It was an extraordinary find, so tucked away. For a couple of days we’d been reading the signs to Kiln Odyn, but the message had not been sinking in. And then it did. And off we went – a short walk from the Castle Inn where we were staying, and up a little alley beside the old Memorial Hall and there it was: the best surviving medieval pottery kiln in the United Kingdom.
Stranger still was the story of its discovery. In 1921 the people of Newport began work on the building of a Memorial Hall in remembrance of community members who had died in the Great War. In the midst of digging the foundations, builders uncovered two medieval kilns. The National Museum of Wales was alerted. Its director, Dr. Mortimer Wheeler, so-called ‘father of British archaeology, was swift to ensure the site was preserved. This included having the National Museum put up the £20 he said was needed to adapt the building plans and so keep the archaeological site intact within the new Hall’s basement. A trap door would provide access to the remains..
And so it remained for nearly a century until 2016 when the community decided the Memorial Hall facilities were badly in need of an update. There followed a scheme of creative refurbishment and a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which meant the kilns, by now a Scheduled Ancient Monument, could also be re-excavated, conserved and put on permanent view. All it took was the installation of a very big window in the side of the building and some heavy-duty spotlights.
Also added were some very thoughtful outdoor information panels designed by students of Carmarthen College. Their artwork brings medieval Newport to life. We meet the master potter and his family and see how they might have lived and worked.
We’re also told what a busy market town Newport would have been during the lifetime of the kilns (c1470-1530); not only a port exporting goods, which may well have included the jars and jugs from the pottery, but also a stopping place on the pilgrims’ route to St. David’s in south Pembrokeshire. And in 1485 we are also told there was a very particular event: Henry Tudor passed by the town, and what a sight that would have been – an army 2,000 strong, marching on to Bosworth to win the English crown and found a new royal dynasty. One of the panels further conjectures that the potter’s son might have gone off to join the army, escaping the hard work of digging, potting and firing for the thrill of battle and adventures in foreign parts.
Kiln Odyn produced high quality domestic wares of the day: cooking pots and pitchers, alembics for lotions and potions, ridge roof tiles for high status buildings. The work, from digging the clay to selling the pots would have involved the whole family, skills passed down the generations. The Lord Marcher, who owned all the lands, took his cut of the potter’s profits instead of charging him rent.
Credit: artwork by the students of Carmarthen College.