What did it mean to live on a medieval border? This picturesque town, with its castle, medieval Priory Church and bridge over the River Usk, is a good place to start.
This walk is one of 13 separate circular routes which together make up the St Thomas Way.
Place and History
The small market town of Usk takes its name from the river which flows by it (probably derived from an ancient Brythonic word for water, distantly related to the modern word whisky).
There was a Roman fortress, Burrium, here in the first century AD. But the story of medieval Usk begins with the Norman foundation of Usk Castle in the early twelfth century. In 1405, the Battle of Pwll Melyn (also known as the Battle of Usk), part of the rebellion of Owain Glyndwr, was fought here. In the early twentieth century, historians recorded finding many medieval skeletons in the ‘pwll’ or pond, located near the castle. The castle ruins are still impressive today, looking over the town from a hill at its north. The remaining material fabric of the castle is now incorporated into an historic farmhouse, showing how medieval stonework was adapted and re-used after the Middle Ages.
The other medieval highlight of Usk is the Priory Church of St Mary, founded jointly as a Benedictine nunnery and parish church in the twelfth century, but significantly re-built after the Glyndwr attacks in 1405.
The many treasures of the Priory Church include a Norman tower and font, many monuments and memorials, and a spectacular, richly-carved wooden screen which divides the chancel from the nave. This dates to the fifteenth century, and would have separated the nuns from the townspeople during worship.
On the chancel (eastern) side of the screen is a tiny medieval treasure, easily overlooked. A small brass plaque bears the epitaph of the priest, lawyer and chronicler Adam of Usk, who died in 1430. A local boy, Adam’s career took him far from this small town and into the fraught politics of English kingship and government. But his epitaph shows the importance he placed on his Welsh, Usk roots. Translated from the Welsh by J. Morris-Jones, it reads roughly:
After fame, to the tomb, from on the bench,
The most skilled advocate of London,
And judge of the world by gracious privilege,
May the heavenly abode be thine, good sire.
Lo! a Solomon of wisdom,
Adam Usk, is sleeping here,
Wise doctor of ten commotes,
Behold a place full of learning!
The Welsh is a bit odd, and often spelled strangely, as though following English spelling rules. This tiny poem is an evocative memorial of a life lived across borders and between shifting identities.
The Hanged Man’s Journey
The epitaph of Adam of Usk, in the Priory Church of St Mary, is written in imperfect, flawed Welsh.
It reflects well the powerful relationships between language and identity – especially in a border region like the Welsh Marches. Adam wanted his epitaph to convey his Welshness – but it also hints at his distance and, in some ways, alienation from his Usk origins.
In the story of William Cragh – the hanged man of medieval Swansea, brought back to life by an apparent miracle of St Thomas of Hereford – language also plays an important role in signalling identity, status and allegiance.
Different figures involved in the events speak different languages, and the languages they speak tell us almost as much about their identity as anything they actually say.
When the witnesses to Cragh’s hanging were interviewed by the papal investigators, Lady Mary de Briouze spoke Anglo-Norman French – the language of the nobility. So did her chaplain, William of Codineston and others (it was noted in some cases that this was because they were unable to speak Latin, the language of the church and learning). John ap Hywel – a local labourer – gave his testimony in the lower-status language of English , as did Henry Skinner. William Cragh – the hanged man himself – gave his testimony in Welsh. This caused some difficulty for the papal commission, who had to send for translators from a nearby Franciscan friary. Did Cragh speak Welsh because that was the only language he knew? Or, as a rebel against Norman rule, was he deliberately making a political statement about the relationship between language and identity?
St Thomas and Medieval Belief
The identity of St Thomas of Hereford is a case of contradictions and paradoxes.
Years after Thomas’s death, in 1307, his servant Hugh le Barber answered questions from the pope’s investigators about his late master’s character and behaviour. The inquisition team were trying to find out if Thomas had been a good and holy man – suitable for being made a saint – during his life.
Hugh says that Thomas was elegant and dressed richly, with a mantle, fur garments and other rich clothing, and he had beautiful palfreys (horses) for riding. But Hugh also comments that Thomas’s clothes and bedding were riddled with lice. He explains that, under his splendid clothes, Thomas secretly wore a rough hair belt, infested with lice, to torment and chasten his body.
According to Hugh, Thomas was of good character. He disliked bawdy songs and smutty jokes so much ‘that it was said of him that he ought to have been a woman, not a man’. He disapproved of lies and slander, and never got drunk. He diluted his wine with water, to make it less luxurious, but was fond of eel pie.
He was ‘as meek and gentle as a lamb’, but could be tough, too: Hugh had personally seen over twenty weapons which Thomas had confiscated from unruly students while he was Chancellor of Oxford University.
Hugh describes Thomas as a ‘peacemaker’, but also acknowledges his conflicts with Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, and John Peckham, Archbishop of Canterbury (which led to Thomas’s excommunication).
Thomas of Hereford was no two-dimensional saint, but a real man whose life reveals complexities, tensions and puzzles.
A place for repentance and hope
Like some other places on the Way, Usk embodies memories of oppression and struggle, a Roman fort having been replaced by a Norman castle. The chronicler Adam of Usk records 300 Welsh prisoners being put to death in front of that castle after the Welsh Revolt of 1403.
We don’t know all the details of the route from Swansea to Hereford William Cragh took with William de Briouze and his entourage. What we do know is that it must have been an awkward time for both the resurrected Welsh freedom-fighter and his Norman enemies. United in a joint duty of devotion to St Thomas, did they speak, did they eat together? Or was it just an embarrassed and uncomfortable truce with a distance kept between them? Places like Usk were living symbols of the power struggle they had to rise above on their pilgrimage.
