If you’re looking for a town to enjoy a splendid walk and a locally-sourced latte then you’ll struggle to find a better spot than Usk.
There is a farmers’ market and plenty of independent shops and galleries as well as cafes vying to produce the best fare using local produce. And there’s nothing like enjoying all that goodness in the glorious afternoon sunshine while a 34-tonne articulated lorry chugs down the pavement towards you. Right?
Sometimes you might even get a clout around the ear while you’re walking down the town’s Bridge Street or while taking in the view from the bridge over the river.
“I have been hit multiple times,” said Kathryn Challenger, who has lived in the area all her life – moving from house to house in the same street. “But it gets worse – they come straight over the bridge here and crash into the walls,” she explains from her home directly opposite the bridge. “It’s dangerous and can be quite scary.”
We wait for what feels like five minutes to cross the road at the end of the bridge while two 30-tonne lorries carrying chickens pass by as well as three other equally large vehicles. As they pass the traffic comes to a standstill while the lorries try not to hit each other, the sides of the bridge, and even people’s homes.
Kathryn points: “Look at this one. There are chickens in there. Just a couple of weeks ago one like that went straight into the wall. Sometimes they don’t even realise they’ve done it. But imagine if someone had been walking there.”
The town actually has a ban on lorries coming through that weigh more than 7.5 tonnes – brought in more than 40 years ago after protests over environmental concerns, but issues remain – and residents believe it is due to poor enforcement. Difficulties pinpointing banned vehicles arise because some lorries that are over the weight limit are allowed through Usk to deliver goods.
“Some of them that do come over are ridiculous,” Kathryn added. “I think half of them aren’t allowed to be here – but what can we do?”
There are alternative routes. Lorry drivers could get off at the A449 at Raglan and travel via the A40 or head to the Coldra roundabout.
Residents pointed out that earlier in the pandemic when temporary traffic lights were used at the town’s main Bridge Street road to help social distancing on the narrow pavements – causing traffic pile-ups – considerably fewer lorries used the town as a “rat run”.
Liam Ellis, who drives a 34-tonne truck from Raglan transporting straw to farmers, said he is allowed to travel through Usk, but regularly receives abuse when he reaches Bridge Street – with some motorists refusing to move out of his way in protest.
“It’s not pleasant at all,” he said. “Sometimes I find myself waiting to be shouted at. There is clearly a problem because we’re allowed to drive through there but Usk is an absolute nightmare to drive through. But for me it’s the only logical route to get to my customers.
“A solution could be a separate foot bridge adjacent to the existing bridge so the road at the bridge can be widened for vehicles and people aren’t walking across there. I know it can’t carry on like this. Something needs to be done but I don’t know what the best solution is.”
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There are regular instances of lorries meeting at particularly narrow points in the road before incidents of road rage inevitably ensue. Lorries have also been entangled in scaffolding while resident Angela Colclough said she has seen vehicles “destroy hanging baskets” from the front of people’s homes.
“It’s ridiculous really and it can get you down at times,” she said. “Slowing the vehicles down might discourage them. Perhaps we could do with some speed bumps. The clear answer is another road around the town but I don’t think that will happen now. Why don’t they fine them heavily? If there is no punishment for banned lorries it’ll keep happening.”
Gwent Police said they would only be able to issue fines if they caught a vehicle going across a limit-restricted bridge and then took the vehicle to a weighbridge to find out how much it was over the restriction.
A group of residents and councillors set up a ‘lorry watch’ scheme intended to report banned vehicles to Monmouthshire County Council’s trading standards team but they said they’ve had minimal success in getting banned vehicles punished and have turned attention to “discouraging rather than preventing”.
Councillor Alec Leathwood, who helps run the scheme and was one of the first to get the weight limit introduced in the town more than 40 years ago, said: “I remember lying in the road in protest all those years ago. We’ve been battling for a long time but we’re still stuck with it.
“We had quite a few volunteers but people got fed up because vehicles were being reported and then not much was getting done. We’ve now accepted that there seems to be no way to keep heavy-goods vehicles out but we can discourage them.
“We try to do that by being visible while identifying vehicles that have no right to be here and by campaigning for changes to the road to make drivers aware they’re coming into a very different area. We could also do with better signage so lorry drivers know what the restrictions are well before they get to Usk – not when it’s too late.
“We just hope there isn’t a major incident. Fortunately, so far, we’ve got away with it.”
A spokesman for Monmouthshire council said: “There is advanced warning of the weight restriction on the A466 and A4042 so we would anticipate the majority of HGVs travelling through the town would have a requirement to do so – or are contravening the restriction in the full knowledge of their actions.”
Martin Sholl, the joint owner of Number 49 tea room in Bridge Street, said he’s noticed HGV traffic increasing significantly in recent weeks as lockdown restrictions eased. Authorised lorries that are above the weight limit deliver to the business but he said a balance needs to be struck.
“[Bridge Street] is back to being full again and the challenge we have is when two meet and the wing mirrors are well over the pavement either side,” he said. “It doesn’t just cause traffic issues – we’ve had people hit by them. The issue is this road is used as a thoroughfare and that is unlikely to change until there is better enforcement.”
He said he “isn’t convinced” the majority of lorries that pass through are authorised. “Many vehicles that come through from Blackwood don’t stop in Usk – they use it as a shortcut to the M50,” he added. “I’ve taken photos of some lorries and you just think to yourself: ‘My goodness, you should not be here’.”
Lynne Morgan at Bunnings of Usk builders’ merchants said: “I don’t think there was any point in the [weight limit] ban in the first place. We need the deliveries and I can’t see a solution that pleases everyone.”