Tintern Abbey is famous as the setting of a Romantic era poem by William Wordsworth. Today, the tranquil ruin in rural Wales is still just as romantic as ever.
Tinturn Abbey is a ruin, but in a way it’s the perfect fulfillment of religious architecture. In a typical Christian church — especially Catholic churches but also those of other denominations — the building itself is supposed to remind the visitor of God by, among other things, drawing the eye upward. The lines formed by massive columns, vaulted ceilings, and soaring stained glass function as arrows, reminding the devout of their place, and path, in the world.
But Tintern Abbey is different.
The building was constructed mostly in the 1200s. By the 1500s, however, the abbey had suffered financial setbacks and was in decline. Eventually it was surrendered to the English king, ending its life as a functional abbey. Finally, the local lord salvaged lead in its roof and people started renting the facility out to live in.
And so Tintern Abbey gradually fell into ruin.
Over the next few centuries, the ruin itself became an attraction and in the 1700s tourists began visiting. One of the highest profile visitors of that time was William Wordsworth — one of the greatest poets of the English language — who memorialized the area in verse. Here are the first few lines:
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.
The ruin is still there today and, though it’s probably a bit tidier than it was in Wordsworth’s day, it’s still spectacular.
It’s so spectacular, in fact that it takes the concept of religious architecture to its logical conclusion. Whereas a typical abbey or cathedral simulates divinity with vertical lines or Baroque illustrations, roof-less Tintern Abbey literally points to the heavens. Of all the churches I have visited, none is quite like it; the parts are all there, but instead of a stone ceiling it’s just blue sky forever — which seems like the whole point of religious architecture in the first place. It’s a building stripped naked and pointing toward infinity.
If you go: Tintern Abbey is located in Wales, about 130 miles west of London. As of this writing, there were regular trains departing for Wales from London’s Paddington Station. I highly recommend riding the train to the charming town of Chepstow (may require a transfer), then walking the remaining five miles to Tintern Abbey.
From there you can either make a loop and return to Chepstow, or continue further into the countryside. If you continue, St. Briavels Castle has been turned into a family-friendly hostel with atmospheric rooms and cheap meals.
Admission to Tintern Abbey is currently £6.00. Check the official website for hours and discounts.
— Jim Dalrymple II