The Wye Valley, along with the rest of Monmouthshire, was finally recognized as part of Wales in the local government reorganization of 1974. Before then, the county was officially included as part of neither England nor Wales, so that maps were frequently headlined “Wales and Monmouthshire”. Most of the rest of Monmouthshire is undoubtedly Welsh, but the woodlands and hills by the meandering River Wye have more in common with the landscape over the border. The two main centres are Chepstow, with its massive castle, and the spruce, old-fashioned town of Monmouth, sixteen miles upstream. Six miles north of Chepstow lie the atmospheric ruins of the Cistercian Tintern Abbey.
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Tintern AbbeyTintern Abbey has inspired writers and painters for more than two centuries – Wordsworth and Turner among them. Such is its popularity, however, that it’s best to go out of season or at either end of the day to avoid the crowds. The abbey was founded in 1131 by Cistercian monks from Normandy, though most of the remaining buildings date from the massive rebuilding and expansion of the fourteenth century, when Tintern was at its mightiest. Its survival after the Dissolution is largely due to its remoteness, as there were no nearby villages ready to use the abbey stone for rebuilding.
The centrepiece of the complex is the magnificent Gothic church, whose remarkable tracery and intricate stonework remain intact. Around the church are the less substantial ruins of the monks’ domestic quarters and cloister, mostly reduced to one-storey rubble. The course of the abbey’s waste-disposal system can be seen in the Great Drain, an irregular channel that links kitchens, toilets and the infirmary with the nearby Wye. The Novices’ Hall lies handily close to the Warming House, which together with the kitchen and infirmary would have been the abbey’s only heated areas, suggesting that novices might have gained a falsely favourable impression of monastic life before taking their final vows.
The Three Castles
The Three Castles
The fertile, low-lying land between the Monnow and Usk rivers was important for easy access into the agricultural lands of South Wales, and in the eleventh century the Norman invaders built a trio of strongholds here to protect their interests. In 1201, Skenfrith, Grosmont and White castles were presented by King John to Hubert de Burgh, who employed sophisticated new ideas on castle design to replace the earlier, square-keeped structures. In 1260, the advancing army of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd began to threaten the king’s supremacy in South Wales, and the three castles were refortified in readiness. Gradually, the castles were adapted as living quarters and royal administration centres, and the only return to military usage came in 1404–05, when Owain Glyndŵr’s army pressed down to Grosmont, only to be defeated by the future King Henry V. The castles slipped into disrepair and were finally sold separately in 1902, the first time since 1138 that the three had fallen out of single ownership.