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Historical Newport Marathon

Inspired by a recent book that I read called The Running Book by John Connell who ran a marathon through County Longford in Ireland. Whilst I don’t have the writing skills of an award-winning author, I thought it would be a good exercise to understand the areas I would be running through and hopefully discovering new things along the way.

Local Lockdown Scuppers My Plans

Since getting back into running more seriously I’ve enjoyed some runs between cities – Tewkesbury to Gloucester, Chippenham to Bath, Chepstow to Bristol – and when I discovered that I was going to be doing increasingly longer runs I started planning new routes, such as Weston-super-Mare to Bristol, but then a local lockdown restricted me to running around Newport and a subsequent national ‘circuit break’ lockdown removed that restriction but any exercise would need to be started/finished from home.

I’d already completed some long runs around Newport and if I wanted to run a flat route I wouldn’t have many options. As my run needed to be at race pace, I wanted a route that wasn’t too hilly so opted for the same route as the recent 23-mile run I’d completed but to make it interesting, I would research the history along the way.

My Route

The rules of the circuit break are that your exercise needs to start and end at home so my route started like many of my runs along a busy road that leads into the centre of Newport, Malpas Road. As a child the road was regularly gridlocked ferrying traffic to the motorway and onwards to Cwmbran. The dual carriageway that was constructed to alleviate the frequently gridlocked traffic passed along the old Newport to Pontypool railway line (known as The Lines during my childhood) which I used to use as a child to get to a nearby park and BMX track.

The dual carriageway (Heidenheim Drive – Newport has been twinned with the German city since the 1980s) terminates in city centre but a junction drops down and joins Shaftesbury Street and the Harlequin Roundabout and this whole area is completely different to how it used to look. A number of houses were demolished, including one where my mother was born, no doubt to make room for large roads to accommodate increasing volumes of traffic. Looking back at photographs of the area, houses, pubs, shops, a slaughter house and even an ice factory were removed. All that remains is a church and the building that once used to house the Old Rising Sun pub but is now an Indian restaurant.

Shaftesbury Street runs adjacent to Newport Castle and meets the Old Green roundabout, an area which has changed dramatically. Today, Heidenheim Drive passes beneath the roundabout but in the past it would have carried the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canals along with the railway line from Pontypool. The castle has long been a ruin and in the past was once used as a brewery. Today, it’s completely fenced off although I can remember the days when you could walk through the castle until one incident too many closed it off.

At the Old Green Roundabout I head over Newport Bridge and on my right the much redeveloped Riverfront would have looked very different in times gone by. Heavy industry dominated the west side of the River Usk with dozens of railway lines feeding a number of different wharves such as the Patent Nut & Bolt Co. Wharf, the Ebbw Vale Coal Wharf, the Liverpool Wharf and the Bristol Packet Wharf. The names revealing the types of raw materials and products that would be brought down from the Valleys to be sent by bought out along the River Usk, the River Severn and beyond.

On the east side near the bridge, a pontoon would pick up passengers for pleasure trips including the paddle steams Glen Usk and the Britannia which last picked up passengers in 1956.

On through Clarence Place where the road splits at the Cenotaph towards Caerleon, Chepstow and along Corporation Road to the west side of Newport. At this junction were two cinemas – the Art Deco style Odeon which opened in 1938 and the Cannon Studios 1 & 2 which opened as the Coliseum Cinema in 1913. I have a vague recollection of going to the 1 & 2 before it closed in March 1987 (The Fly was showing in screen 1 and Crocodile Dundee in screen 2) but only visited the Odeon after it had closed and been converted into a snooker hall.

My route would take me along Chepstow Road towards Chepstow and would be following one of many tramways that would have radiated from the town centre. A couple of hundred yards along the road I pass a boundary stone which I only noticed very recently and marks the boundary between Newport and Maindee which despite now being an area of the city was once a village adjacent to Newport. Two miles further along Chepstow Road is another boundary stone that I spotted after discovering the first and marks the boundary with Christchurch. Those discoveries led me to try and discover what else is along Chepstow Road and by cross referencing with old maps discovered two milestones, one heavily weathered and hiding in plain sight on the side of the road and another tucked away in a wall built around it.

