  After all, we had a mobile phone, we had a phone signal, we had two numbers for a local taxi firm – what could go wrong?  The person at the other end does need to pick up, of course.  Answer phones, however charming and tuneful, do not quite cut it!

After an hour of trying to get through, without response, we decided we needed another way.  Influenced, no doubt, by those resourceful travellers on “Race Around the World”, Marg determined to seek third-party help.  Crucially, she spied the Three Salmons Hotel, and recognised it as the place where our group was scheduled to have lunch on Sunday.  She conceded to the receptionist that we were not residents, but our request that the hotel whistle up a taxi was escalated up to the manager, who recognised both our predicament and the name of the party we would be with (‘SIM’ and ‘Prof Thomas’ draw blanks, but the single word, ‘Audrey’, unlocked all doors!).  The hotel would indeed organise the requested transport and the manager invited us, in the meantime, to have a drink in the bar.  Which is where the driver found us a few minutes later.  Obligingly, he told us that there was no need to hurry finishing our drinks, because he would be ready whenever we were …

On reaching Cwrt Bleddyn, after a most civilised chat with the driver – Marg whispered to me that we should try and book him for our trip to Newport Station when we began our homeward trek – I  pulled out my wallet to pay.  Bizarrely, as I thought, I was told firmly that there was no need.

It turned out our accommodating “taxi driver” was, in reality, not for hire, but the brother of the Three Salmons’ owner!  He knew that the Worshipful Company would be pitching up for lunch on Sunday, so our ride was complimentary!

We found there really was a ‘welcome in the valleys’.


Philip Thomas and Ron Summers