The Estuary

Medieval AD 1000 - 1500

Saxon times led to the re-colonisation of the levels, starting in Somerset and Gloucestershire. The monks of Glastonbury Abbey drained and exploited the wetlands. Soon after the Norman Conquest most of the levels were being cultivated in great open fields divided into strips- the ‘ridge and vurrow' (furrow). Monastic Communities at Goldcliff and Tintern played an important role in the re-colonisation and subsequent draining of the Gwent levels. The monks built flood defences and dug ditches, such as the raised waterway called Monk’s Ditch near Goldcliff. Fish traps also proliferated in the mediaeval period, as fishermen became better at using woodland products such as willow withies to construct effective traps.

The estuary was increasingly a link to the wider world. The ‘Newport Ship’, discovered during the excavation for a new arts centre in Newport, is one of the most complete examples of a late medieval ship, believed to be built circa 1465. It illuminates a picture of a busy estuary, with trading links to Spain and Portugal. Portuguese pottery and cork, stone cannon balls and engraved brass strips have been excavated. The great ports like Bristol, starting to spring up all around Britain, would have relied on ships such as this for commerce and for exploration.

The end of this period sees the vessel ‘Matthew’ leave Bristol bound for Newfoundland. It marks the beginning of the great voyages of discovery.