Often omitted from tourist itineraries, the city of Newport has much to offer the family in search of an active day out
Granted city status in 2002, Newport continues to languish in the shadow of neighbouring capital Cardiff. In fact, most coach loads of overseas visitors to Wales will be whisked straight past the country’s newest city without even being made aware of its existence.
Certainly, Newport’s centre lacks the civic grandeur of Cardiff and has a shabby, downtrodden look. The riverfront along the muddy, tidal Usk also has a long way to go before it can begin to compete with the waterside delights of Cardiff Bay. Nonetheless, the city has plenty to offer the discerning visitor (honestly!) and with the Ryder Cup about to provide a welcome boost to its profile, isn’t it time you found out more?
The three attractions described here – Tredegar House, Fourteen Locks and Newport Wetlands – are all located on the city’s outskirts, easily accessible by car, and in fine weather perfect for a family day out. Last summer (2009), they were also all part of a council scheme called Junior Explorer, in which children completed trails at tourist sites around the city to win prizes – so look out for something similar this year.
The jewel in Newport’s crown is undoubtedly Tredegar House (01633 815880), a magnificent seventeenth-century building set in over 90 acres of parkland only minutes from the M4 motorway. Amazingly, this outstanding example of Welsh restoration architecture is owned and managed by the local council, which bravely took on responsibility for the house when, in urgent need of repair and restoration, it came on the market in 1974. Unfortunately, local authority ownership has failed to give the house the national profile it deserves and the restricted opening times – Wednesday to Sunday between Easter and the end of September – reflect this neglected status.
However, if it's open, a guided tour is a must for any fan of historic houses and a welcome contrast to the stuffy formality that pervades so many National Trust properties (and if you're a fan of Dr Who, many of the rooms may look eerily familiar as scenes from a number of episodes have been filmed here). There’s no script, so each guide brings a different perspective to the history of the house, but do expect to learn more about the house’s erstwhile owners, the Morgans, than the guidebook cares to admit! When the house is open, tours (which are the only way of seeing the property) run hourly from eleven until four and last about an hour and a quarter. A full-price adult ticket in 2009 was £6.25, a concessionary ticket £4.65, while children fifteen and under were admitted for free – an unusual pricing system that certainly benefits families. Visitors to the house were also reimbursed their £1.80 parking fee.
Outside the house are 90 acres of park to explore, open throughout the year from dawn to dusk, and an assortment of craft units. This park is a great location for running, exercising dogs, and cycling with small children – the 1.2 mile runners’ trail around the lake is suitable for all three. Remember to take a picnic though: the on-site café, the Brewhouse Tearooms, is fairly basic and not generally open when the house is closed.
With its 90 acres of parkland and easy access to the M4, Tredegar House would make a great place to stay if visiting South Wales. Well if you own a caravan or mobile home there’s no reason not to, as the house boasts the award winning Tredegar House Country Park Caravan Club Site, open all year round. If caravanning is not your thing, the Express by Holiday Inn Newport is only fifteen minutes' walk away and has the added advantages of being on the main bus route between Newport and Cardiff and next door to The Dragonfly (01633 810611), a modern but atmospheric pub serving food throughout the day.
Another attraction easily accessible from the M4 is Fourteen Locks Canal Centre (01633 892167; www.fourteenlocks.co.uk), located at the top of a series of locks on the Monmouthshire Canal. Completed in 1799, the locks climb a total of 160 feet in around 800 yards – one of the steepest rises on any canal in Britain. While no longer navigable to boats, restoration work is underway and the canal towpath is part of the National Cycle Network.
For families, the area around the locks is probably best explored on foot, but why not take advantage of the centre’s cycle hire facilities to continue up the towpath by bike? From the pleasant visitor centre and café at the top of the locks, it is around six flat miles to the end of the canal in Cwmcarn. A full day’s riding is available for two adults and two children for as little as £20.
From the end of the canal, the more adventurous may wish to explore Cwmcarn Forest. Most cyclists should be able to manage the short climb to the impressive visitor centre where a break at the café may be in order. However, if you wish to turn round and head straight back to Fourteen Locks, more pleasant tearooms can be found en route at Whysom’s Wharf in Risca. If you fancy something a little stronger, The Tredegar Arms, Rogerstone (01633 664999), is highly recommended.
Newport Wetlands Reserve
At the southern edge of the city, where the River Usk enters the Severn Estuary, is Newport Wetlands Reserve (01633 636363), a wildlife sanctuary created to compensate for the wetlands habitat destroyed through the construction of Cardiff Bay Barrage. For Cardiff, the legacy of this deal is a pretty but fairly lifeless freshwater lake; while not to everyone’s aesthetic taste, the exposed mudflats of Newport’s wetlands reserve provide an invaluable marine feeding ground and breeding area for waders and other wildlife.
Like the above two attractions, the reserve is a great place to take children on a fine day. A number of trails emanate from the RSPB visitor centre, which provides refreshments and information throughout the year. The pleasant café looks out over ponds and reedbeds replete with bird life, and an imaginatively-designed children’s play area provides a useful distraction for younger members of the family. Again, the reserve’s dedicated cycle track provides a safe environment for family cycling, though be aware that cycling is not allowed on other paths in the reserve. If you fancy ending your day with a meal or drink, I recommend The Waterloo Inn (01633 274525; www.waterlooinnnash.co.uk) in the nearby village of Nash.