[Sunder wrote this account of Tintern Abbey shortly after our visit in the summer of 2006.]
Walking alone with Wordsworth along the Wye: Some musings on Tintern Abbey
Five years have passed; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! And again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a sweet inland murmer. – Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
Which on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
So wrote William Wordsworth on revisiting the banks of the river Wye in July 1798 and seated a few miles above Tintern Abbey. Being off the beaten tourist track and not easily accessible, the village of Tintern in the lower Wye Valley in Wales is perhaps not very well known to the majority of tourists who confine their wanderings in the British Isles merely to the sights of London. Even those with literary leanings normally opt to visit only Stratford-upon-Avon and its environs to muse about Will Shakespeare, the Bard. They know not what they have missed, for a visit to Tintern and the Wye Valley is a memorable experience to be treasured, one that can only be termed ‘spectacular’.
We were not tourists in the British Isles but had spent nearly half a decade living among the imposing spires of Oxford reliving, in our minds, the conflicts between the Town and the Gown. My wife, then a Professor in Oxford, having decided to relocate in the States, we too might have left England without visiting Tintern and the Wye Valley had it not been for the kindness and thoughtfulness of my wife’s colleague, Alison. Concerned that we might be leaving the country without seeing what was undisputedly one of the jewels of the Crown, she offered to drive us to Tintern from Cheltenham, where she lived.
Tintern Abbey is located in a wooded valley in Monmouthshire through which the river Wye meanders its way to the mouth of the Severn. The Abbey, though in ruins now, is considered to be among the loveliest and best-known monastic sites in the entire British Isles. It was founded in the 12th Century (1131) by the Anglo-Norman lord of Chepstow, Walter fitz Richard of Clare. Colonized by a small group of Cistercian monks who travelled from the then influential abbey of l’Aumone in France, considered to be the ‘mother house’ of Tintern, it was the second Cistercian habitation in the British Isles. The move of this small group has been described in tourist brochures as ‘an adventure without parallel in western Christendom, a story of rapid and extraordinary success’, and is considered to be one of the most remarkable phenomena in the life of the medieval church. Assisted by a growing army of lay brothers, the monks organized the Tintern estates in farms known as granges. After having lived and worshipped in temporary timber buildings, they had erected a modest stone church. Further growth of the community led to an expansion of the monastic buildings during the first half of the 13th century. Construction of the Gothic church, Tintern’s greatest glory and which still dominates the lower Wye valley, was begun in 1269 and the Abbey was consecrated in 1301.
However, the suppression of monasteries in England during the reign of King Henry VIII, attributable to the reformist zeal of Archbishop Thomas Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell, signalled the end of monastic life. In the result, Tintern was surrendered to the king’s visitors in September 1536 and the buildings and local possessions were granted to Henry Somerset, earl of Worcester. He began to lease out portions of the site and soon the abbey environs were crowded with cottages and early industrial buildings.
Having become a ‘relic of the past’, the Abbey lay in ruins forgotten until the late 18th century. The ruins were then stated to have been discovered by droves of the ‘Romantic’ poets and artists who were drawn to the wooded slopes of the Wye in search of the ‘Sublime’ and the ‘Picturesque’, with Tintern acknowledged as the jewel and highlight of the tour. Other weary travellers also flocked to the area by boat. The advent of the railway and the publication of William Gilpin’s Observations on the River Wye brought still more tourists in the 19th century resulting in the resurrection of the village and its environs and restoration of the Abbey. In 1901 the site was purchased by the Crown enabling major programmes of conservation between 1901 and 1928 which set about the extensive restorations that we see today.
On the appointed day, another of my wife’s friends, Elleke, drove us from Oxford to Alison’s home where we transferred to Alison’s sporty red Renault, The BBC had predicted a glorious, sunny day suitable for picnics and outdoor activities. As if to belie the predictions of the pundits, the morning was cloudy and the weather that lay ahead threatened to be wet and cold. In fact, as we began our drive from Cheltenham, it even started to rain. Being an inveterate optimist, even with pretensions to predictions (not merely about the weather), I had to keep reassuring them that it would be bright and sunny soon as the clock struck 12. (I wonder if any of my readers have been able to hold their own amidst three women, who are academics and intellectuals to boot and do not believe in prophesies!!). But surprise, surprise! Just as I predicted, Apollo was out on his chariot in all his resplendent glory as the clock struck twelve. Such unpredictable weather is, after all, part of the perils and pleasures of living in England..
