The West

Wonder of Wye
Tintern Abbey window. Picture: Lis Smyth

I was 12 when some lines from Henry V were my introduction to the musical poetry of Shakespeare:

''Now all the youth of
England are on fire,
And silken dalliance
in the wardrobe lies...''

I was hooked on Shakespeare and I fell in love with Henry.

For years I wanted to visit his birthplace, Monmouth in Wales' Wye Valley, and when I eventually did, the town and its beautiful surrounds were as interesting as I'd imagined. And now Monmouth has another string to its bow of historical firsts: it is the first Wikipedia town in the world.

Obviously, the Archbishop of Canterbury was not describing modern technology when he said of Henry:

''Never was such a
sudden scholar made;
Never came reformation
in a flood,

With such a heady currance
(current) ...''

But if the scholar Henry was around today he could easily update himself on the town's history, thanks to the Monmouthpedia project, which began this year. He'd just have to point his smartphone at the hundreds of plaques and stickers in the town and information would be downloaded immediately from Wikipedia through QR (quick response) codes.

What's more, this can be done in more than 25 languages and aims eventually to inform on just about everything in Monmouth. Of course, you don't have to have a smartphone; without one Monmouth is just as interesting.

I travel from Bristol over the long and elegant Severn Bridge (toll £6, about $9), to the Wye Valley which straddles the border between Wales and England. First stop, Chepstowe Castle, the southern-most castle built on the Welsh-English border. Building began in 1067 just one year after William the Conqueror was crowned King of England.

Its imposing and daunting walls rise almost as part of the steep cliffs edging the River Wye and there are great views along the valley.

Houses decorated with wallpaper blocks in Drybridge Streeet, Monmouth. Picture: Lis Smyth
The 800-year-old doors, the oldest all-wood castle doors in Europe, were removed in 1962 and are now in the castle's museum. Also here is information on the castle's history, along with life-size models, videos and reproductions of siege machines and medieval weaponry.

After the gaunt greyness of Chepstowe, it is pleasant to enjoy the graceful gothic beauty of Tintern Abbey's ruins on the banks of the Wye. Tintern is one of the great Cistercian monastic ruins in Wales and was built between 1269 and 1301, only the second Cistercian foundation in Britain. Although without a roof and window glass, it is much as it was until its dissolution in 1536.

It is hauntingly magical to look through the delicate tracery of the arched windows to green paddocks and blue hills beyond.

Tintern has affected many poets and painters. Wordsworth was enchanted and in full romantic flood when, in 1798, he wrote "lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey":

''...O sylvan Wye!
thou wanderer thro' the woods,
How often has my spirit
turned to thee! ...''

Turner did several sketches and paintings of the abbey and Jane Austen's heroine, Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, had an engraving of it in her sitting room.

The abbey certainly had a powerful effect on American Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg. He took an acid trip at the abbey in 1967 and wrote his nature poem, Wales Visitation.

''...the lambs on the tree-nooked
hillside this day bleating
heard in Blake's old ear,
and the silent thought of
Wordsworth in eld stillness
clouds passing through skeleton
arches of Tintern Abbey ...''

(Eld _means old age, olden days.)

Sticking with history, a coffee and cake at the 12th-century Anchor looking across to the abbey is a perfect reviver.

The Anchor is Tintern Abbey's original cider mill and now serves locally brewed ales, beers and ciders; we love the old horse-drawn apple press in the main bar.

Next stop, Monmouth itself. We head straight to Agincourt Square to gaze on Henry's statue sitting in its niche on the Shire Hall wall. Sadly the statue doesn't measure up to my teenage romantic mental vision image of his beauty and grandeur - no statue could have. Thankfully, the history is as magical as my memory suggests.

In front of Henry is a statue of pioneer aviator and scientist Henry Rolls, of Rolls-Royce fame, the first to fly across the English Channel and back without landing.

His family home, the Hendre, is now home to the clubhouse of the Rolls of Monmouth Golf Club. Henry's mother, Lady Llangattock, collected Lord Nelson memorabilia, housed in the Monmouth Museum and complete with a grisly forgery of "Nelson's eye".

Also in the museum is the only known remaining 16th-century Monmouth cap. Certainly not a fashion statement, nevertheless it's an interesting reminder of the times when the Capper's Act of 1488 banned people from wearing foreign caps and fined them if they did.

Fluellen, the Welsh captain says in Henry V:

''...the Welshmen did good service
in a garden where leeks did grow,
wearing leeks in their
Monmouth caps; which, your
majesty know, to this hour is an
honourable badge of the service. ''

There is even a link to Tasmania in Monmouth. Monmouth Shire Hall is famous for its trial of three Chartist leaders for high treason. They were part of a group of 19th-century working-class political reformers. They were sentenced to death but this was eventually commuted to transportation to Van Diemen's Land.

On a hill close to the centre of town, Monmouth Castle was built around 1070 by William Fitz Osbern, and Henry was born here some 300 years later. It was then owned by his grandfather, John of Gaunt, another "romantic" figure from my teenage years.

All that remains of the castle is a 12th-century tower, a 13th-century great hall and some of the castle's walls.

After the castle was nearly destroyed by fire in 1647, another residence was built on the site in 1672, the Great Castle House, which is now home to a regimental museum.

St Mary's Church spire and Monmouth Street. Picture: Lis Smyth
There is a quirkiness to many of Monmouth's buildings, such as the bridge over the River Monnow.

Built near the end of the 13th century, the stone bridge has a unique once-fortified gateway. It had a portcullis and as an extra defence on the Welsh side, a ditch and rampart called the Black Dyke. All a useless exercise, as the river is both narrow and shallow and easily crossed on foot.

And who would have thought to insert large wooden wallpaper blocks into house walls as decoration? But when the 15th-century black and white houses in Drybridge Street were renovated in the 19th century, these blocks, once used for hand printing, were provided by a local printing business.

The Wye Valley is also rich with Arthurian legend. There are caves in the cliffs above the river where King Arthur and Merlin are both supposed to have sheltered.

And all this is due to the 12th-century scholar and writer Geoffrey of Monmouth, who wrote The History of the Kings of Britain. This is one of the most significant books written in Britain because without it the legend of King Arthur might well have been lost. He was connected to the Monmouth Priory which was founded by Benedictine monks in 1070. The building has a handsome oriel window known as Geoffrey's Window even though it was built 300 years after his death.

The priory's church, St Mary's, has an intriguing tombstone to one John Renie in its graveyard. We try to untangle the 285 letters in the acrostic on his tombstone but it is too challenging. Some think it may have been designed to muddle the devil, ensuring Renie's safe arrival in heaven.

Beginning at the middle letter "H", the inscription "Here lies John Renie" can be read upwards, downwards, backwards and so on, but not diagonally.

After all this history we need sustenance. It is a toss-up between lunch at the medieval Robin Hood Inn or the King's Head in Agincourt Square, an old coaching inn. The King's Head won by a short nose - Wiltshire cured ham, free-range eggs and chips - yum.

Whether you employ your smartphone or not, Monmouth oozes more history than I can elaborate here - and so in Shakespeare's words:

''Thus far, with rough
and all-unable pen,
Our bending author
hath pursued the story ...''


• From London, take the M4 to Bristol, cross the Severn Bridge on the M48 and then follow the A466 to Monmouth.
• Monmouthshire Tourist Information:
• Symonds Yat provides superb views over the winding River Wye and Valley, also kayaking and canoeing, hiking and peregrine falcon sightings.
• The Wye Valley footpath, one of the first footpaths to be developed in Britain for recreational walking.

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