The poet, William Wordsworth, first visited the Wye Valley of Wales as a young man of 23, in 1793. He returned five years later in the summer of 1798 and after several days walking, wrote his poem Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey. He said that “No poem of mine was composed under circumstances more pleasant for me to remember than this.”
Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! And again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur. Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
I first visited Tintern Abbey in the early ‘80’s, walking alone on the footpath from starting point of the trail in the town of Chepstow. I have returned twice after that, most recently five years ago, those times accompanied by friends. The romantic appeal of this pilgrimage began long before Wordsworth’s visit, through the Victorian era and continues to this day. The beauty of the countryside, the awesome sight of the peaceful abbey ruins is timeless, and you can still sense the spirit which drew the first monks to Tintern over 850 years ago.
Chepstow is the starting point for the walk. This charming town is the gateway to Wales from England, located on the River Wye a few miles above its confluence with the River Severn. In early times visitors sometimes traveled to Tintern by boat. In the eighteenth century the town was part of the “Wye Tour” and even today there is a flourishing tourist industry. The town’s quaint streets slope down towards the river and contain a variety of antique shops and galleries, art and craft shops, tea houses and a couple of charming old pubs. Tourists who want to stop for the night have a choice of various B&Bs and hotel rooms. Each time I’ve visited Chepstow I have stayed in one of the town’s comfortable, friendly B&Bs.
The main attraction of the town is the impressive castle that dominates the banks of the Wye River. It’s the first Norman castle to be built in Wales in the 11th century by one of William the Conqueror’s most trusted barons as a base for the Norman conquest of S.E. Wales. Over the centuries it saw action in the civil war. The town is still fortified by walls and a gatehouse which now houses the tourist information center.
The lower Wye Valley contains some of the most beautiful river scenery in Wales and is often referred to as ‘the most romantic valley in Wales’. The valley is criss-crossed with footpaths and way-marked trails. Starting at Chepstow, follow the signs where the path is marked. The hike to Tintern Abbey is approximately 5.3 miles.(1 hour 52 minutes). Much of the way is through the woods with views of the river below. In some places there are no sidewalks or pedestrian paths so walk along the narrow highway here. It’s important to be properly equipped with good walking shoes, water and some food for a picnic along the way. In case of inclement weather bring extra clothing and waterproof outerwear. (For a map to the trail, Google Maps: Chepstow to Tintern Abbey)
I can’t forget the thrilling moment when finally the Abbey comes in view. The ancient walls and arches rise from the valley, surrounded by a landscape of verdant fields and a breath-taking scene that cannot be surpassed. Tintern Abbey was a medieval monastery, established for monks of the Cistercian order by the Norman Lord of Chepstow, Walter Fitz Richard. Originally, there were at least thirteen monks from central France who settled here in 1131 and from these beginnings the abbey remained a centre of monastic life and prayer for 400 years. The lands of the Abbey were divided into agricultural units on which local people worked and provided services. The present-day remains of Tintern are a mixture of work that covered a 400 year period between 1136 and 1536. Little remains of the original buildings; some sections of walling are incorporated into later buildings. During the 13th century the Abbey was rebuilt and the building work continued for several decades. Roger Bigod, 5th Earl of Norfolk who was Lord of Chepstow was a generous benefactor. His coat of arms is in the glass of the east window of the Abbey in thanks for his generosity. On September 3, 1536 Tintern Abbey was surrendered to King Henry VII’s officials, ending a way of life that had lasted centuries.
Today there has been a major two-year programme of conservation work completed on the 13th century west front, one of the most outstanding examples of Gothic architecture in Britain. A statue of Our Lady of Tintern has been installed in the south aisle of the Abbey. Guided tours are offered at the site. After the long hike there, and a tour around the Abbey, a refreshing pause for a cold pint at the local pub was in order. Buses run frequently from Tintern back to Chepstow, or if you wish to stay another day there is accommodation in the town.
Written by W. Ruth Kozak for EuropeUpClose.com