Wednesday, 9 November 2016

In search of monastic granges

The sandstone of Tintern's abbey church: 'purple through mauve and buff to grey’ under a glowering November sky. 

Over the last couple of days I have been out and about in the exceptional Autumnal light, ranging across the Anglo-Welsh borderland of Monmouthshire, the lower Wye Valley and the Forest of Dean. A coming together place: Arthur Machen's 'wonderful and enchanting country' converging with 'the very rim of England, the wooded border country along the valley of the Wye' hailed in Roger Deakin's Wildwood.

Tintern Abbey, the second of my PhD case studies, managed a dozen or so monastic granges in the area, its agricultural hinterland. A grange (from the Latin granum meaning 'grain') was a medieval farm or small estate directly run by a Cistercian abbey with a workforce of lay brothers, or conversi. Such enterprises were the model farms of the age, drivers of innovation in sheep farming, arable production, long-distance trade. With the success of the grange system the 'white monks' of Cistercian houses were inexorably moving away from their high-minded and austere religious beginnings 'far from the concourse of men'.  

Trellech Grange in its rolling landscape setting above the Wye Valley.

Many of Tintern's farms are still imprinted on the landscape, 600 years later: Ashwell Grange, Harthill Grange, Lower Grange, New Grange, Rogerstone Grange, Upper Grange, and Woolaston Grange; some as small hamlets, others individual farms - their lands now shrunken but still echoing monastic estate activity. Here a blend of old and new: the earthworks, ruins and reconstructed buildings of chapels, mills and barns; ancient tracks, paths and boundary banks; coppiced woodlands, quarries and early iron workings; alongside farm equipment and concrete cattle sheds, Farrow and Ball renovations and bungalows, and the trappings of the modern horse and pony economy. 

The object now is to get to know the lay of the land of these granges, to determine which to subject to a more fine-grained analysis of their landscape history over the next few months.  

Looking down on Upper Grange (formerly Tintern's grange of Merthyrgeryn) from its higher fields, the pastoral scene in the foreground framed by a horizon incorporating Magor motorway service station, wind-turbines and the chimneys of Magor brewery.

The rich soils along the River Usk exploited by Pethlenny grange (now Estavarney farm).

The 'monks house' in Brockweir, part of Tintern's grange in the Gloucestershire hamlet across the River Wye from the abbey.

Penterry church, standing within the lands of the grange of Secular Firmary; its name an echo of an infirmary run by the abbey for the local population.

Cobbled track leading from the Wye ferry slipway opposite the abbey to its Gloucestershire granges.

Tintern Abbey enfolded by the wooded slopes of the Wye Valley. 

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