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Chepstow - the last (or first) town on the River Wye

ChepstoTheThe River Wye that passes through Chepstow is nearing its end, and by now heavily influenced by the tides. For many, Chepstow is the first town when entering Wales. By motorway today, for centuries this would have been by ferry.

View Chepstow points of interest in a larger map

The Source of the River Wye



Crucial Information:

Chepstow derives from ceap or chepe stour, meaning Market Place.

Welsh name Cas-gwent meaning Castle of Gwent.

Population 14 195


The town

The area of Chepstow is known to have been inhabited during the Mesolithic period of around 5000 BC. This was near to what is now the junction with the M48.

It was also settled during the Roman occupation, when there was probably a bridge or ford over the River Wye. Following this Chepstow became established as a port and market for the local area. Bridges spanned the River Wye from the 13th Century.

The Norman town of Chepstow grew up around the castle. It became established as the largest port in Wales, and a centre for shipbuilding. In the nineteenth century Chepstow’s port became less significant. Shipbuilding ended after a brief revival in the First World War.

Chepstow Racecourse is Wales’ most significant horse racing facility, and important races held there include the Welsh National.

Chepstow Castle

Less that one year after the Norman Invasion, building began on Chepstow Castle in 1067. The castle is spectacularly perched on cliffs above the River Wye.

The Great Hall, also started in 1067, is the oldest surviving stone fortification in Britain.

Chepstow Castle was fortified in the thirteenth century. Following that its military importance declined.

During the Civil War Chepstow Castle was besieged and taken by Parliamentarian forces twice – in 1645 and 1648. After taking it for the second time, the Parliamentarians repaired the castle and used it as a prison. In 1690 all military personnel and equipment moved out, and Chepstow Castle wasleft to go into disrepair.

The state took over in 1953. Since 1984 Chepstow Castle has been managed by CADW. In 1977 Terry Gilliam shot part of his film Jabberwocky at Chepstow Castle.


The Tidal Wye

Although the tidal influence on the River Wye extends as far upstream as Bigsweir Bridge, by Chepstow the influence of the tides overwhelms the look of the river.

The River Wye joins the Severn, which effectively becomes the Bristol Channel. Because of its ‘funnelling’ shape, the Bristol Channel has the second largest tidal range in the world (after the Bay of Fundy in Canada).

As well as the Severn (most famously causing the Seven Bore) this influences the River Wye. At Chepstow, when the tide is rising, the River Wye can be seen flowing backwards.


The Port Wall

To the East and North Chepstow is protected by the River Wye. Other parts of the town were bound by the Port Wall. This late thirteenth century wall was an administrative rather than defensive structure – known as a ‘customs wall’.

The Port Wall was 1000 metres (3 600 feet) long and two metres (six feet) high. It had at least 12 towers that were 8.2 metres (18 feet) high.

Much of the Port Wall survives today.


The Town Gate

Built at the same time as the Port Wall (late thirteenth century) the Town Gate survives today, and still has a public road running through it.

Rebuilt in medieval times, the existing gate dates to the sixteenth century. Tolls were collected on all cattle and goods that passed through it.

The room above the town gate has had many functions including prison, guard room, constable’s quarters, tailor’s workroom and museum.

The gate was restored in 1524 and most recently in 1988.


Old Wye Bridge

The design of the graceful iron bridge over the River Wye near to the castle is often credited to John Rennie (1761 – 1821) who was responsible for London’s Waterloo Bridge. However his involvement was minimal.

An iron bridge had existed on the site, which by 1810 inspectors had condemned as being ‘in decay’. Estimates were sought for the cost of repairing the bridge. John Rennie did come up with cost of repair, but recommended complete replacement at a cost of £41 890 – equivalent to £2 300 000 today.

This was thought to be too expensive, and nothing was done. Then an accident (which claimed six lives) damaged the bridge further, requiring its replacement.

John Rastrick of the firm Hazeldine, Rastrick and Brodie based in Bridgenorth built the current bridge. Rastrick based his designs on Rennie’s but made the bridge more elegant than it would have been.

