Tintern Abbey Field Trip: Tourism, Heritage and Romantic Perspectives
Lucy Summers, one of our MALLE students, gives her impression of a day-long field trip to Tintern Abbey, as part of our Research: Methods, Resources, Dissemination core module.
On November 6th the MALLE students had the opportunity to visit Tintern Abbey in Gwent. The Abbey holds a lot of history, as anything founded in 1131 would. This history is intertwined with cultural, social and literary changes which affected the Abbey for better and for worse. Originally built to house Cistercian Monks by Walter de Clare, the Abbey was one of the victims of King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries some 400 years later. From then until the late eighteenth century, parts of the Abbey were stolen, sold, chipped away and lived in. However, the late eighteenth century is where literary traditions came to the rescue and saved (what was left of) the ruin. It was at this time that it became fashionable to visit wilder parts of the country, such as the Wye Valley where the Abbey is situated. Thanks to its ‘romantic’ appeal and ivy covered walls, as well as its mention in Reverend William Gilpin’s ‘Observation on the River Wye’ in 1782, the Abbey was flooded with tourists. Wordsworth also joined the throng, increasing the number of visitors the Abbey received. This aided the Abbey’s purchase by the crown in 1901 when it was recognised as a monument of national importance, leading to repair work being carried out. Now a Grade I listed building, the Abbey still attracts tourists today.
Having driven in from Bath our first view of Tintern Abbey came from the A466, a road which cuts through the Wye Valley, giving you a magnificent view of the Abbey as you turn a corner towards the village of Tintern. Although a stunning sight, it was hard to forget that the view we in the 21st Cenutry have of Tintern Abbey is exceptionally different to that of the 18th Century writers we were studying, not just because of some 220 years difference, but also because of the way we had travelled to see the Abbey. As a modern day tourist it is very difficult to overlook these cultural appropriations of the Abbey. Nevertheless, that is exactly what we were asked to do upon arrival.
Looking around the Abbey at first with no cameras, note taking, or sign reading, went against everything touristy in us, but we managed it. We were told to just look, to forget the romantic view and the reasons the ruin is a ruin. We all came away with very different experiences which we shared. I, personally, was attempting to picture the ruin as it would have been in all its glory, with colourful stain glass windows, a red carpet instead of grass, pews lining the aisle and hundreds of people filling the space. I also wanted to climb on the ruins but I was pretty sure that wasn’t allowed given the Abbeys status as a listed building. Missy, our American student, came away thinking about how the ruin would be very different in America. I believe her words were, ‘We would have torn it down, built a hotel that looked like it and named it Tintern Abbey Hotel.’
On our second journey around the Abbey, we were allowed to give in to our urges and take photos, notes, draw pictures and talk to each other about what we thought. The scale of the building itself was remarkably impressive. As Kersten pointed out, the architecture of the Abbey is encouraging you to look up. No doubt when the building was at its finest, you would have seen an ornately decorated roof, but now all you see is the vast expanse which is the sky, in some ways a far more humbling experience. No one on the trip knew more about Tintern Abbey than MA student Crosby (except maybe our tutor, Sue). It was very interesting to hear from Crosby how the Abbey was actually inhabited even in its ruined state in the 18th Century, something Gilpin comments on in his observations. What amazed Gilpin was not just that people were living there, but also that they knew about the history and function of the building. I believe one lady vagrant even gave him a tour! As literature students, throughout the day we were thinking about the implications of Gilpin’s and Wordsworth’s writings about the Abbey. ‘Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey’ is actually quite a problematic poem in this respect, as Wordsworth does not actually mention the Abbey apart from in the title. He appears to use it more as a topographical reference point to tell his readers roughly where he is situated, rather than to make a comment on the ruins themselves.
One thing which really struck me about the Abbey was the fact that it is a ruin. I know this is a very obvious point to make, but the fact is, it is a ruin: a preserved ruin. I was also very struck by the fact that the reason the Abbey is a ruin did not seem to be mentioned. We are descendants of the people who allowed this and many other buildings like it to be destroyed. The pieces of façade that were not pilfered are laid out for visitors to see like dead bodies in a warzone hospital after a disaster. Tourists stare in revered silence at the grandeur of a building we attempted to demolish, still standing in defiance. In my eyes, the romanticised eighteenth century view of the ivy clad Abbey is not one which survives today. Tintern Abbey is beautiful; it is majestic and it is striking. It is not just the subject of some paintings and poems from the eighteenth century. It is part of our history and reflects the changes in our past. It should serve as a physical reminder of what people went through during the centuries it has been standing. I hope that people who visit the Abbey now are more culturally aware than ever before and realise, yes, we saved what was left of the Abbey, but it was us who only left part of it to save.