I almost didn’t attend my PGCE interview at Newport University. The train ticket was £58, it was raining, and I was having significant second thoughts at the prospect of leaving London for this town in South Wales about which no one I asked seemed to have anything positive to say. Yet, prior to this point, my experience of Wales comprised three visits to the National Eisteddfod and a trip to Cowbridge High Street in search of frocks. To my mind, then, Newport was going to be a humming, thriving amalgam of language, music, poetry and lovely dresses.
The first place I spotted as I left the train station bore the legend ‘Eternaty’; the second ‘Kama Lounge’.The bus station seemed to want nothing to do with the train station, the once proud Victorian buildings looked grey and, even then, far too many shops were flying an acrylic estate agents’ flag.
But the interview went well. In fact, it went very well. All of Newport looked resplendent from the top of Caerleon campus, and the tutor told me about Caerleon with infectious enthusiasm – the Amphitheatre, the Roman Baths, the Arthurian connection, Machen … and the ten pubs. I got a feeling; we moved in.
For about six months I regretted my decision, I couldn’t adjust. The bus to my first teaching placement only ran hourly, it was a freezing winter and I fell ill with the worst flu I’d ever had. I compared everything to the volume, speed and bright lights of London and the contrast found Newport wanting. Sandwiched between Bristol and Cardiff and still coming to terms with its newly acquired city status, the Newport I found was, like me, an outsider trying to find its own place in South Wales.
Then a couple of things happened quickly which started a change of heart: I began shopping in Newport Market, got a job, discovered Newport Art Gallery, learnt of the Caerleon Arts Festival and we started drinking in the Murenger.
The shops in the market brought lively banter, homely tips and recipe suggestions. Our regular Saturday mornings (bus into town, Newport Art Gallery, Diverse Records, Jon’s Newspaper Kiosk, the market, rounded off with a quick livener) became a pleasurable weekly excursion. Work exceeded all expectation and began to offer more and more exciting chances. I discovered a rich network of local people, such as Catherine Fisher, Adrian Masters, and Paul Flynn M.P., to name only a few, so generous with time, community spirit and willingness to transform everyday primary school opportunities, with their visits and workshops.
Newport needs this support network of people now more than ever. At the last of the Temporary Exhibitions, ‘Shift’ by David Garner, the art historian, Hugh Adams, vehemently criticised Newport Council for a series of ill-conceived decisions that has seen the city centre almost brought to its knees. The prospect of the eventual closure of the gallery will make it the only city centre in Wales without ready access to art. Add to this the fact that Newport is probably one of a few city centres where those living there are forced to go to peripheral retail parks or Cwmbran to buy anything useful. Ample funds have been poured into creating an impressive city centre University Campus yet there is little left within that centrality to make the students want to spend time here or stay on. Certainly if I thought there were too many estate agents signs when I first arrived, I had no foresight into the present.
In contrast to the fortunes of Newport Art Gallery, the Caerleon Arts Festival is flourishing. There are some schools of thought, not entirely helpful, that believe that Caerleon isn’t really a part of Newport. The vast hordes of people from Newport (all of it) who support the festival every year in increasing numbers clearly says otherwise. A significant group of locally based artists, writers, musicians, journalists and politicians give up their time and energy to get behind this enterprise. I love being on this committee, made up only of volunteers working hard towards no goal other than that of enhancing Newport through art. Via the Caerleon Arts Festival, I have heard brilliant ideas, met excellent writers and speakers, seen beautiful works of art, danced to the most fun music and made the truest of friendships. This will be that rich support network again.
It was Caerleon with its ultra-pontem prettiness, pubs and cluster of old houses which made me come here; but it is Caerleon and Newport, in equal parts, which have made here a home. To me, Caerleon needs Newport as much as Newport needs Caerleon. It’s a relationship of mutual inspiration, frustration or fruitfulness depending on the given day, but a relationship it is.
All this, like any good soap, needs a suitable watering hole. Ours is The Murenger. ‘A Haven in a Super-Pub Ghetto’, says the sign upon entry. What it should also mention is that it’s a refuge, for the beer-drinking, art-loving, forward-thinking, hard-reading, optimists that make up the nexus that hopes to affect change for Newport, from within and without. Newport’s sense of identity, and so its place, still remains somewhat peripheral. But as with all things, it’s the outside that shifts and regenerates, and in a way that never fails to leave an indelible imprint on the established. Of this process, it is pure luck and pleasure to be a part.
Illustration by Dean Lewis