Living the Levels
Living Levels Newsletter: Autumn 2019
Welcome to the sixth edition of our ‘Living the Levels’ newsletter which aims to keep everyone who has expressed an interest in the Living Levels Landscape Partnership up to date.
In this issue:
Rugged Romans & Medieval Monks
Gwent Levels history brought to life at Tredegar House!
After last year’s successful event, the Living Levels Landscape Partnership is back with their second annual History Day. An event for all the family, bringing the history and archaeology of the unique Gwent Levels landscape to life. with a ‘trip through time’ amongst the stunning grounds of the National Trust’s Tredegar House, in Newport. Visitors will enjoy re-enactors, fascinating displays of artefacts and demonstrations throughout the day.
There will be captivating displays by local volunteers who have been hard at work uncovering the rich social history of the Gwent Levels. Time-travellers will also find themselves treading in the footsteps of our Stone-Age ancestors, courtesy of one of the UK’s top prehistoric reenactors James Dilley. Local folk tales and legends will be brought vividly to life amongst the Gorsedd Stone Circle and there will be the chance to meet a Roman Legionnaire.
Although the remains of the Welsh dinosaur ‘Dracoraptor hanigani’ were discovered further along the coastline, youngsters are sure to be thrilled by a rather cheeky appearance by its distant cousin Tyrannosaurus Rex in the ‘Messylithic’ children’s activities zone in the parkland!
The Project Partners Dig Ventures, and esteemed research archaeologists Professor Martin Bell and Professor Stephen Rippon will be on hand to showcase their research and the results of two very successful volunteer driven archaeological investigations at Peterstone and Redwick.
Saturday, September 28, 2019 11:00am to 3:00pm
Tredegar House Farm buildings and parkland – Free admission but normal House admission and carpark fees apply.
Unveiling the ancient history of the Levels
People have been here for a long time, and through the years they have shaped the landscape in many ways. Over the past few decades, the area has boasted some amazing archaeological finds, from 6000-year-old ancient footprints and historic field markings to the remains of a 13th-century boat. To discover more about them and to give people the opportunities to try out some of the techniques used to learn about the past, we organised a week full of archaeological activities and talks in the village of Redwick for the local and wider community to volunteer and take part.
We started off with a session that explored the world of digital mapping. To learn more about ancient history, we sometimes have to use the newest, cutting-edge technologies and techniques. We went on two surveys to explore the local fields of Redwick. The hundreds of fields that make up the Gwent Levels have been shaped by human hands for many years.
With the guidance of Professor Martin Bell, we surveyed the Redwick foreshore exposed during low tide. Many artefacts have been found here over the years, as they are preserved in the mud including multiple Bronze Age settlements at Redwick.
The Gwent Levels also boasts a wonderful array of unique, old buildings. One good example is the Church of St Thomas, in Redwick, famous for its unusual design.
We started the week by exploring the Gwent Levels with modern technology but we finished off with two events that took us back to the basics. On 3-4 August, we got our hands dirty and conducted test pitting which is essentially mini-excavations at a 1m2 x1m2 scale to look for ancient artefacts and items.
After the success of Redwick we plan to do another week-long archaeological taster session next year so keep an eye on our events calendar and project lead Dig Ventures website for upcoming archaeology activities.
Black Spots to Bright Spots in Duffryn!
‘Black Spots to Bright Spots’ a project to reduce and prevent fly-tipping across the Gwent Levels landscape, has chosen an area in Duffryn to clear and then create a pollinator garden.
The area is a dry reen along Tredegar House Drive, at the back of Duffryn Arms car park. We held a community information evening to discuss the project and encourage local residents to become involved with the project activities. Natural Resources Wales, the lead organisation for the project, is working in collaboration with the Duffryn Community Link’s project, ‘Woodlands Route to Wellbeing’.
Brenda Easton, Duffryn Community Link’s Project Coordinator for the Woodlands Route to Wellbeing project, said, “As part of the Woodland Routes to Wellbeing environmental improvements, we are delighted to collaborate with NRW on their Black Spots to Bright Spots. This will further enhance the work that is being done by a wide range of people in Duffryn in bringing back the natural beauty of the area.”
A clean-up of the reen on Wednesday 4th September, 10am – 2pm, is being organised. so if you would like to join us, then we would welcome all! We will be meeting at the Duffryn Arms public house. Please wear appropriate clothing for the conditions; as well as getting dirty, and suitable footwear.
