The River Wye in Bicknor Parish by Andrew Blake

The Heritage of the River bordering the Parish of English Bicknor

Andrew Blake, Wye Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty Officer

Meeting of 13th February 2014

There are 47 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in the UK. Ours, the Wye Valley AONB, is 128 square miles including 92km of the River Wye. There are two countries, four local authorities and forty local councils involved. It is 65% farmland and 27% woodland (the national average being 11%). The Wye is a very natural river and is expected to flood once or twice a year.

The area has been occupied for over 12,000 years as shown by the Palaeolithic remains found in King Arthur’s Cave at Little Doward. We have hill forts occupied in the Early Bronze Age to Iron Age at Little Doward and Yat Rock. By Late Medieval times the valley was thoroughly industrialised with quarries, furnaces, mills, boats trading along the river and bare hillsides as wood was coppiced to fuel industry.

The area had wood for charcoal, water for power and the Wye as the transport link (roads were no good at this time) so the government decided the two centres for iron production would be the High Weald and the Wye Valley. This peaked in the 16th and 17th centuries. When coal became the main power it could be taken to where the population was so industrial centres moved away from the Wye Valley.

A towpath ran along the river, bow hauliers pulled trows (barges) upstream – they were cheaper to run than horses and often paid in beer or cider. Pack mules and carts came down to meet the boats and trading was done along the riverside, it must have been very busy and noisy.

Redbrook was the centre of the copper smelting world from the 16th century, and the tinplate works carried on until the 1960s. A contemporary print shows belching factory chimneys with the Wye Tour boats passing in front. A 1930s photo shows Whitebrook valley with lots of mills and open hillsides; Lydbrook had mills all along the valley. Brockweir was a major port for goods to be transferred from sea to river vessels. It was a renowned den of iniquity!

New Weir forge just below Symonds Yat had two water mills and two hammer forges, it would not have been a tranquil spot! Charcoal kilns burnt all around to supply the forges. The weir construction meant a separate channel with locks had to be built to take boats past it; the 1695 Act of Parliament destroyed all weirs except this one.

Wilton Bridge at Ross is medieval (later widened); an audience member recounted the story from plague times where food was left on the bridge in exchange for money left in jars of vinegar to disinfect it.

Tourism has been a major industry for 250 years. When the Wye Tour began the bare cliffs and exposed rock formations fitted the Picturesque image that was popular at the time. The mid 18th century saw the start of two day boat tours, boarding at Ross and stopping the first night at Monmouth to finish in Chepstow. Everyone did the tour: Nelson, Queen Victoria, Wordsworth, Turner until the 1860s when rail replaced the river. Full moon tours past Tintern Abbey were a speciality.

The AONB Partnership projects include:

‘Overlooking the Wye’ a £3m Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) scheme that did:

- Excavations at New Weir and Little Doward

- Interpretation, with panels, brochures and walks

- Consolidation of the walks and viewpoints above Chepstow

- Accessibility improvements at the internationally famous Yat Rock

- A £1million bid to HLF for Redbrook Bridge foot path and consolidation, with similar aspirations for Stowfield black bridge at Lydbrook.

- 3-18 May 2014 sees the first Wye Valley River Festival, with a series of artistic, theatrical and community events moving down the river.