There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Goldcliff, Redwick and Magor

Pottering back slowly from South Wales to Staffordshire we turned off the M4 west of Newport and followed the ring road south of the city. We passed the old transporter bridge and the docks before reaching Liswerry, where a minor road took us into the Caldicot Level, the alluvial wetland that lies between the M4 and the Severn estuary. This dank, flat marsh was the home of my paternal grandmother’s family until they moved into Newport at the start of the last century, and we were in search of family graves.

It is depressing territory all the way from the last urban and industrial gasp of Newport right out to where wet cows chew dispiritedly in meadows of long wet grass. Drizzle fell from a grey sky; it seemed the natural state of affairs.

Goldcliff has no gold and no cliff. This world is flat, drainage channels covered in green scum keep the land just about dry enough. We found no centre to Goldcliff, though there is a church somewhere, but what we did find was a mile long dribble of houses lining the narrow road. There are well built farmhouses and a sprinkling of new buildings, many of them large, some of them very large. People with money have chosen this bleak place to build their homes. I have no idea why. I am forced to conclude that this landscape has charms I fail to see.

We had to track a mile or two inland and then back out toward the estuary to find Redwick. The village is remoter and closer to the coast than Goldcliff, not that there is any sign of salt water. There is no harbour between Newport and Chepstow, the tidal mudflats being unable to shelter even the smallest fishing boats, and the villages have turned their back on the coast and made their living from agriculture - at least until the boom in commuter housing.

Around Redwick the land seems lusher and the atmosphere less desolate – though perhaps I was fooled by a pause in the drizzle. The village does at least have a centre - a pub facing a church across a bend in the road. The pub looks well kept and cheerful, festooned with colourful hanging baskets. It also boasts a ‘Piste de Boule’ suggesting the Bristol Channel is not the limit of its horizons. Outside the church a stone shelter houses a collection of artefacts from the agricultural past, most notably a cider mill and press. I had never thought of my Monmouthshire ancestors as cider drinkers despite the county bordering the English cider heartland.

St Thomas’ church is an ambitious structure, big enough to accommodate the whole of Redwick and still squeeze in several bus loads of visitors. They are proud of their peal of bells and, helpfully, have a list of who is buried in the churchyard. None of them were the ancestors we sought. Outside, on the porch, a scratch shows the high water mark of the great flood of January 1607, though as New Year then started in March the scratch is dated 1606. On the 30th of that month a huge storm surge – or possibly a tsunami – rolled up the Bristol Channel. The Welsh coast was inundated from Laugharne in Carmarthenshire all the way up to Chepstow, while on the English side the water swept across the Somerset levels as far inland as Glastonbury Tor. 200 square miles were flooded, livestock and villages were swept away and over 2000 people died. And this was where my ancestors chose to live.

Barely a thousand people live in Goldcliff and Redwick put together but Magor is a much bigger village, maybe even a town. We parked by the ruins of the 13th century Procurator’s House and strolled into the central square. There are dignified old buildings, shops, pubs, restaurants and a profusion of hanging baskets and flowerbeds. The town looks smart, freshly painted and prosperous. It is also far enough inland to have grown a modern estate to the south, spreading up the side of a rise which protects Magor from the sea. To the north there is a little industry, the M4 and Magor’s very own motorway service station – well nowhere’s perfect.

If Redwick church is too big for the village, the 13th century builders of Magor church evidently expected their village to grow into a major city. It is surrounded by a well-tended burial ground and we scanned a few gravestones searching for the ancestral Attewell family.

Lynne is openly scornful (but, I think, secretly impressed) that the graves of my mother’s family can usually be found by locating the largest monument in the cemetery. It worked at Trealaw where my great-great grandfather’s statue sits on a plinth even Nelson might envy while his son and much of the rest of the family lie under a substantial tangle of angels and cherubs in the more bucolic setting of Penderyn. The biggest monument in Magor churchyard is not huge or excessively showy, but it does tower over its rivals and yes, it is the resting place of the Attewells.

The simple, spire-shaped monument was built to mark the grave of Mary Attewell, my great-great-great grandmother who died in May 1887. My great-great-great grandfather William Attewell joined her there in 1890, followed by an assortment of sons, daughters and in-laws though not my great-great grandfather Thomas Attewell who was born in Magor in 1833 but had moved to Newport before he died in 1917.

Inside the church we met a friendly local engaged on writing a history of the church. Old photographs, she informed us, showed the now weathered Attewell monument to have once been shining white. Maybe they, too, were concerned with being just a little showy.

The Attewells had a farm near Magor and their sons and daughters married natives of Goldcliff and Redwick. They clearly made some money; William and Mary lived lives which were long and, I presume, comfortable by the standards of the day. I was surprised to find that all three villages were prosperous and remain so, though for rather different reasons. Clearly there are those who do not find the landscape of the Caldicot Level desolate and depressing but I am not one of them. I am glad Thomas Attewell left, even if Newport is hardly the city of anybody’s dreams. They all went eventually, but even so the population of the coastal wetlands looks to be growing, not shrinking. And as for the people who live there now – well they’re welcome to it; this branch of the Attewell family is unlikely to want it back.


  1. I lived in Undy (the modern estate to the south of Magor) for two years - your description is spot on! I can't say I miss it...

  2. hi there iam also a decentant of the Attewell family my direct ancestor is Henry Attewell 1823- 1891 /Thomas Henry Attewell 1864 - 1932
    my email address is please get in contact