Running through Maindee, no longer a village, I pass Victoria Avenue where the Maindee Baths swimming pool was once located. The building still remains but has been long closed. I have memories of visiting the pool with the school for regular swimming lessons and for three weeks between Boxing Day 1983 and January 1984, wildlife presenter Terry Nutkins brought dolphins to the pool and I recently discovered that a photograph exists of my visit to see them.

Me and my father circled in red (1983/84)

2.5 miles into the route and heading towards present-day Alway, back in the early 20th century this would have been the edge of Newport and the furthest reaches west for the tramway. Streets here were still being developed and maps from the turn of the century show the outlines of present day streets waiting for houses to be built.

Alway back then consisted of a number of old quarries, clay pits and lime kilns and a long gone golf course. Today, the area has been turned into a large housing estate but the wooded areas from the past such as Ladyhill Wood have been retained as well as the old roads that wind through the estate joining Christchurch with Lliswerry.

Beyond Alway and neighbouring Ringland I reach the 4 mile mark and The Coldra which is what Junction 24 of the M4 motorway is known as but the name comes from the manor house that was built nearby in 1860 by Thomas Powell, a coal baron who had started his first coal mine near Newport.

Lydia Beynon Maternity Hospital in 1978

The house was sold to an entrepreneur by the name of Sir John Wyndham Beynon who expanded the house and in 1930 donated the house to the local authority. The house was then converted into the Lydia Beynon Maternity Hospital in honour of Sir John’s mother. The hospital closed in 1970 and was bought in 1980 by Terry Matthews (who was born at the hospital) who converted it into the The Celtic Manor Hotel. The hotel has long since expanded into a much grander hotel hosting the Ryder Cup in 2010 and a NATO summit in 2014.

Chepstow Road runs for another 13 or so miles to Chepstow but my route is just going to follow it for another 4 miles through Langstone and Llanbedr. The road is largely unchanged in the last century apart from some smoothing out. In parts the road is marked as a Roman Road showing the route that would have been travelled between the Roman towns of Caerwent near Chepstow and Caerleon near Newport.

At Penhow I reach the far western county border of Newport when I bear right and drop down along a country lane. For the next 15 or so miles the route will be predominantly scenic country lanes and very flat which based on the previous 23-mile run in the area will allow me to run at a consistent pace.

St Brides Netherwent is a deserted medieval village that was abandoned by the 18th century. All that remains are a few farmhouses and the church of St Bridget which when I visited in the past was frequented by a bouquet of pheasants. The road winds its way south just outside of the Newport border until it rejoins civilisation and the edge of Magor.

My route only skirts around the edge of the town and takes me past the colossal Magor Brewery which apparently brews some 8% of the beer in Britain including Stella Artois, Becks and Budweiser. In contrast to the giant warehouses and shiny stainless steel fermenting vessels, next door is the historic tiny village of Wilcrick with its Iron Age hill fort. Nearby an almost complete 3rd century Romano-British boat was discovered during the construction of a distribution centre.

A narrow lane flanked by a reen — one of dozens in the area — leads to Bishton and under the mainline between London and South Wales — remember to duck as you pass beneath the 5’6” underpass! The road continues alongside the the industrial park where the Romano-British boat was discovered and based on where it was discovered indicates that water levels in the area would have been much higher than today.

The 5’6″ underpass beneath the London to South Wales mainline.

The route enters the Gwent Levels which is an area steeped in history dating back as far as the Mesolithic Period with evidence of footprints, tools and fish traps dating back over 7,000 years. Today the land is criss-crossed with the historic drainage system that helps maintain the landscape. Water runs off the fields into ditches and interconnecting reens that surround the fields and using gravity flows down the Severn Estuary where the water is released at tidal creeks known as ‘pills’ through tidal flaps known as ‘gouts’.

Reens, lots and lots of reens.

Whitson is the first village to pass through with it’s 18th century Grade II* listed Whitson Court which was built for William Phillips, the High Sheriff of Monmouthshire. Today it contains a number of flats but back in the 60s and 70s it was the site of Whitson Zoo which Bornean Sun Bears, Himalayan Bears, lions and a large collection of monkeys, reptiles and exotic birds. The zoo closed in 1980 and the animals were rehomed.

