Tintern Abbey

21 July, 2018

I am not on my terrace now but am spending some time on the border of England and Wales once more. Yesterday I visited Tintern Abbey.  If you look, you’ll find it on Google.

But visiting it on Google is much too easy. You must go there. Close your computer for the day! Making the effort to get out and see places is always worthwhile. You will find Tintern just north of  Chepstow and south of Monmouth.  It is on the west bank of the River Wye, a river which marks the boundary between England and Wales. The abbey is ‘a young bird’s flutter’ from England, as Keats would have said. The old ruins are fine and the hills and woods that surround them are finer still for the monks always took great care when they chose where to live and work.  Location, location, location was their slogan even then. The Wye is one of the most beautiful rivers in Britain, and that is high praise because fine rivers are part of the way of life in these islands.  I pity any country that has no beautiful river.   

There was a picture of Tintern Abbey in Fanny’s room in Jane Austen’s underrated novel ‘Mansfield Park’.  It was the old family school room. Poor Fanny had fitted it up as her little retreat and she took refuge there whenever her cousins or aunt were unkind.  Unhappy Fanny!  How much she had to endure.  Still, she received her reward at the end though I think she deserved more.

Wordsworth wrote his poem just upstream on the way to the fine, old town of Monmouth. The title is “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798.”  He was then in his late twenties and was still responsive to the power and beauty of the mountains, fields and rivers. The poem is usually called ‘Tintern Abbey’ but as the full title says, it was not written at the Abbey at all but a few miles upstream. In fact, the poem does not mention Tintern Abbey once, but Wordsworth’s poems are still sold in the Abbey shop among the tea towels and coasters.

The same commercialism holds sway in Valldemossa, a village in the hills above Palma. The novelist George Sand and the composer Chopin spent the winter there in 1839, and George Sand, whose real name was Baroness Aurore de Dudevant, wrote a book about their stay. In the account she has many hard things to say about the local villagers but that doesn’t stop their descendants from making money today by selling the book in all the souvenir shops in Valldemossa! I suppose they have now had the last laugh!

It is strange to think that Wordsworth’s poem, a statement of romanticism, was actually written before Jane Austen’s ‘Mansfield Park’ which belongs in spirit to the enlightenment of the previous century.  There was just about as much romanticism in Jane Austen as in a railway timetable.   But then she had so many other strengths.

Why did Fanny Price have a picture of Tintern in her room? Why did Wordsworth visit it? Turner went there too and his watercolour of Tintern Abbey was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1794. Why did he go?

They were the first ‘tourists’ for tourism began on the River Wye. People flocked to the river and to Tintern in search of the picturesque. Even Wordsworth’s title talks of a “tour”.  From about 1770 onwards ‘tourists’, for we can now call them that, took a boat tour from Ross-on-Wye past Tintern and down the river to Chepstow.  They saw the cliffs and the woods, the rocks and the ruins from the water. The tour became the thing to do. William Gilpin published a book about the journey in 1782. He wrote, ‘If you have never navigated the Wye, you have seen nothing.” In marketing, then, as now, it paid to overstate your case in order to make it!

So, in the so-called ‘Age of Reason’ we have the Romantic tour down the Wye. Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’ came before Jane Austen’s ‘Mansfield Park’. At any time there is an overlap of ideas, a mixture: one person can have a little of each, another can be out of kilter with their time, one person thinks as people did years before, another as people will think years ahead, and nothing is simple. There is no black and white.  It’s not a case of classicism out at the turn of the century and romanticism in.  Then as now there was a wide river of trends and tendencies, all as mixed and mingled as the River Wye as it flows past Tintern.

So go to see Tintern Abbey if you can.  Take a photo in a split second of what Turner took days to paint! Breathe in the spirit of the river as Wordsworth breathed it and see the scene that Fanny had on the wall of her room. Leave the stifling shops of Cardiff!  Leave the crowded shopping malls of Bristol and walk under the trees of the River Wye and among the stones of the ruins of Tintern. Walk over the old metal railway bridge to the far bank and look at the Abbey from there. Then walk back for a cup of tea in the café near the Abbey ruins and have a scone or two and some Brooke’s ice cream, the finest ice cream in the Wye Valley. The cows that give the milk graze on the hills behind you.

The Tintern air will clear your head and wash your mind as it no doubt did years ago for the monks who chose that spot to spend their lives in.