We will also be looking for volunteers to help with the prepping work for the planting to start early October, so please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like more information or wish to join in on any of these activities.
A summer of BioBlitz-ing the Gwent Levels!
Surveying wildlife is essential if we are to improve our understanding of the state of nature. The information gathered during surveys is very helpful as it can reveal how wildlife numbers and distribution can change in response to climate change and habitat loss.
One very effective way of gathering information like this is a BioBlitz. A BioBlitz is a session to record as much wildlife as possible within a single day at a single site. It’s a great way of getting a clearer picture of how nature is faring in the Gwent Levels, and over the past six months we’ve held four events at the Living Levels visitor hubs, starting at Caldicot Castle and Magor Marsh in May and Hendre Lake and Tredegar House in June. Despite some very wet conditions, and some very sunny ones too, over 250 people from all ages, abilities, and backgrounds attended to make the events a success.
In total, over 800 species were recorded, and it was great to see such mixed and varied interest across the different sites. The Hendre Lake BioBlitz had some real highlights with soldier beetle and Shrill carder bee recorded, it also threw up a first recording for Wales - ‘Nysius huttoni’, a New Zealand endemic ground bug that is spreading quickly throughout Britain. We also saw recordings of invasive species such as zebra mussel and mink. The Living Levels Invasive Non-Native Species Project is working to map and understand the risk of invasive species across the Levels. This valuable data will help us build a better picture of the state of our wildlife in the Levels.
Thank you to all the wonderful participants, volunteers and partners for taking part in our citizen science events.
We’ll be offering more BioBlitz sessions next year at our Living Levels visitor hubs which will be open to families, amateur naturalists, and professionals, so keep an eye out for next year’s events calendar and sign up to our newsletter to stay informed.
Telling the story of life on the Levels
‘Recording our oral history is a vital part of documenting, understanding and sharing the heritage of ordinary people’ Rob Perks, Lead Curator of Oral History at the British Library and Secretary/Editor of the Oral History Society.
Much as the network of reens and watercourses criss-cross this amazing landscape, in a similar fashion, so have a team of oral historians and volunteers, quietly gathering and recording the memories, stories, and experiences of those who live, work, and play on the Caldicot and Wentlooge Levels. From rounding up sheep on the sea wall on pony-back, to thatching hay ricks with reeds from the reens, a German POW clicking his heels each morning as a greeting, or the familiar roar of Jason the Lion from Whitson Zoo, it’s safe to say there’s no place like this place, and it’s all the more wonderful for it.
We all have stories to tell, and oral history listens to these stories. Historians have finally recognised that the everyday memories of everyday people, not just the rich, the powerful, or the famous, have historical importance. If we do not collect and preserve those memories, those stories, then one day they will disappear forever. As we travel across ‘The Moors’ recording these oral histories for the LLP, we often hear the same refrain, ‘you’re ten years too late; all the old characters are long gone’. Let us state here and now: the Gwent Levels are alive with characters, some quiet, some less so, but all with a gorgeous, vivid, honest story to tell, and it’s an utter privilege to be recording them, creating a unique historical record that will earn its place.
Oral history can complement information provided by public records, statistical data, photographs, maps, letters, diaries, and other historical materials. Eyewitnesses to events, no matter how small or innocuous, contribute various viewpoints and perspectives that fill in the gaps in documented history. It is a way of gathering, recording, and preserving a diverse range of personal experiences that generally are not well documented in written sources or traditional history in Western society.
Their personal nature makes them a great primary source for people wanting to discover more about a certain event or era, providing an insight into the impact events had on the people alive and involved.
Levels groundworks underway!
Living Levels Natural Heritage Officer Mark Stokes gives an update on the types of targeted habitat restoration works which are currently underway.
The Living Levels project started restoration works on the Levels winter 2018. We have carried out extensive surveys of existing historic orchards and spoken to many landowners who are keen to protect and restore orchards across the levels. We have carried out DNA testing on 30 old orchard trees to help us identify the trees and record their position in the area. We are planning to carry out pruning, grafting and planting sessions this winter, will be confirming the dates shortly. We are also working with a local micro brewer who is keen to collect apples from some of these old orchards, bringing them back into production to create a local cider, apple juice and cider vinegar.
Field Ditch Restoration
During the first year of the project we restored over 9km of blocked field ditches ditch across the Caldicot side of the Gwent Levels. This year, we have focused on what ditch restoration works are needed on the Wentloog side surveying over 8 km and are aiming to commence this restoration works in this Autumn.
