Tintern Abbey & Romantic Tourism in Wales


The Wye Tour

“The very principal light and capital feature of my journey was the river Wye, which I descended in a boat for near forty miles from Ross to Chepstow. Its banks are a succession of nameless beauties”
— Thomas Gray, letter to Dr. Wharton, May 24, 1771

The River Wye rises high in the Plynlinnon Hills and works its way over 150 miles to join the Severn estuary at Chepstow. It traverses mid-Wales and the Marches (an English term for the area along the border between England and Wales), shaping the old counties of Herefordshire, Monmouthshire and Gloucestershire. For part of its career, the Wye inscribes a rich, sinuous line between two nations.

Border territories have a distinctive and complex character. Their natural state of fluidity—heightened if the border is literally a river—is usually at odds with a desire for clear demarcation. The last (or first) 40 miles of the Wye is punctuated by the ruins of serious fortifications: Goodrich Castle, Raglan Castle, Monmouth Castle, Chepstow Castle. But the little hamlets of English Bicknor (Gloucestershire) and Welsh Bicknor (Monmouthshire), regard each other across the Wye with equanimity. Perhaps the echoes of past conflict make the shades seem greener.

The Wye Valley has been called the “birthplace of British tourism.” A number of factors converge in this cultural phenomenon. Its “discovery” in the late eighteenth century parallels the rise of the cult of the picturesque. Theorists such as William Gilpin and Uvedale Price taught a new appreciation for scenery that was wild, various, and uncultivated. Their treatises and guidebooks inspired travel to regions where untamed landscapes could be found, interestingly, at a time when many wild corners of England—heaths, moors, fens, commons—were disappearing under the rationalizing schemes of Enclosure. Added to this was a growing interest in antiquities (see “Memory Be as a Dwelling Place”: Romanticism & Ruins) and histories of the “ancient Britons”. Some historians feel the search for Britain's ancient past was prompted by nostalgia in the wake of the industrial revolution. Others see it as part of a patriotic invention of tradition. In the late 1790s excursions within Britain also increased as a result of England's war with France. Many potential “grand tourists” to the Continent became tourists of Wales or the Lake District or Scotland instead.

The Wye Valley became a tremendously popular destination. It offered English tourists a taste of a foreign country, but without the danger, uncertainty, and expense associated with traveling to wilder North Wales. Another attraction was the great variety of scenery in the Wye Valley, ranging from rich farmland and orchards to limestone gorges and sheltered valleys. Complimenting this was a full palette of historical association. Norman castles, iron-age fortifications, burial mounds, Cisterian abbeys, Druidic stones, Roman settlements, holy wells and sites linked to King Arthur are all present within a relatively small geographical area. In Historic and Descriptive Accounts of the Ancient and Present State of Tintern Abbey Charles Heath explains how monuments and archeological sites work alternately with landscape upon the viewer. The “pleasure which results from historic reflection...the thinking faculties, aroused and called into action will... be relieved, by these pastoral scenes, which are so peculiarly calculated to attune or compose the mind.” In other words, the Wye tour offers a blend of mental activity and repose that makes for a perfect vacation.

In the lower Wye Valley the river is at once rambling and determined, like the conversation of an old philosopher. The 40 miles of scenery between Ross and Chepstow anthologizes much of what is most lovely in the area. In 1771 the poet Thomas Gray described his river journey as a “succession of nameless beauties”. What was “nameless” for an English audience in the 1770s would give way to a common language of appreciation in a little more than a decade.

Getting to a spot like Tintern Abbey, one of the highlights of the Wye tour, required considerable effort. Although (only) 23 miles from the city of Bristol and 40 from the resort of Bath—the 147 miles from London was another matter—the journey could be challenging. The Severn estuary has its own broody relationship with the weather and the environs of Tintern are rugged. Even today the roads seem to translate contour and grade straight through the body. Although the dross from local iron manufacture was used in repairing the roads, tourists claim to have ridden over them in fear.