The pancake flat road continues through Goldcliff where Mesolithic human footprints were discovered and then onto Nash and Pye Corner on the edge of the city of Newport. With 5 miles left to go, the route heads west towards the Transporter Bridge which is one of fewer than 10 transporter bridges that remain in use worldwide and one of only two operational in the UK (the other being the Tees Transporter Bridge).

The bridge was designed by French engineer Ferdinand Arnodin and opened in September 1906. In addition to being able to carry vehicles and passengers on its gondola, pedestrians can also scale the 277 steps to the high level walkway.

Since the 1980s, the bridge has had a difficult time and has closed on a number of occasions due to needing significant amounts of money to refurbish the bridge but it is currently in operation.

The area after the Transporter Bridge was built would have only featured the Orb Iron Works and the British Mannesmann Tube Works but today features many more businesses as well as a housing estate. I would run past these and over the Southern Distributor Road bridge which whilst not particularly long does have an incline that you feel at this point in the run. 

The opposite side of this bridge was heavily industrialised in the early 20th century the terminus of many railway lines, the Cambrian Iron Pipe Foundry, the Westgate Iron Works, a malt house and the sizeable Old Dock. I would follow the river back towards town running past the sites of numerous old wharfs – Risca Wharf, Clapp’s Wharf, Blaina Wharf and the Alice, Edith and Mary dry docks. Jack’s Pill still exists today as a 100-metre long tidal inlet. 

Just a few hundred metres to go and the finish is in sight. The Riverfront is a contemporary arts centre that was constructed in 2002 and during construction a ship dating to 1465 was discovered whilst excavating the orchestra pit for the centre. The 25-metre long vessel was a significant find and took 6 months to excavate and can now be found on an industrial estate on the edge of the city where it is being preserved. 

The Newport Ship being excavated in 2002

Fuelled by Maurten and Old Skool Rave

For my 23 mile training run I tried out Maurten for the first time using a mixture of gels and drinks. I didn’t do any research in how to best use them but got on well with them. The Maurten site suggest that for runners aiming for a 4:30 marathon they should drink 500ml of the Drink Mix 320 the day before to top up on the 80g of carbs contained in it. 2-3 hours before the race they suggest taking a Drink Mix 160 (40g of carbs) and then every 30 minutes rotating between a GEL 100 and CAF 100. On the 23 mile I had taken the same amount of gels in the same order so was well prepared.

They didn’t specify about drinks so took two 500ml soft flasks of Drink Mix 160 and also carried a 500ml bottle of Lucozade Sport for the first half of the run. I also took some GU Chews and Salt Stick Fastchews to boost salt levels.

For my mental fuel I downloaded a few old skool 1992 rave mixes to relive my teenage years and at 2 hours each just hit play and stashed the phone away. It worked wonders during my previous long training runs and worked wonders on this run too.

The Result

In recent weeks I’d run a 20- and a 23-mile run both at 3:34 pace and one on the same route as this run so I set out with the aim of running the complete distance at the same pace but as this run should be run at race pace I was aiming to run each mile a bit quicker with the aim of getting as close to 3:30 as I could. 

I used the PacePro feature on the Garmin Fenix watch which is great to let you know whether your on track or ahead/behind. I was feeling good throughout most of the run and felt really comfortable running sub-8:00 /mi so kept at that pace and watched as I gradually kept ahead of 03:34 and getting past the 20 mile mark I was on track for sub-3:30. I just needed to keep up that pace for another 6 miles!

It was quickly getting tough maintaining the pace beyond 20 miles and running over Newport SDR Bridge at 25 miles didn’t help! It was then back along the Riverfront Parkrun route until I reached marathon distance. I didn’t realise how far ahead of pace and according to Strava my time was 3:27:00 exactly! I was over the moon with that time and was welcomed in by the Jesus runner who sings as he runs around the Riverfront! 

I went into the run thinking that I may be able to shave some seconds off the 8:11 /mi pace I had achieved on my previous long runs but I thought running sub-8:00 /mi for a marathon would be too ambitious. I felt very comfortable running at that pace for that long and it was the legs that were tiring beyond 20 miles so that’s a good sign and I do wonder how much quicker I’d be able to go in real race conditions.

About Author

I once didn't run, then I started to run and got addicted. Then Crohn's Disease put a stop to my running adventures. Now I'm back with a new bum (colostomy) and starting to embark on new running adventures.

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