After a most successful chat about podcasts and ghosts, my friend, fantastic Welsh storyteller Owen Statton, and I decided it was time for our first real-life meet up and a trip out to somewhere spooky, historical and folklorish.
But where to go? Between the south of Wales and Wiltshire, the choices are endless. And so, we decided, let’s meet on the borderlands.
If you’ve read some of my other blogs here you may remember I had a chat with Owen about all his ghostly experiences over the years. If you want to read it, click here. It’s always good to meet like-minded people in the world of folklore, ghosts and history and through this interest I have met some great new friends like Owen. We are fellow creators and many of us spend our time stuck behind a screen so it’s good to arrange to meet up sometimes and come up with little projects together.
Tintern Abbey, it was decided, is a suitably wonderful and weird place to visit, and it’s just about, by a cat’s whisker (actually by the width of the River Wye), in Wales. And so it was, on a rainy (well, it is in Wales) spring day in April, that we both met up at the fantastic abbey.
I took the ‘Old Banger’ (my newly purchased, but rather old and unimpressive car) out for its first proper long trip and I’m pleased to report that within two hours I arrived in another country, aka, Wales. It’s as you arrive in Tintern and round the corner that you see the ruins of this structure, so beautiful and ethereal. You may even say, ‘Ooooooooo,’ as I did. The massive gothic ruins loom in front of you. It was fairly early and thanks to the weather, it was very quiet. That’s what made it even more special.
Owen arrived minutes after me. It was great to see him in real life! Our day involved tea, cake and lots of interesting chatter. Of course, we started with a cuppa before heading off for a wander through the Abbey.
About Tintern Abbey
Breathtaking, Tintern Abbey is one of the gems of the Welsh/English borderlands. It is nestled in the depths of the Wye Valley, where the river winds its way through this beautiful area. The abbey lies on the Welsh side of the border, with the river marking the border between these two countries.
Back in the ancient times of the Britons, in the 6th century, Tewdrig the King of Glywysing, part of the Kingdom of Gwent, lived in the area as a hermit following his abdication from the throne. He was later recalled to lead his son’s army against the evil invading Saxons. Tewdrig died in battle. Whether he lived on the site of the Abbey is unsure.
Built as a Cistercian Monastery in 1131 (the time of Henry I), Tintern Abbey was the first foundation in Wales of this Catholic order of monks from France. It was a wealthy foundation and was large enough to have a large cruciform church, refectory, and chapter house, as well as a monk’s parlour, kitchen, sacristy and lay brother’s quarters. The monks would have been self-sufficient and due to the proximity of the River Wye, they would have been able to get plenty of extra goods delivered. By medieval standards, it was probably a pretty good life.
For 400 years, the monastery dominated the economy of the area, with local people employed by the monks on their land, working in agricultural roles.
Then along comes that most controversial of Kings, Henry VIII in the 1600s, and he ordered the end of this way of life for the monks by outlawing the Catholic faith and bringing about the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The monks left, and the building was stripped of assets. Life went on without a functioning abbey at Tintern. And so began a long period of decay.
Inspiring Poetry and Paintings
Let’s tumble forward in time to 13th July 1798. William Wordsworth, the famous Georgian English poet, took a tour, as gentlemen of the time were apt to do. A popular stop-off was the Wye Valley.
Wordsworth is known for his romantic poetry and most of us (even me, and I admit to knowing pretty much diddly squat about poetry) will have heard of some of Wordsworth’s work, I’m sure. Whilst he doesn’t specifically mention the Abbey in the following poem, it is about the complex historical, political and emotional associations the ruin had for people at the time. It’s a long poem, so here’s just a short snippet.
. . . And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. . . .
He came across the abbey at a time when it was covered in vines and ivy, nestled by trees. Imagine the ruins of this very old place, left to its own devices for many centuries, quietly decaying and returning to nature. The secrets of years gone by, long forgotten. By the time Wordsworth and other notable ‘men of that time’ visited Tintern Abbey, it had become one of the most visited ruinous sites in Britain. It was known as a Gothic masterpiece. Don’t forget though, most people back then were busy trying to earn a crust to put on the table and wouldn’t have had time or money for fanciful tours to historical sites here and abroad, so a grand tour was really for the well-off. Whilst a popular stop on one’s ‘tour’, Tintern still would have been quiet by today’s standards.
Have a look at these paintings by Turner and Edward Dayes. They really give you an idea of how wonderful the place must have been back in those Georgian times.
Edward Dayes, Tintern Abbey & the River Wye, 1794
Oh, to be able to time-travel and visit the Abbey in its most romantic of times, before it was ‘tidied up’ and striped of vegetation for visitors in these modern days. If I could time-travel and could choose a superpower to use on my travels, it would be invisibility. And to Tintern Abbey around 1794, I would go as part of my own grand tour!
Since 1984 it has been managed by Cadw and is a tourist attraction with around 70 000 visitors a year.
Paranormal events at Tintern Abbey
Like every good Medieval Abbey, Tintern has some tales of ghostly goings-on and folklore surrounding the area.
I’m going to pass you over to Owen for one of these stories. I suggest you go and grab a cuppa and settle down in your favourite armchair. Pull a blanket over your legs if it’s chilly and snuggle down. Listen to this tale of The Devil’s Pulpit.