The cost was originally to be £17 150 but this rose to £20 000. It was opened on 24 July 1816. The bridge is 13 metres (372 feet long).


The Gloucester Hole and the Union Flag

On the opposite (eastern) side of the River Wye from Chepstow town centre, in the limestone cliffs, is an opening called the Gloucester Hole. The opening is 1.7 metres (5 feet 6 inches) square and a short passage leads to an enlarged natural cavern.

There had been speculation of what the hole was used for. Theories included storage of tea by Quakers, and for explosives when Brunel’s railway was built nearby.

The explanation came in 1901 when a local historian recalled speaking to an inhabitant of Chepstow 50 years earlier.  That inhabitant was at the time one of Chepstow’s oldest inhabitants. The Gloucester Hole had a crane fitted and was used to unload larger ships that could not dock in the shallower water of the wharves on the Chepstow side of the river. The goods were then transferred to smaller boats and barges to be carried upstream.

Just by the Gloucester Hole a Union Flag is painted on the cliff wall. This was first painted by Chepstow Salmon Fishermen in 1935 to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of King George V. The flag can be nearly covered by high tides, and so has to be regularly repainted.


Anti Tank Blocks

On a path by the River Wye at Chepstow are anti-tank cubes. They were cast from concrete in the early part of World War II. These were positioned to stop invading German tanks from travelling along the bank and accessing Chepstow town centre.

One of the blocks was inscribed, at time of casting: ‘DEL’.


Aust Ferry and the Severn Princess

Since Roman Times a ferry has operated between Aust and Beachley. Aust being ion the Bristol side of the ferry and Beachley a peninsular between the rivers Wye and Severn.

The f erries closed in 1860 because rail connections made them redundant. Then the rise of the motor car made a ferry viable again.

When the ferry initially reopened in 1926, it was only able to take two wheeled vehicles (bicycles and motorbikes). Then the Severn Queen joined the fleet in 1934 – this was a car ferry. The last car ferry to be launched was the Severn Princess in 1959.

Over the years celebrities and royalty have used the car ferry, including Queen Elizabeth II, the Beatles and Tom Jones. The most iconic picture of a celebrity is Bob Dylan waiting for the ferry, this was taken by Barry Feinstein 1966 and came at the very end of operation of the ferry. In the background of the photo can be seen the nearly completed Severn Bridge. When this opened later the same year then the Aust Ferry became redundant for the final time and closed.

In 1999 the Severn Princess was found derelict and full of fertiliser in Ireland. It has now been returned to Chepstow. Although derelict, there are plans to renovate it. However it will be part of a land based exhibition and will not take to the water again.


A Year on the Wye DVD

A Year on the Wye DVD cover


  River Wye screensaver


Chepstow Castle, above the River WyeChepstow Castle, above the River Wye
Chepstow Castle perched on cliffs above the Wye © Star Video 2011


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Chepstow High StreetChepstow High Street
Chepstow High Street © Star Video 2011


Chepstow CastleChepstow Castle
Chepstow Castle © Star Video 2011


The tidal River Wye at ChepstowThe tidal River Wye at Chepstow
The River Wye - low tide at Chepstow © Star Video 2011


Chepstow Port WallsChepstow Port Walls
The Port Walls, Chepstow © Star Video 2011


Chepstow Town GateChepstow Town Gate
The Town Gate, Chepstow © Star Video 2011

The Old Wye Bridge, ChepstowThe Old Wye Bridge, Chepstow
The Old Wye Bridge, Chepstow © Star Video 2011



The Gloucester Hole, ChepstowThe Gloucester Hole, Chepstow
The Gloucester Hole and Union Flag © Star Video 2011



WWII Anti-Tank Cubes, ChepstowWWII Anti-Tank Cubes, Chepstow
WWII anti-tank blocks, Chepstow © Star Video 2011


The Severn Princess, ChepstowThe Severn Princess, Chepstow
The Severn Princess car ferry © Star Video 2011




© 2011 Star Video