The romantic ruins of Tintern Abbey, in the beautiful Wye Valley in Wales, have been a popular tourist attraction since the 18th century. But what is the story behind the ruins, and how did they become an inspiration for writers and artists? And what does Tintern Abbey offer to visitors today?
Early History Of Tintern Abbey
Tintern Abbey was founded in 1131. It was the first Cistercian abbey in Wales: the Welsh people approved of the Cistercians, as they had no links with England’s Norman rulers. The abbey flourished, and new buildings were added over the centuries. The Gothic church that is now the centrepiece of the abbey ruins was built in the late 13th century.
Although the abbey estate was extensive it never attracted a large monastic population. This was partly due to the effects of the Black Death and of local labour shortages. The monastery was dissolved in 1536 and the buildings gradually fell into ruin.
The Wye Valley Becomes A Tourist Destination
During the 18th century it became fashionable to visit what were then regarded as remote and wild parts of the country. In 1782 William Gilpin, an English clergyman, published a book entitled Observations on the River Wye. This popularised the so-called Wye Tour, a two-day scenic boat trip from Ross-on-Wye to Chepstow.
By this time the abbey was a Gothic ruin covered in ivy. Combined with the dramatic setting of the Wye Valley, it is not surprising that it attracted large numbers of tourists. Those numbers increased during the Napoleonic Wars, when those who might have travelled to Europe on the Grand Tour were no longer able to do so.
Poets And Artists At Tintern Abbey
After William Gilpin published his book many visitors to the Wye Valley were inspired to write about their travels. One such visitor was William Wordsworth who composed his poem Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey on his second visit to the area. Tintern has continued to hold a fascination for poets: a quick Google search shows several contemporary poems with the abbey as their theme!
Sketching and painting were also popular activities, and William Gilpin included a number of his own sketches in his book. Artists who painted the abbey included Thomas Gainsborough and Samuel Palmer. However, the artist most closely associated with Tintern Abbey is J M W Turner, who featured the ruins in a series of landscape paintings.
The Abbey Today
With its backdrop of trees and the steep bank of the River Wye, Tintern Abbey is still a romantic ruin. The church may have lost its roof, but it is still a masterpiece of Gothic architecture, with vast windows and soaring arches. Around the church are the remains of the monastic buildings. Outside of the abbey grounds, close to the car park, are the remnants of the inner court and guest house.
Away from the abbey, the village of Tintern offers a sculpture garden, a vineyard and woodland walks. There is a good choice of pubs and cafés. A few miles from the village, high up on the Offa’s Dyke Path, is the Devil’s Pulpit. This affords a breathtaking view across the valley and down to the abbey.
Visiting Tintern Abbey
- Tintern Abbey is managed by CADW. Entrance is free for members of CADW or English Heritage.
- At the time of writing (September 2020) tickets need to be booked in advance, and the interior of the church is closed for renovation work. Check the website for details.
- This is a very popular tourist destination. You may prefer to avoid the crowds by timing your visit for the beginning or end of the day and avoiding weekends and school holidays.
I visited Tintern Abbey as a guest of OverTheBridgeToWales.