Thursday, 26 May 2016

Visiting Tintern

First sight
   As your bus draws into Tintern and you see this magnificent ruin flanked by cars and coaches it is difficult to realise that the area, until recently, had seemed wild and untamed. There is so much to say about the site that I will, for the moment, leave the architecture mostly on one side and concentrate on the people who have passed through and the attitudes to it over the centuries.

Foundation and monastery
   It was founded in 1131 on the 9th May by Walter de Clare, Lord of Chepstow, some say as an act of penance because he was haunted by the ghost of his wife whom he had murdered. It was only the second foundation of Cistercian monks in Britain and the first in Wales. This order of white-robed monks followed the rule of St. Benedict but with renewed emphasis on austerity and remoteness: they specialised in manual labour and agriculture. There may have been a brief period when behaviour became more lax as there were reports in 1217 of the Abbot drinking with the Bishop and his monks, and women working in the fields on at least one of the granges - hardly a scandal in our terms! The ruin we see today is largely that of the great church, cruciform with an aisled nave and dating from the 13th century when it was more than 30 years under construction.

The Black Death and Dissolution
   This plague devastated the area as it did so many parts of the country in 1349,  the main effect here being that the thriving agricultural enterprise became neglected and harvests lay ungathered. Tintern found it impossible to recruit the lay brothers it needed to work the fields and tend the sheep (3000 at one estimate) and, by the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII, there were only 13 monks left, although it was the largest house in Gwent. The uprising of Owain Glyndwr further impoverished the estate. It was then valued at a mere £192 per annum and in 1536 on September 3rd it was surrendered to the King with its estates incorporated into crown lands. In 1541 its bells were melted and the King's plumbers paid £8 for the work. It probably became roofless in 1546 as we know that the Earl of Worcester paid £166 for the lead.
   Within 30 years of Dissolution - a gap that seems to me surprisingly short - industrialisation had started in the area and Tintern became a major centre with wireworks and other complexes up the Angidy Valley where you can see the remains today on a lovely walk.

Tourism and the cult of the picturesque.
    During the 18th century there developed a romantic fashion for the cultivation of the individual's sensibility (derided by Jane Austen) and this was focussed on picturesque scenery in a seminal work published in 1782 by the Rev. William Gilpin who defined the concept in great detail finding the Wye satisfying in most respects: the scene had to be rough, intricate, varied without obvious straight lines and must work as a whole with a ruined abbey or castle adding "consequence." In fact the ivy-covered Abbey was insufficiently picturesque for his taste and he famously wrote that "a mallet judiciously used ... might be of service" to make it more irregular.
   There came many renowned writers and artists: Wordsworth wrote his lines above the Abbey after a 5 year gap; Coleridge got lost at night between Piercefield and Tintern - some reports say he nearly rode his horse off the edge of a quarry; Turner's work can be seen in the Chepstow Museum.

A personal view
   Impressive though the frontage is, I find that it is even more so round the back near the river seen from outside and it is here that I wrote a dizain on the subject.

                                            The picturesque: we track it through
                                            Woods, water, ivy, ruined stones.
                                            We conjure phrases: "azure blue"
                                            Tints backdrops for this Abbey's bones;
                                            "What if's?" tick all our known unknowns
                                            We time ourselves as hours pass,
                                            Laugh, chat and tip the decade-glass,
                                            Clock poets, painters, men of God,
                                            Dot chequered picnics on the grass
                                            Where silent white monks turned the sod.

   There is a particularly good shop situated in the car park which sells quality wall hangings with an Arthurian theme and delicious CAKE can be consumed in the White Monk cafe. The excellent Phil Anslow bus service now connects straight through from Cwmbran to Monmouth, where the ruins of the castle can be seen, changing its number at Chepstow: 63/69. You could use it to visit Usk with its castle and the site of the battle of Pwyll Melyn. It is a marvellously scenic run and many people take it for the views of the Severn Estuary and Tintern.
   I am aware that I have merely skimmed the surface of information about this spot and will return to the various aspects in more detail, - in those dark winter months ahead.

      For opening hours click here    

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