After driving through the Cotswolds, passing tiny and large farms with grazing cows and sheep, and crossing the Bristol Channel, we were soon climbing. Winding our way up a road surrounded by tall and ancient oaks, cedar and firs that formed a shady canopy through which the sun played hide and seek and the earlier rain accumulated in the leaves fell in tiny droplets, we arrived at the top of a hill; the Wye valley lay below surrounded by Wordsworth’s “steep and lofty cliffs”: it was an impressive and breathtaking sight, a landscape that was awesome and beggared description..
Driving down the hill, sweeping around bends in the road, we caught, now and then, glimpses of the abbey through the towering trees. Soon we were at the ruins themselves which rose majestically in the wooded valley. The ruins bore mute testimony to the vision of the Cistercian monks who built this superb Gothic monastery in the 11th century, designed for the observance of rigorous standards of discipline and devotion. Though roofless and exposed to the elements, its floor overrun by grass and weeds, the abbey conjured up in the mind’s eye visions of a by-gone era—visions of the strict disciplines of monastic life,
The vista that opened before our eyes was truly as sublime and picturesque as the poets and artists have described it. We stood in the presbytery of the abbey church, with its walls and large, open arches rising to the heavens above, and gazed at the north and south transepts with their rich and intricate architecture. Looking through the glass-less tall windows, we feasted our eyes on the wooded slopes above the Wye as the noon sun created a chiaroscuro of light and shade. This brought forth an instantaneous burst of admiration and filled us with awe and delight. We felt dwarfed by the abbey’s towering structure—pygmies amidst grand ruins–and realized how small and inadequate human beings could feel in a place of worship. We were possessed too, like Wordsworth, by the overwhelming power of Nature. The serenity and tranquillity of the surroundings further contributed to the grandeur of the ruined church.
Our tour of the ruins from the main edifice of the church (which was built later, in the 13th century), entered from the west and not through the modern glass doors of the Tintern shop, took us to what was left of the Chapter House, the Cloister, the Refectory, the monks’ Day Room, the Infirmary and finally the Abbot’s Residence (that seemed to have lacked no earthly comforts!). We could imagine how magnificent the complex must have looked at the height of its glory.
After having drunk with our eyes the intoxicating sights that opened up before us and having worked up an appetite, we decided to amble in a leisurely way along the banks of the Wye to find a place to have lunch. Walking along the Wye, we felt we were in communion with Wordsworth though its waters did not flow with a “sweet inland murmur”. There were ducks and mallards lazing in the river barely conscious of and undisturbed by a small boat floating by. The floating waters, though disturbed by the boat’s intrusion, yet seemed still. The air was fresh and invigorating. There was much to muse about in the quietness surrounding us; so we were all lost in thought, marvelling about the wonders of nature. Like Wordsworth, I too experienced thoughts of a “deep seclusion”.
Soon, we were at the door of the “Moon and Six Pence”, a quaint pub (called a “Free House” because it served a wide range of brews–national, local and international–instead of only the products of a select few sponsoring establishments). The name seemed to suggest the presence of Maugham in spirit. The pub overlooked the Wye and the homes and shops dotted along the road that wound its way as did the river. The view was beautiful in an almost surreal way, endowed with a picture postcard prettiness that one does not expect to actually see and experience. The earlier quietness was broken by a group of elderly Welshmen in the pub who were singing aloud in a strange tongue though most tunefully, lost to all but themselves. We later learnt that they were on their way to a singing contest, a regular occurrence in the region, and were getting into the appropriate mood thanks to the hospitality of their hostess (mine host was missing). The owners of the pub, it turned out, were Polish immigrants as were the elderly and boisterous singers, which perhaps explained the strangeness of the tongue.
Soon it was time to be homeward bound. Wending our way back to Cheltenham and thence to Oxford, we decided to drop in briefly at the castle in the ancient market town of Chepstow that also earlier served as a port situated a short distance upstream from the confluence of the rivers Wye and Severn. The castle, founded by the Normans in 1067, is perched, almost precariously, high above the banks of the river and overlooks the town and the wooded slopes beyond, standing sentinel as it were. Entered through a massive twin tower gate house set against the sky, one could understand why it served as the key and strategic launching point for conquering expeditions into Wales. The castle, constructed uniquely in a long terraced fashion, houses within its walls many interesting medieval exhibits, including weaponry and equipment deployed in sieges. To stand in its Great Hall, now open to the skies, provides a special kind of thrill to visitors.
Much as we would have loved to spend longer in the town and try out one of the recommended walks, dark clouds had gathered yet again and the smell of rain was very much in the air. Reluctantly therefore, we had to bid our adieus to the Wye valley where we had been able to enjoy a most satisfying afternoon. After stopping for awhile by a roadside picnic spot en route to Oxford to partake of the delicious cakes and ale that Alison had so thoughtfully brought with her, we were soon among the majestic spires of Oxford. It had been a day well spent, a day to remember and cherish.