Cider and Scandal in the Village of Brockweir
The Medieval village of Brockweir is a pretty and charming place steeped in history and it is understandably popular with tourists, but beneath its sleepy village façade lays a history of debauchery, monastic brewing and redemption. One Sunday afternoon I set off to discover the truth behind the tales of scandal and salvation.
Located along the tidal River Wye, Brockweir was once an important inland port and also sustained a bustling boat building industry. In its heyday the port would have been awash with vessels and their crews carrying goods up and down the river. This was certainly no small operation for it is reported that vessels up to ninety tonnes could reach this point from the sea, where their cargoes were transferred to shallow barges and tugged up the river by teams of men. With a port humming with activity and heaving with burly seafarers, watermen and shipbuilders it is not surprising that at its peak this small village housed sixteen cider houses to supply their demands, today it is home to just one pub. In the interests of research I decided to drop into the Brockweir Inn and sample the local cider whilst having a chat to landlord’s Nicky and William about the titillating history of the bijou village of Brockweir.
As I walked into the last remaining pub of Brockweir I was greeted by beamed ceilings and thick stone walls. It had more than its fair share of old world charm and it was exactly what I was hoping it would be: a true country tavern. I sat down on an oak pew in one of the two bars and slowly supped my drink as I listened to tales of historic drunkenness and wantonness. The landlady, Nicky explained that the room I was sat in was used as a store room when she and her partner William took the premises over, two and half years ago, but due to its rustic charm she decided to open it as a second bar area. She explained that this room is also a source of local legend, for whilst she cannot find any conclusive proof it is rumoured that this second bar area was once utilised as cellarage for the monks of Tintern Abbey’s brewhouse. Opposite the pub is the 15th century Malt House and the Manor House which dates back to 1600. The Malt House used to be a pottery, but it is well documented that originally the monks of Tintern Abbey utilised it as a brew house, with such close proximity to the building that is now the bar of The Brockweir Inn, it seems feasible that the monks could have used this building as cellarage for their brewhouse.
The village pub is now a bustling mixture of local and tourist trade and there is an irony in the fact that this last remaining pub was once called, ‘The New Inn’. Nicky explained with a wry smile that ‘’this was once considered a den of inequity. It was very much a sailors village and with the hosts of cider houses and inns and no church it became known for its drunkenness and debauchery.’’
Thankfully the only signs of wickedness and corruption to be found in the Inn today are their range of home-made puddings and tempting local beers and ciders. I stayed for Sunday lunch after noticing how delicious the neighbouring tables meals looked and with my new found friend, Ben, the pub Labrador I talked with Alison the bar-tender about life in the village, it was clear from her perky smile that she really loves her work and is besotted with village life. Before leaving the comforts of the Inn, I took directions to the 19th century Moravian Chapel from landlord, William and as I waved goodbye to all those behind the bar I couldn’t help wishing this were my local.
Turning left out of the Brockweir Inn I meandered towards the bridge and then turned right along the riverside footpath. As I came to the front of the Quay House where there is a screw and shaft (a propelling mechanism) which is believed to have come from the Belle Marie, which in 1914 became the last boat to sail to Brockweir. For many generations the residents of the village had relied upon the river for their livelihoods, but when the railway opened in 1876 the river traffic declined and would see its industrious past eventually grind to a halt. Today the river is a peaceful sight and is used mainly by fishermen and canoeists.
The rowdy public houses and colourful characters of Brockweir were not quelled by the emergence of the railway, but by the Moravian presence that came to force in 1833. It is hard to imagine that the tranquil river bank where the church is now situated was once the site of illicit gambling, cock-fighting and unholy revelry. Prior to the arrival of the church the sinful behaviour of the villagers was the cause of great concern to a Tintern doctor. He was so worried about the spiritual and physical well-being of the villagers that he wrote about the situation to the Moravian Minister in Bristol. The Minister came and spoke to the villagers and established that there was a need for spiritual guidance in Brockweir and so it was that the building of the church began, financed by donations. It was opened on the 2nd May 1833 and saw a congregation of four hundred adults and one hundred and twenty children gather to hear the service of dedication. I’m glad to report that the Moravian’s did an excellent job of reforming the villagers and today they all appear , ‘ship shape’, if you’ll excuse the pun.
The Church battled on in Brockweir, weathering the decline of the ship-building trade in the 1870’s, the coming of the railway in 1874, and the bridging of the river in 1902. Sadly after saving historic generations of villagers from certain damnation, in 1961 the congregation numbers became so low that it seemed certain that the Church would close. Thankfully the Baptist Church in Monmouth heard of this planned closure, and under their Minister [Rev. Dennis Monger] they undertook a modern ecumenical experiment to keep the Church open. Ecumenism is the idea of a Christian unity and the Moravian/Baptist experience became well known both locally and nationally. This magnificent Church with its beautiful gothic windows and fascinating history found its way again and by 1993 it had had grown and was able to become independent once more.
No visit to Brockweir would be complete without a walk over the ‘Ugly Bridge’. The construction of this road bridge in 1906, connected Brockweir and the Gloucester side with the Welsh side of the River Wye and was final nail in the coffin for the Brockweir Quay. Ironically the bridge was built from iron girders floated up the river from Chepstow on barges and landed on the quay at Brockweir. It seems that the quay was indeed fundamental in the construction of the very thing that spelled its demise. In contrast to the historical architecture of the village with its quirky passageways and winding roads, this substantial and industrial looking bridge does offer stark disparity and perhaps deserves its nickname of the ‘Ugly Bridge’, but standing on it and looking at the view was enough to make me forgiving of its robust looks, for as an observation point from which to survey the river and quay it is excellent.
If you ever find yourself in the Wye Valley then Brockweir is well worth a look, but a word of warning you will need to be made of strong stuff to withstand the cider made at the local Yewgreen Farm.