ON that calm, damp November morning I stood on the sward at Black Rock and watched the receding tide laying bare the rocks and sandbanks. Through the smoke of my pipe I saw in fancy the old-time ferryboats crossing to and from Gloucestershire.

Stout cutters they must have been, like the old Newport pilot-boats, flying on fine days a mainsail, a topsail, a foresail and a jib, but on windy crossings, a double-reefed mainsail and maybe a storm-jib.

In the autumn of 1798 and in 1799 Archdeacon Coxe and Sir Richard Hoare “crossed into Monmouthshire by the new passage. The breadth of the Severn ... from the inn on one side to the inn on the other is three and a half miles ... We passed near a rocky islet ... well known by the appellation of Charston Rock. The stone (from the islet) is highly esteemed for its durability, and was lately employed by the architect of Newport Bridge for the lower part of the piers ... I disembarked at the Black Rock and ascended to the inn.”

A century and a half earlier, on the 23rd July, 1645, thrills were a-plenty at Black Rock. Prince Rupert had crossed and made his way to Bristol the night before, and it was confidently expected that the King would follow him, in spite of the fact that a party of Cromwell’s dragoons was known to be in the district.

The King did not appear, but according to one account a party of Royalists from Crick crossed from Black Rock in safety. On their return the ferrymen were met by a group of the enemy, who forced the sailors to take them across.

The boatmen, all loyalists, landed the soldiers on the “English Stones,” a sandbank joined to the Gloucestershire shore at low tide, as it was on that occasion. As the cutter turned north-ward for home, the tide began to flow strongly, and the soldiers were all drowned.

This “new passage” is quite clearly the link which connects the Via Julia of England with the Roman roads of South Wales.

Throughout the centuries the ferrying of passengers continued either by this route or by the Beachley-Aust route, or by both. After the incident of 1645 the ferry from Black Rock was closed down by Cromwell, but later, after a lawsuit between Thomas Lewis, of St. Pierre, who owned the new passage, and the Duke of Beaufort, who owned the Beachley-Aust ferry, the Lewises continued the service.

Long before the railways began, steam packets were introduced on the new passage. These ran from 1826 until the opening of the Severn Tunnel in 1886.

A short branch line was laid from Portskewett to Black Rock in 1850; this must have been a great convenience to travellers from the ferry, as it has been in later years to Really Important People who have used it as a dormitory line.

At the old Black Rock Hotel, Mrs. Lee was kindness personified. She showed me the apartments which had once been the bar and the smoking rooms she pointed to the window-seats, with their views over the Severn, and she indicated the extent of the damage done in the disastrous fire of 1948.

I asked her if there was any special purpose in the upright elliptical windows in both walls of the porch. She took me into the bar and placed me in line with the two windows. Immediately (for the windows were lenses) I had an enlarged view of the estuary, with the New Passage Hotel across the water.

Standing at Mrs. Lee’s front door I could imagine the scene as the stagecoach came down the road in mid-winter, and the shivering passengers rushed into the inn for warmth and refreshment before facing the rigours of the crossing to Gloucestershire.

Their journey from Raglan over the Star Pitch, or from Newport over the Christchurch Hill, must have been a test of their stamina, but to many of them, as they saw the breakers dashing over Charston, the thought must have come, “Is our journey really necessary?”

The road from Black Rock inland meets the main road at Pike House. Opposite is a gate, strung with barbed wire, and with a mass of undergrowth beyond. Through that gateway I (as did my neolithic ancestors before me) used to make my way to Heston Brake tumulus. If you would like to feel cold shivers down your spine, choose a moonlit midnight next summer, and visit this long barrow alone.

It is crowned by a rectangle of recumbent stones, terminating at the east end in what might have been a late stone age portrayal of a knife and chopping block, and beneath is the communal burial chamber, about 26ft. by 5ft.

Here, in 1888, excavators found human bones, relics of perhaps 2,000 BC, and in the soil of the cairn some pottery of later ages. Garn Llwyd, Gwern-y-Cleppa and Heston Brake are our three outstanding dolmens.

Next week, Fred Hando takes us to the banks of the River Wye and tells us of his rambles to Llandogo, Tintern and Trellech.

He tells us how Llandogo was the terminus of a busy trade route from Bristol. So famous were the Llandogo trows (or sloops) that one of Bristol’s grand old inns is called the Llandoger Trow.