If the road to Tintern from Chepstow was poor, the approach from Monmouth seems to have been worse. It was not suitable for carriages and was challenging even on horseback. The “good” turnpike road from Monmouth to Lower Redbrook (a stretch of approximately four miles) petered out about seven and a half miles from Tintern, leaving travelers to cobble together a route for the remaining distance. Directions in guidebooks often include the specific point at which travelers should ask the locals for directions. Voluntary pedestrians—what Anne Wallace in Walking, Literature and English Culture calls “excursionary” walkers—approaching from the north arguably had the happiest lot. “The distance [from Monmouth] to Tintern, which is only ten miles, divests it of toil”, Charles Heath robustly observes, “while the path (to use a poetical expression), presents a carpet of Nature's velvet nearly the whole of the way”.6 William and Dorothy Wordsworth walked this velvety path twice in July, 1798.

A water journey to Tintern Abbey was less taxing for passengers than land-travel, although not free entirely from danger or discomfort. Recreational excursions on the Wye were taking place by the 1740s, instituted by the hospitable Rev. Dr. John Egerton of Ross (later Bishop of Durham), the so-called “father of the Wye voyage”. In 1745 Egerton “caused a pleasure boat to be built to enable his guests to enjoy excursions by water amid scenery which could not fail to delight and surprise”.7 The rental and provisioning of manned boats effectively became one of the earliest organized tourist industries in the area. William Gilpin travelled in this manner during the fortnight-long 1770 tour that resulted in his influential Observations on the River Wye. Thomas Gray ranked his descent of the Wye from Ross to Chepstow as the “very principal light, and capital feature of my journey”.8 By the end of the century, tourist directories advise that these boats, “lightly constructed, which are used with or without sail, and navigated by three men” were kept in “constant readiness” for tourists at Ross-on-Wye.9

In 1796 the charge for a trip from Ross-on-Wye down to Chepstow at the mouth of the Severn was three guineas, plus provisioning for the boatmen; from Ross to Monmouth the fee was one and a half guineas.10 One could also hire a boat at Chepstow to go upriver to Tintern, which seems to have been popular for moonlit excursions to the Abbey. It is easy to see signs of the increasing commercialization and competition within this seasonable industry. Until the end of the eighteenth century the boats appear to have been quite simple — “small, but filled up with no less convenience than neatness”, or “a good covered boat, well stored with provisions” are typical descriptions.11 By the late 1830s, however, the vessels had become like “a small floating parlour”, made commodious with sunshades, cushioned seats, and a table.12

At Ross “the Wye is a good little river, without vices or virtues”, as one traveler described.13 After engaging a boat, tourists would descend past Goodrich Castle situated on the English or Herefordshire side. Later, in the gorge near Coldwell Rocks, it was common to halt for a climb to take in the view from Symonds Yat, while the rowers brought the boat the long way round. This is the one section of the river that has commercial tour boats still operating.

Afterwards, the current moving more quickly now, travelers would pass Raglan Castle, destroyed in the Civil War, and land at the substantial market town of Monmouth. On the edge of Monmouth is a panoramic look-out from the Kymin, a Georgian, mock-gothic banqueting house. Roughly ten miles further down-river from Monmouth is Tintern, where the Wye is tidal and its character more capricious. Twice a day, Tennyson reflects in In Memoriam, “the salt sea water passes by,/ And hushes half the babbling Wye,/And makes a silence in the hills”.

Charles Heath warns in his guide that “the Boat being obliged to descend with the Tide to Chepstow, two hours is the utmost time possible that can be allowed the company for visiting the Abbey”. Two hours is scant time for a tour of the interior and a census of famous viewpoints, including the Abbey from the Gloucestershire side of the Wye and from the Devil's Pulpit, a rocky outcrop roughly 3 miles away. Between Tintern and Chepstow the river widens and quickens again in its run towards the Severn. The rich farmland of the Lancaut peninsula, with its little dreaming ruined chapel, contrasts the precipitous rocks and hanging forests at Wyndcliff. The Upper and Lower Wyndcliff viewpoints were once part of the grounds of the Piercefield estate, owned by Valentine Morris. Past Wyndcliff, the sterner limestone cliffs foreshadow the fortifications of Chepstow Castle. These scenic stations are also explored in the digital slideshow of Alex McKay's work.

