Chepstow (Welsh: Cas-gwent) is a border town straddling the Monmouthshire—Gloucestershire border, situated at the confluence of the River Wye and River Severn on the Severn's west bank. It is famous for its castle and racecourse, which hosts the Welsh Grand National. Chepstow proper is on the west bank of the Wye, within Wales; the English part on the eastern bank consists of Tutshill and Sedbury.
Chepstow sits upstream of the confluence of the River Wye and River Severn. There has been a settlement on the site since at least the early middle ages. It was named Striguil in Norman times - from the Welsh word ystraigyl meaning a bend in the river - but became known as Chepstow from the old English ceap / chepe stowe meaning market place.
The oldest areas of known habitation are the Iron Age fortified camps at Bulwark and Piercefield. Later, there may have been a Roman bridge over the Wye, as Chepstow is located at a crossing point directly between the Roman towns of Gloucester and Caerwent. The town is also close to the southern point of Offa's Dyke, which begins on the east bank of the Wye and runs all the way to the Irish Sea in north Wales. This was built in about the 8th century as a boundary between English and Welsh kingdoms, although recent research suggests that the part near Chepstow may not actually be part of the original Dyke.
Chepstow Castle is the oldest surviving stone fortification in Britain. After the Norman Invasion Chepstow was identified as an ideal site for a castle, as it not only controlled a crossing point on the River Wye, but also because the steep limestone gorge and castle dell afforded an excellent defensive location. William the Conqueror ordered its construction in 1067, and, according to the Domesday Book, it was designed by the master castle builder of the time, William fitzOsbern. The speed with which William the Conqueror committed to the creation of a castle in Chepstow is testament to its strategic importance. At the time, the kingdoms in the area were independent of the English crown and the castle in Chepstow provided a way to suppress the Welsh from attacking Gloucestershire. From the 14th century, with the end of the wars between England and Wales, the castle's importance declined.
A town grew up beside Chepstow Castle, the Priory church, and the port, and in 1294 Chepstow was given the right to hold a weekly market and annual fair. It flourished partly because it was exempt from English taxation. The town wall, locally known as the Port Wall, was built about this time, and mostly still stands. Particularly good sections can be seen at the Welsh Street car park, and either side of the A48 road. The Town Gate through the wall at the top end of the High Street was rebuilt in the 16th century and was used as a toll gate.
The most significant church in Chepstow is the Parish and Priory Church of St Mary, located at the bottom of the town. It, like the castle, is Norman in origin, although much rebuilt and extended in later centuries. Benedictine monks from Cormeilles in Normandy, Chepstow's twin town, were there until the Dissolution of the Monasteries from 1536.
In addition to being a market town, Chepstow was from medieval times the largest port in Wales. Although it mainly traded in timber from the Wye Valley and with Bristol, records show that Chepstow ships sailed as far afield as Iceland and Turkey, as well as to France, Portugal and Ireland. In 1840, leaders of the Chartist insurrection in Newport were transported from Chepstow to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania).
The port function and local shipbuilding trade declined during the 19th century as ship design developed and the cities of Cardiff, Newport and Swansea became more suitable for handling the export of coal and steel from the Glamorganshire and Monmouthshire valleys. Shipbuilding was briefly revived during the First World War when the first prefabricated ships were constructed. The area known as "Garden City" and parts of Bulwark Village were built to house the workers that were brought to Chepstow from 1917 to work in the new National Shipyard no.1. The Bulwark area is now home to about two thirds of the population of Chepstow, and much of the industry of the town is based at the Bulwark Trading Estate.
The shipyard developed on the site where the Wye railway bridge had been constructed, and was subsequently taken over by the engineering firm Fairfield Mabey, who specialise in steelwork for bridges and other structures. Other local industries have included the material for artificial ski slopes, developed at the "Dendix" brush factory.
The old cast iron road bridge across the Wye, dating from 1816 and designed by John Rastrick, is an elegant example of engineering from the Regency period. The bridge comprises five cast-iron arches carried on stone piers and has a central span of 112 ft. It succeeded a number of wooden predecessors which had been built on or near the same site since at least 1228, and possibly much earlier. In 1576 the bridge was described as being in great decay, and an Act was passed making Gloucestershire and Monmouthshire responsible for the repair of their respective halves. Neglect continued, however, and in 1606 the bridge was said to have fallen down and been carried away. By the beginning of the 18th century the bridge comprised a wooden decking carried by a central stone pier and five piers on either side each formed by a number of timber piles. The Monmouthshire half of the bridge was rebuilt as four stone arches in 1785, but the Gloucestershire half remained timber until 1815 when rebuilding of the whole bridge was begun to the overall plans of John Rennie, as modified by Rastrick.
Until the Severn Bridge - now part of the M48 - was opened in 1966, and a new A48 bridge over the Wye in 1988, the old bridge carried all the road traffic between England and South Wales. The Severn Bridge has the second longest span of any bridge in the UK; it replaced the Aust-Beachley ferry.
Chepstow railway station is on the Gloucester to Newport Line. The railway bridge over the Wye was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1852, but the original structure was replaced in the 1960s. Until 1959 passenger trains operated up the Wye Valley to Monmouth - this service ceased owing to heavy losses.
The town today
Chepstow has a recently built PFI funded community hospital and several new housing estates. Over £2 million has recently been invested in regenerating the town centre. This scheme, which includes new sculptures and other public art, encountered some local criticism over its high cost, but has gained several national awards reflecting its high design quality.
The town centre has a good range of shops, pubs and restaurants. The area beside the river has been attractively landscaped as part of a flood defence scheme. The town holds a biennial festival, and in most recent years has also organised major son et lumiere pageants covering aspects of local history, using local residents under professional direction. There is also an excellent local museum, opposite the Castle entrance.
Chepstow also has many excellent schools including Chepstow School. One of the best co-education semi-boarding schools St Johns on the Hill is located on the outskirts towards Tutshill. There are also a number of churches in Chepstow, including a variety of non-conformist denominations.
Chepstow racecourse is the leading horse racing course in Wales. It is located on the edge of the town, in the grounds of the ruined Piercefield House.
Nearby are the Royal Forest of Dean and the Wye Valley. Tintern Abbey is about 5 miles distant. Many current residents of the town commute to Bristol, Cardiff, Newport and elsewhere.
Chepstow is twinned with Cormeilles