With last year’s long hot summer and dry autumn helping us, we have been able to make good progress to date on scrub clearance, de-silting of the blocked field ditches, clearing them of over 40+ years of silt, brash and leaf litter. This will importantly increase flood alleviation on the levels and improve habitat and biodiversity across the Gwent Levels. By the end of February 2020, our target is to have more than 14km cleared and de-silted.
We have pollarded of more than 20 large willow trees across the Levels landscape, returning them to how they would have looked when they were harvested annually. This protects the trees from natural damage including splitting, falling and blocking the field ditches. The remaining standing trunk and branches will rejuvenate quickly and are also a natural, ideal habitat for many species of insect, birds, small mammals and reptiles.
Early next year (2020) I will be looking for more old orchards, doubled-hedged areas, dry field ditches, old willows and fields to traditionally install field grips (field surface shallow drainage channel) well as areas to manage as a flowing meadow on the Gwent Levels.
If you are a landowner and are interested in getting involved in any of these areas of the Living Levels project please email: Mstokes@gwentwildlife.org.
Caldicot Castle prepares to open up for ‘Big Skies’!
Following on from the hugely successful Big Skies 2018 event, the Living Levels Partnership, in collaboration with Tin Shed Theatre Co. are gearing up for another inclusive community, outdoor performance event celebrating the Gwent Levels.
Big Skies 2019, set to take place at Caldicot Castle on Saturday 5th October, will involve an exciting mix of theatre, live performance and storytelling as dusk arrives over the castle. This will be part of the wider Big Skies Community Art Project, which runs for three years and involves creative workshops with local school children, as well as collaborations with other community groups, working towards an annual celebratory ‘Big Sky’ event.
June saw three venues across the Gwent Levels open their doors for pupils from local primary schools to explore their creativity and help to shape the Big Skies 2019 event at the Castle. The Beacon Centre in St. Mellons, Cardiff played host to Bishop Child’s Primary School and Newport pupils from Tredegar Park Primary in Duffryn and St. Woolos enjoyed weaving stories whilst exploring the grounds of Tredegar House. Chepstow’s The Dell Primary got to immerse themselves in the historic setting of Caldicot Castle with a series of interactive activities. The overall aim of these days was to create and shape some performances to select and take place at the Big Skies event in October.
Tin Shed Theatre Co. Co-Director, Georgina Harris said:
“Through talking together, making fun things, writing, performing and exploring the great outdoors, together we will begin to create some important ideas for our next big outdoor event! If you are keen to get involved in whatever capacity, Tin Shed would love to hear from you.”
To find out how to get involved, get in touch with the Tin Shed Theatre Co. by emailing email@example.com and keep checking the Living Levels website for more details for Saturday October 5th.
Recapturting the historic landscape
The history research volunteers have found many ways to recapture the historic landscape during their studies.
On Thursday 10 October, five RATS will give illustrated short talks on their research at Glamorgan Archives.
Some titles still have to be confirmed, but the subjects include:
Pengam Moors — Pasture to Planes
Pandemonium at Pengam Bridge
The Monmouthshire Court of Sewers during the 1880s
Newport’s Victorian sewers and their relationship to old
land drainage systems
Church bells of the Gwent Levels
The event runs from 11am until 12.30pm, so please come along and support our volunteers!
Further details can be obtained from the Living Levels website.
‘Life on Marsh’ brings something different to Magor!
This summer has seen the family open day at Magor Marsh Nature Reserve take on a radical new direction by introducing more entertainment, food and drink to bring a ‘festival’ feel to the annual showcase of this key Living Levels’ hub and its appeal to families and naturalists.
‘Life on Marsh’ attracted around 300 people who were treated to not only the traditional summer sound of the Chepstow Town Band and stories accompanied by an accordion courtesy of Christine Watkins and Guto Dafis but also the surreal immersive theatre of Tin Shed plus a giant Heron!
As well as traditional activities such as pond-dipping, bug-hunting, splat the rat and face
painting, more adult focused attractions such as stalls and traditional skills were on offer. Local craft producers were represented by Monnow Valley Cider, Alpha Zulu Brewing and Cyrene Powell Art plus stalls for such worthy causes as the Owl Sanctuary Ebbw Vale, Hobo’s Hedgehog Rescue and Monmouthshire Bee Friendly.
All the stall holders agreed that the families were all very engaged and seemed to be having fun!
BioBlitzing potential Alien Invaders at Tredegar House!
