Earlier this year I had the pleasure of celebrating St David’s Day in Wales. I joined the Over the Bridge to Wales project for a rather lovely couple of days out in the Newport area, first with this walk from Newport to Roman Caerleon (which you can read about here), and then with a lovely bird watching walk in the Newport Wetlands.
The Newport Wetlands National Nature Reserve lies between the Severn Estuary and the River Usk on the South Wales coast. At just over an hour away from home in Gloucestershire, it is a reasonable distance for a day out (when lock down restrictions allow this again… at the time of writing Wales is still closed – you can check the restrictions for Wales here). Owned and managed by Natural Resources Wales, in partnership with RSPB Cymru, Newport City Council and others, it is exactly the kind of place I’d go with my family to explore – and not just because there is a lovely little café serving soup and stew when you’re done.
Built on mudflats and marshland, the nature reserve here was opened in 2000 as a mitigation project to restore wildlife habitat following the Cardiff Bay Barrage scheme. The reserve covers just over 1,000 acres of the Caldicot Level, a low-lying area of land bordering the northern shore of the Severn Estuary. The reserve was designated a National Nature Reserve in 2008, and is now a haven for birds and other wildlife, and a lovely place for a walk.
There are a wide range of bird species to see here thanks to that combination of reedbeds and mudflats, including bearded tits, oystercatchers, dunlin, bittern, geese and ducks of all kinds, and lots more besides. This was what we came for – to explore the area, to see and learn something about wildlife that call this place home, and to walk.
We met up with Andy, conservation ecologist from Gwent Wildlife Trust and our guide for the day, at the Goldcliffe end of the reserve. This area is naturally marshy, but the recent persistent rain had left the ground even more waterlogged than normal, so I was pleased I’d recently replaced my old walking boots with much more waterproof ones! We learnt so much from Andy as we walked and explored, he helps to manage and maintain the wetlands in this area, and regularly takes groups out for educational visits – he certainly knew a thing or two about the area and the wildlife and it was a pleasure to spend the day with such a passionate and knowledgeable expert.
The Goldcliffe Lagoons are a series of shallow lagoons filled with salt water which act as a safe haven for native and migrating birds to live, nest, and to pass through. They are surrounded by an electric fence to help keep predators (and humans) out, and, most importantly for us and other visitors, a line of bird hides and shelters to allow us to observe from a safe distance. You will need binoculars if you come here, as you are quite a distance off. On our visit, which was more winter than spring, we saw lapwing (their mating display was rather impressive), Canada geese, shelduck, shoveler and more. I’m no bird expert, but it was genuinely super interesting to spend time here and watch the birds go about their normal business in their natural habitat.
We made our way around the lagoons, stopping off at a number of the different hides and shelters. A highlight for me was seeing a beautiful white Little Egret, which Andy explained were once so rare in Great Britain the sight would have attracted crowds of twitchers with their binoculars and huge lenses. These days they are reasonably common in this area, but still a lovely sight to see.
Wales Coast Path and the Reedbeds
Having made our way around the Goldcliffe Lagoons and had a quick peak up on the sea wall, we backtracked in order to pick up the Wales Coast Path towards Newport. At times around the country, the coast path heads a little in land, and this is one of those occasions – here it’s because the nature reserve is a protected site and so the path skirts around it rather than through the middle of it. This meant our walk included little country lanes and more open countryside as well as allowing us to walk along part of the sea wall.
Along this stretch we learnt about the farmland drainage system made up of renes (dykes) and grips (channels), that keep this area from returning to the sea, and about the sluices that are managed by the Wildlife Trust to ensure the lagoons we’d already seen are kept at the right level to maintain the habitat for the birds. When we were on sea wall, which was first built in Roman times to protect the area from sea flooding, we could see more history. Posts reached out into the sea, which are the remnants of traditional fishing methods involving wicker baskets.
We also passed alongside and through a dense section of reedbeds that are perfect for birds and small mammals that prefer the shelter of reeds to the openness of the saline lagoons. There are a number of floating walkways which take you right through the reeds (just a little bit bouncy!), and although birds living here are very good staying hidden, we could certainly hear they were around. We could hear warblers and bittern, and saw swans, geese and ducks enjoying the lakes. This part of the walk was much busier than the area around the lagoons, mainly because it was much closer to the Wetlands Centre and the paths are much more accessible here, but it was good seeing lots of people enjoying a bit of time in nature on such a cold Sunday.
Towards the end of our walk we passed by the East Usk lighthouse, one of a pair of lighthouses either side of the River Usk (the other one is a B&B – and was recently made famous thanks to Dr Who) built in 1893 to mark the entrance to the river and guide ships in and out of the port of Newport.
RSPB Wetlands Centre
The RSPB Wetlands Centre sits within the Newport Wetlands Nature Reserve and provides visitors with information, a shop and café. The café was a lovely place to sit and eat (I had a yummy bowl of Welsh Cawl which featured in episode 8 of my weekly blog), with panoramic views across a beautiful pond and feeding station.
The combination of wet grassland, reedbeds, saltmarsh and saline lagoons makes this reserve one of the best sites I’ve seen for viewing birds, and I would highly recommend it to anyone within reasonable distance for a day out to enjoy the outdoors. Our day out was made even better thanks to the expertise of Andy from Gwent Wildlife Trust, I definitely learnt a thing or two.
There are a number of trails which you can see here on their trail map, and Gwent Wildlife Trust run a series of events for those interested in learning more about the wildlife in this area (and having a helping hand with identifying the birds that you see). The reserve and the Wetlands Centre are free to enter, but there is a parking charge for non-members.
This is somewhere we will definitely return to when restrictions allow.
For full disclosure, this is not a sponsored post or review, but I did get the day out for free (including the superb St David’s Day-appropriate lunch) thanks to the Over The Bridge to Wales project, and so I have marked this post as “gifted”.