“Such ruins! such rocks! such banks! such trees!” enthused Catherine Sinclair; “It seemed, while we sat still in the boat, as if some skillful scene-shifter were perpetually drawing his invisible wires, and producing a fresh effect”.14 Enchanting Ruin traces this translation of place into spectacle.

image of page from the Traveller's Companion
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Thomas Gray
Traveller's Companion, in a Tour Through England and Wales; Containing a Catalogue of the Antiquities, Houses, Parks, Plantations, Scenes, and Situations, in England and Wales, Arranged According to the Alphabetical Order of the Several Counties; by the Late Mr. Gray
London: G. Kearsley, c.1800

Gray visited the Wye Valley between July and August 1770 as part of a tour of five western counties. He travelled with his friend the Rev. Norton Nicholls, who recorded Gray's pleasure in scenery, dislike of society and loving knowledge of Gothic architecture.15 Gray was in declining health and wrote no narrative himself of the tour, but is said to have kept Norton's journal in his possession.16

The Traveller's Companion began as a manuscript catalogue of the significant “Scenes, Situations, Seats, and Antiquities” in each country, written by Gray on blank leaves in a copy of Kitchen's English Atlas. This DIY itinerary anticipates the flood of guidebooks to follow. Gray's notes represent a compendium of the poet's interest in natural and antiquarian sites and a distillation of his successive summer tours. Here is Britain filtered through the sensibility of “the elegant Author of the Church-yard Elegy”, as he is later styled.17

After Gray's death, William Mason arranged for a private printing of 100 copies of Gray's manuscript as A Catalogue of the Antiquities, Houses, Parks, Plantations, Scenes, and Situations, in England and Wales (1773). An expanded edition with additions by Horace Walpole was published in 1777. It became the pocket-sized Traveller's Companion in 1799. This volume is the second edition.

image of page from Observations on the River Wye
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William Gilpin
Observations on the River Wye, and Several Parts of South Wales, &c, Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; Made in the Summer of the Year 1770
London: R. Blamire, 1792

William Gilpin, clergyman, author, artist, and educator, was one of the most influential proponents of the picturesque movement. Gilpin defined the picturesque as "a term expressive of that peculiar kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture.”18 Qualities such as roughness, variety, and contrast in a natural scene would, he argued, translate into the most effective or interesting landscape compositions. Gilpin's many treatises and tours were designed to train viewers in this mode of appraisal and appreciation. The object of Observations on the River Wye is the new scheme of “examining the face of a country, by the rule of picturesque beauty: opening the sources of those pleasures...immediately from the scenes of nature as they arise”.19

Observations, published in 1783 (although the titlepage of the first edition bears the date 1782) was the most influential guidebook of the period, running to five editions before the end of the century.20The work is often crediting with initiating the fashion for picturesque travel. Even William and Dorothy Wordsworth took a copy along on the excursion that produced the 1798 “Lines, Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey"...”

Gilpin's original tour was undertaken in 1770, the same summer that Thomas Gray experienced the Wye Valley's “succession of nameless beauties”. Gray read Gilpin's work in manuscript during the last months of his life and encouraged its publication. Although Observations circulated for years in manuscript with Gilpin's accomplished (he says “hasty”) monochrome pen and wash sketches, difficulties over reproducing the illustrations slowed its publication. The fifteen plates in the first edition combined etching with Paul Sandby's newly developed process of aquatint. Subsequent editions—the volume here is a third edition—feature plates by Francis Jukes executed solely in aquatint.21

In Observations the situation and state of the Abbey is evaluated according to Gilpin's principles of the picturesque. The valley with its “woods, and glades intermixed; the winding of the river; the variety of the ground; the splendid ruin, contrasted with the objects of nature; and the elegant line formed by the summits of the hills...make all together a very inchanting [sic] piece of scenery”. If Gilpin has any quibble with the exterior—beyond the “shabby houses” that mar the view from the river—it is that from the outside the ruin is, well, not quite ruinous enough: “a number of gabel[sic]-ends hurt the eye with their regularity; and disgust it by the vulgarity of their shape. A mallet judiciously used (but who durst use it?) Might be of service in fracturing some of them; particularly those of the cross isles, which are not only disagreeable in themselves, but confound the perspective”.