The Lost Saxon Soldier
Back to 1895 we go for an account which can be found in Lord Halifax’s Ghost Book (1937). A contributor to the book sent in a story of a visit to Tintern Abbey as part of their cycling tour of the Wye Valley. They visited Tintern Abbey in the day and so awestruck were they that they decided to return later, as it was a moonlit night.
The writer’s wife was rather a talent at automatic writing. She had felt the urge, earlier in the day, to sit in the grounds of the abbey and let her gift take over her. So, she sat on an abbey stone and her hand began to tap. Her husband established a rapport with a spirit that his wife said was controlling her hand. Three taps for yes. Twice for no. The couple began to communicate with what they believed to be a spirit, with a long, drawn-out asking of yes and no for each letter of the alphabet. It eventually spelt out a whole story.
It transpired this entity was a Saxon soldier, killed fighting for the army of Henry II, back in the times before the Abbey had even been built. The spirit had been trying to communicate for many centuries with the living because he needed help. He had been buried without having Mass said for him in an unmarked grave on the site surrounding the abbey. He assured the couple if Mass was said for him, he could rest in peace.
The writer and his wife arranged with a local Catholic priest for him to say a repost for a long-dead person whose identity is still unknown on the following day. When returning at night, again by moonlight, they received a message of thanks from the spirit with more hand tapping. He asked for Mass to be said for him two more times and then he would be at peace forever. The Catholic priest took on this task, it was reported.
Nothing further seemed to happen until ten years later. Two ladies, who said they had psychic abilities, visited the abbey. Whilst holding a séance, a message was tapped out again, using rapping on the table. ‘Very many thanks’ came through and then ‘Very many thanks for the two Masses said.’ The ladies reported they could see in their mind’s eye a bearded middle-aged figure dressed in strange grey materialled clothing standing behind visitors in the abbey. Was this the Saxon soldier returning to give his thanks when he found some more living people he could communicate with?
The Guardian Knight of Tintern Abbey
A legend exists of a group of young men, again likely to have been on one of those ‘tours’ they seem so fond of in the 1700s or 1800s. While digging up the abbey ruins in the search of treasures, what the group actually unearthed were two skeletons along with other artefacts. They decided to stay on a while to celebrate and eat food alongside their finds. They were disrespectfully laughing at what they had done and as they talked about what the ancient monks would think of this, the sky darkened and clouds rolled in. The atmosphere became electric as a sudden storm rolled up the valley. The men became rather unnerved, particularly when a thick mist suddenly enveloped the abbey with a shining light coming from within. The noise of metal emanated from the mist and the young men, highly scared, still ventured forwards to investigate the light.
Ahead of them, moving out of the mist, stood a knight in chain mail armour, his visor raised. Behind him stood a group of hooded spectres of ghostly monks. The young men were so terrified they froze as the supernatural group moved towards them. The knight looked the men in the eye menacingly and raised his sword to point it towards the door of the abbey. The men turned on their heels and ran as fast as they could, followed by a whirling wind tunnel which picked up the remains of their feast before dumping it outside the abbey grounds. The men legged it and peace returned to Tintern Abbey. I’d like to think those young men learnt a good lesson in respect that day. And the lesson is, don’t dig up skeletons in the abbey.
Christmas Ghosts at Tintern
Are you ready for another video from Owen? This time he tells us a Christmas ghost story from Tintern Abbey. I know you will enjoy it!
The Ghostly Monks
There is a rumour of a ghostly white monk. Custodians of the abbey from the 1970s reported that they and some visitors had witnessed what they thought was a monk kneeling beside some steps just beyond an arched doorway. When anyone who thinks the monk may be hurt or unable to get up goes over to assist, they found there was no one there!
Is this the same monk thought to have been caught on camera by a young ghost investigator Rosie Boulton? Whilst the photo Rosie took is pretty convincing, when you first look at it, on further inspection, it is actually an illusion. Another intrepid ghost-hunting couple passed by the abbey one moonlit night and noticed, at a certain angle, as the light hit the wooden front door of the abbey, the shape of a white monk appeared. I had a look at this door. Even in daylight, it appears like some sort of water damage or erosion to the wood has caused some of the wood to lighten, in the vague shape of a ghostly monk-like figure. So, while I’ve included the photo for you to see, on this occasion, it doesn’t appear Rosie’s luck was in on the ghost-hunting front.
There is also mention of a procession of ghostly monks seen holding torches, walking towards the abbey in single file.
With all these reports of ghostly monks, I was keen to ask the owner of the ice cream shop we visited whether he had heard any local tales. Overhearing our question, a local carpenter chimed in. He said he had never experienced anything strange within the abbey grounds and he had spent three weeks camping out in the grounds while working there.
‘No,’ they told us, ‘the abbey is not haunted. But that church up there,’ and they pointed up the hillside, ‘well, that’s a different story.’
‘That’s a very spooky place and there are lots of rumours about it. When we were kids, we’d go up there. But we never stayed long.’
That church is the ruins of St Mary’s Church. Tucked away behind the trees stands the remains of this church, up on the side of the valley a short walk out of the village. Owen and I decided to walk up there and find out more.
Head over to my special Weirdos page on Ko-fi to read the story of the ruins of St Mary’s Church in Tintern, claimed by some to be the most haunted church in Wales.
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Stay spooky everyone!
Edward Dayes, Tintern Abbey & the River Wye, 1794
Haunted Wales by Peter Underwood
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