Lord, the neat design of this well-planned town rests upon battle and bloodshed. Help me to recognize that my life’s pilgrimage is as mixed as this town. May I repent in hope for the bad things I have done, and with the help of your grace may I act in faith to offer something better each day to those with whom I journey.
Lady Hill Wood
The Usk walking route on the St Thomas Way takes you out of town, beyond the castle and through Lady Hill Wood. Although Lady Hill is just a short walk from the town centre, it feels secluded and serene. The woods are home to a variety of indigenous trees and non-native species conifers, and the presence of bluebells indicate that Lady Hill is in all likelihood an ancient woodland. The trees are home to a range of creatures such as mice, voles, squirrels, insects, pond life and, of course, birds.
At night time, the woods are filled with the sounds of owls. Tawny, Long-Eared and Short-Eared Owls can all be heard and occasionally spotted in the woods. The Short-Eared Owl is probably the easiest to find, as it is active during the day. It has a wing-span of around 95-100cm, and their characteristic ‘ear’ tufts have nothing to do with hearing (like all other species of owl, their ear holes are actually on the side of their head). Short-Eared Owls have yellow eyes and a slender, streamline build; their feathers are usually dark brown in colour with darker streaks on the chest. Like other owls, they mainly hunt small mammals, such as mice and voles, which abound in Lady Hill woods.
Owls in the Middle Ages
Despite the positive modern reputation of the ‘wise old owl’, owls were considered a bad omen in the Middle Ages, probably dues to their nocturnal and secretive habits. Owls were believed to linger in dark caverns and tombs, and were considered unclean creatures associated with illness and death.
Chaucer wrote of the creatures in his poem The Parliament of Fowls: ‘The owl too, the omen of death does bring’ (Middle English: the oule ek, that of deth the bode bryngeth).
Fortunately, owls have shaken off these negative connotations in modern day Britain and most people would consider themselves very lucky to catch a glimpse of these birds in the wild.
Specially-chosen music for this location from Hereford Cathedral, a medieval market soundscape, and modern-day ambient sound from the ruins of Usk Castle.
Distance: Approx. 3 miles
Time: Approx. 2 hours
Access: Easy-moderate difficulty, mostly footpaths and woodland paths, some river crossings and stiles; suitable for children; not suitable for wheelchairs or buggies; suitable footwear recommended.
- Start your walk at St Mary’s Priory Church on the corner of Church Street and Priory Street. St Mary’s was founded in 1154 by Richard de Clare and was the priory church of a Benedictine nunnery. Inside the church you will find the memorial brass of Ada of Usk (c. 1352-1430), who was born at Usk Castle.After visiting the church, turn right onto Priory Street, leading on to Twyn Square, walking past the Clock Tower on your right, which commemorates the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria (1887). Turn right onto Castle Parade, carefully crossing the road to use the pavement on the far side. Continue walking up Castle Parade and turn left when you reach the signposts to Usk Castle.
- When you reach Castle House, take the footpath on your right beyond the car park, signposted to Pwll Melyn, leading away from the Castle (you will have the opportunity to visit the castle on your return). In 1405, Owain Glyndwr’s army carried out an unsuccessful assault on the English forces at Usk Castle. The English garrison then defeated the Welsh at the Battle of Pwll Melyn. Continue along this track until you reach Castle Farm.
- At Castle Farm, take the track on your right, following the footpath waysigns. Cross over the stile or use the gate to continue straight ahead up this track. This track will lead you gently uphill and into Lady Hill Wood. When you enter the woods, keep to the left, following the footpath waysigns and passing a pond on your left.
- Shortly after the pond, take the track to the right. Climb the stile and take the path ahead, which leads out of the woods. Follow the path as it skirts the edge of the wood and then take the stile on the left back into the woods. Continue on this footpath, crossing a forest road, until you reach Cayo Brook.
- Cross the brook at the bridge. A short detour up the slope to your right you will see a small waterfall and a large pond. Immediately after the bridge turn left onto the track, keeping the brook on your left. Continue ahead on this track. Pass through a gate and bear left to continue on this track until you reach a set of farm buildings. Continue along the track through the farmyard until you reach Beech Hill Farm.
- At Beech Hill Farm House turn right, cross the brook via the bridge, and follow the road down onto Abergavenny Road (B4598). At Abergavenny Road, cross carefully to the footpath on the opposite side and turn left. Here you will see the River Usk to your right – learn more about this important Welsh river in Newport’s Natural World entry. Follow Abergavenny Road, eventually turning right onto a footpath alongside the river. Eventually the path will rejoin the road. Follow the pavement to the right.
- Pass under the old railway bridge. Immediately after the bridge, take the footpath that appears on the opposite side of the road (your left). Follow the footpath signposted ‘Old Station Walk’.Here, you can either take the steps on your right, then follow the sign posts back to Usk Castle, or you can follow the path around to your left, then right, and take the ‘Old Station Walk’ through the long-abandoned railway tunnel (this option is not recommended for those who are afraid of the dark!). If you choose to take the Old Station Walk, walk through the railway tunnel and follow the path that leads along the old railway line. Follow the railway line until you reach another short tunnel. Take the steps up to the left to come out onto Monmouth Road, at which point you turn right and head back towards Castle Parade and Usk Castle (marked as dotted red line on map).
- Finish your walk at Usk Castle. Usk Castle dates back to around 1130, although William Marshal carried out significant building work to strengthen the castle during the reign of Henry III.