Saturday 6th July saw an ‘Alien Invaders’ themed Living Levels Bioblitz take place at Tredegar House. The RSPB Living Levels Team, Natural Resources Wales (NRW) and the Local Record Centre SEWBReC joined forces on the day to raise awareness of Non-Native Invasive Species and the effect they have on the Gwent Levels Landscape.
The weather was glorious sunshine and the day was very well attended with plenty of opportunities for families to interact. Kids and adults alike could test their nerve on the ‘Guess the Alien’ game in the Gazebo of Doom by putting their hands into three different mystery boxes before guessing their contents. After this brief training session, the families embarked on an ‘Alien Hunt’ trail around the park seeking out clues with the ultimate aim to graduate as fully-fledged Alien Hunters.
SEWBReC species experts and volunteers with help from the public gathered hundreds of records of all kinds of different species from the ground of Tredegar House on the day which makes an important addition to our knowledge on the wildlife of the Gwent Levels. SEWBReC are always looking for more species records to add to the dataset and this is easily done either by visiting the website www.sewbrec.org.uk/ and using SEWBReCORD; or even easier by using the LERC Wales app. which is available for iPhone and Android.
NRW were highlighting the importance of ‘Biosecurity’ as well as the ‘Check, Clean, Dry’ initiative to help stop the spread of invasive non-native species. Biosecurity in this context, although a grand term includes any measures taken to prevent the spread of invasive species. This starts with even simple things like washing your footwear after a walk before you go to a different site so you are not carrying seeds of invasive species as unwitting passengers on the soles of your shoes for example. To help spread this message ‘Boot Buddies’ (a neat little gadget which holds water and has a brush on one end) were available for use on the day for cleaning muddy boots and these were also given out to families to be able to use in their own time.
Battle of the Shrill Carder Bees!
As part of our ‘Pollinating the Levels’ awareness programme, we joined forces with artist Tom Maloney and five schools in Newport.
Pupils took part in a series of video challenges about bees, made solitary bee houses to boost local populations and took part in creative writing workshops.
In addition, the Living Levels Community Engagement Officer, Gavin Jones, delivered three Battle of the Shrill carder bees sessions with Gaer primary school, Glasllwch primary school and Maesglas primary. Battle of the Shrill carder bees is an interactive game which involves a group audition process via ‘Bees Got Talent’ and ‘The ‘B’ Factor’ (with teachers acting as judges!).
This is followed by the kids dressing up as bees and partaking in an obstacle course which simulates the bees’ daily ‘battle’ and journey from flower to flower. This helps them to understand the process of pollination and the workings of a colony. At the end of the game they write personal pledges stating how they intend to help bees thrive in the future.
A display of what they learnt over the course of this project is now up at the Riverfront theatre in Newport for the summer holidays so feel free to drop in and see what they’ve been up to!
Bell ringing and the Gwent Levels...
Catherine Bleach from the Llandaff and Monmouth Diocesan Association of Church Bell Ringers tells us about this important tradition and how you can get involved!
Now, if you know anything about the churches on the Gwent Levels then you’ll know that they are a key part of its history and character. With several churches across the area, it’s hard for them to go unnoticed and many of them serve as focal points of the landscape thanks to the way their spires rise above the flat surrounding land. Moreover, the clergy within these churches once played a crucial role in determining how the Levels were to be managed.
However, one aspect of these churches, and many others across the country, that often remains a mystery is what goes on in the bell tower. When I mention that I’m a bellringer and have been since I was nine, I’m often greeted with several very similar questions and remarks from friends and strangers: “You must be strong!”; “How on earth did you get involved in that?”; “Do you go flying up in the air?”; “So, are you religious?”; and my personal favourite: “oh, I’ve seen that, it’s like the Mars Bar advert isn’t it?”.
Well, I’m delighted to tell you that we welcome learners of all shapes, sizes, religions, and backgrounds - but no, I’m afraid it’s nothing like the Mars Bar advert.
However, if you are interested to see what bellringing does entail and you want to learn about the social and technical sides of ringing, then by all means come along to one of our demonstrations and taster sessions taking place on the 14th of September at Nash Church! The sessions run from 10.30 to 12.30 and 1.30 to 3.30 and are split into four half hour segments. Each half hour session will give you the opportunity to see how the bells work; view a demonstration of ringing from a range of volunteers from different towers; and eventually have a go yourself under instruction.
Booking is essential via the Living Levels website or call 01633 292982.
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Long walks, tall tales and big skies!