image of page from Heath's Historical and Descriptive Accounts of ... Tintern Abbey Charles Heath
“Objects as they successively occur in the voyage from Monmouth to Tintern Abbey.” Reproduced from Historical and Descriptive Accounts of the Ancient and Present State of Tintern Abbey
Monmouth: Charles Heath, 1803
image of page from Paterson&039;s Roads
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Edward Mogg
“Banks of the Wye.” Reproduced from Paterson's Roads; Being an Entirely Original and Accurate Description of All the Direct and Principal Cross Roads in England and Wales, with Part of the Roads of Scotland. Appendix by Edward Mogg
London: printed for C.J.G. and F. Rivington, etc., c. 1829
image of page from Heath's Historical and Descriptive Accounts of ... Tintern Abbey Charles Heath
“Names of the different Woods as they successively occur on the Banks of the Wye between Monmouth and Chepstow.” Reproduced from Historical and Descriptive Accounts of the Ancient and Present State of Tintern Abbey
Monmouth: Charles Heath, 1803
image of page from Twelve Views on the River Wye J. Newman, engraver
"Raglan Castle, Monmouthshire." From Twelve Views on the River Wye
London: Newman and Co., 18--

Raglan Castle, eight miles from Monmouth, was built by the Earls of Worcester and destroyed in the English Civil War. Or, as Gilpin more poetically phrases, “Cromwell laid his iron hand upon it, and shivered it into ruins”. Raglan Castle was owned in the late eighteenth century by the Duke of Beaufort, whose residence Troy House was nearby. This engraved view takes in the Keep and Moat.

image of page from the Penny Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge
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"The Wye." From Penny Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. No. 219. July 31st -August, 31st, 1835.
Pp. 337-344

This account of the Wye tour in the Penny Magazine is in many ways a book-end to Thomas Gray's earlier volume. Gray's itinerary belongs to the decade of the tour's invention and definition while this article, published six decades later, testifies to how mainstream—even canonical—travel to the region had become. By 1835, Gray himself was part of the tour's history. “It may almost be said that the last happy moments Gray knew in this world were spent upon the Wye; for a few months after we find him a prey to ill health and despondence, complaining of an incurable cough, of the irksomeness of his employment at Cambridge, and of "mechanical low spirits," and he died in the course of the following summer”. The article also claims that the publication of Gray's correspondence probably attracted more tourists to the Wye than Gilpin's book.

While the Traveller's Companion circulated first in a limited way, as a manuscript copied out by Gray's friends, the Penny Magazine was a robustly populist publication. With an unprecedented circulation of 200,000, historians regard the Penny Magazine as “perhaps the single most important pioneering venture into the field of illustrated periodical publication”.22

image of photographic print Alex McKay.
Three Views on the River Wye with Chepstow and the Severn in the Distance, from the Upper Wyndcliff. Glicee print 2005.
Loaned by the artist.

Between Tintern and Chepstow was a picturesque vantage point known as the Wyndcliff. The Duke of Beaufort built a small way-station called Moss Cottage near Lower Wyndcliff, not far from where visitors ascended (or descended) the 365 steps to a higher station called Upper Wyndcliff. In the 19th century a viewing platform known as the Eagle's Nest was constructed.

Thomas Roscoe in Wanderings and Excursions in South Wales (“Vagrant Dwellers”: Tours and Excursions) described the view from the Eagle's Nest as “one of the most extensive and beautiful..that can be imagined....a vast group of views of distinct and opposite character here seem to blend and unite in one...In the valley, the eye follows for several miles the course of the Wye; which issues from a wooded glen on the left hand, curves round a green garden-like peninsula, rising into a hill studded with beautiful clumps of trees, then forces its foaming way to the right, along a huge wall of rock, nearly as high as the point where you stand, and at length, beyond Chepstow Castle, which looks like a ruined city, empties itself into the Bristol Channel, where ocean closes the dim and misty distance”.23

This triptych by Alex McKay juxtaposes an image of the view taken through a Claude mirror (an optical device popular with Romantic-era travelers, “An Eye Made Quiet”: The Claude Mirror & the Picturesque) with an early nineteenth century engraved illustration. Three Views on the River Wye is in part visual time-travel, asking whether a Claude mirror was used in creating the nineteenth century image. It is also a reverie about the historical interventions that shape how we respond to landscape now.