River Ebbw and Nant Pencarn, Newport

River Ebbw and Nant Pencarn, Newport

At this point on the Gwent Levels, the Wales Coast Path crosses the river Ebbw on a footbridge. In medieval times, a stream called Nant Pencarn flowed somewhere in this area – perhaps where the river Ebbw is today.

The name Ebbw was recorded as Eboth in 1101, Ebouith c.1537 and Ebwy (its current Welsh spelling) in 1631. It comes from the earlier name Ebwydd, which probably means the river was likened to a wild horse. The eb- element relates to a horse (as in the modern Welsh ebol = “colt”). The suffix may come from gŵydd, meaning "wild". Several other Welsh river names are based on comparisons with animals.

The river gave its name to various places, including the town of Ebbw Vale (Glynebwy), beside its upper reaches. Near Newport, there was a manor of Eboth alias Greenfield.

In 1188, the Archbishop of Canterbury passed through this area on his tour of Wales to recruit for the third crusade. He was accompanied by Gerald of Wales, whose journal records that near Newport the party crossed Nant Pencarn.

The terrain has changed greatly since then, and nobody knows where that stream flowed. It could have taken approximately the course of the river Ebbw in this vicinity. It probably flowed through the Duffryn (or Dyffryn) area, to the west, where there were three farms and a manor called Pencarn. Pen = head, carn = mound or cairn.

Gerald wrote that Nant Pencarn could be crossed only at certain fords, because it ran through such marshy land. He quoted an earlier writer, Merlin Silvester, who prophesied that if a strong, freckled man crossed at Rhyd Pencarn during an invasion attempt, the Welsh would lose.

Gerald noted that in his own time, King Henry II had crossed at that ford, rather than a newer one nearby. Welshmen who had come to see where Henry would cross were dismayed. Gerald’s tale probably relates to an invasion which resulted in Lord Rhys, ruler of South Wales, losing much of his territory to Henry in the 1160s.

With thanks to Richard Morgan, of the Welsh Place-Name Society