Friday, 13 January 2017

PhD Research Paper #4: A diversity of words and images - topographers and antiquarians, artists and writers at Llanthony and the Vale of Ewyas

From time to time I will post 'bite size' chunks of the material I am preparing for my PhD thesis: works in progress, but content which I feel may be of interest to a wider audience. All will be very much draft versions, not necessarily - probably not - reflecting the final wording that will eventually appear in the Thesis. In-text references are included but a full bibliography is not. This paper is based on a section of the case study on Llanthony Priory in the Black Mountains, Monmouthshire. 

‘Llanthony Abbey’ by David Cox, 1838.

Written references to Llanthony and the Vale of Ewyas in the post-medieval and early modern period are sparse; even topographical writers of the time did not usually specifically refer to the wider landscape (Lancaster 2008, 11). John Leland made very brief mention in his 1540 Itinerary (in a paragraph on Llanthony Secunda): ‘Nant Honddye (Llanthonddye – Llan nant Hondy) a priori of blake charms … this priori was fair, and stoode betwixt ii great hills’ (Chandler 1993, 176; Roberts 1846, 233). Michael Drayton’s epic topographical poem of 1612, Polyolbion, included a verse on the valley which begins: ‘Mongst Hatterills loftie hills, that with the clouds are crowne’d, the valley Ewias lies, immers’d so deep and round …’ (Drayton 2001).

It was as new tastes for the ‘sublime’ and ‘picturesque’ in landscapes and places of history, particularly in wild and remote setting, began to take hold in the later eighteenth century that the priory became a subject of particular interest. Uvedale Price, author of the influential treatise Essays on the Picturesque, as Compared With the Sublime and the Beautiful of 1794 owned Foxley, one of the priory’s Herefordshire estates, where he created a landscaped park in line with his views on the picturesque (Pavard 2016, 80). William Gilpin (2005, 52) visited Llanthony during his influential tour of the Wye and South Wales in 1770 and observed:

‘Dugdale describes it, in his Monasticon, as a scene richly adorned with wood. But Dugdale lived a century ago: which is a term that will produce or destroy the finest scenery. It has had the latter effect here, for the woods about Llanthony Priory are now totally destroyed; and the ruin is wholly naked and desolate.’

A somewhat bleak scene which pre-dated poet-squire Walter Savage Landor’s major tree-planting programme during his brief but colourful period of lordship of Llanthony (discussed in detail in a future post). In the wake of Gilpin and the Romantics that followed, Llanthony, like other medieval monasteries in dramatic locations, received a steady stream of visitors who were inspired to record their reactions to the place. Indeed there is a vast and diverse corpus of images and words centred on the priory ruins and the surrounding landscape. 

Henry Penruddocke Wyndham, a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, toured Wales in the 1770s and produced the first published account of a tour which included Llanthony (Buck 2016, 6). Architects and antiquarians such as Joseph Parker and Richard Colt Hoare were also regular visitors, studying and recording the ruins in a more analytical and scholarly way (Gibbs 2016b). Colt Hoare, who later witnessed the windows of the western frontage collapsing, visited with Archdeacon Coxe whose poor impression of the state of the roads as he journeyed through the valley has already been quoted. To him the priory ruins derived ‘a particular beauty from their situation in the Vale of Ewias, which unites dreariness and fertility, and is well adapted to monastic solitude’, though he bemoaned their ‘hastening to decay’ (Coxe 1801, 212). Other early nineteenth century visitors were wont to provide more dramatic and exaggerated descriptions of the topography they encountered. Commentating on the Honddu John Beaumont (1803, 314-5) exclaims ‘at an immense depth beneath (the road) the torrent is seen raging’, whilst the hamlet of Cwmyoy was ‘fearfully hanging on a cliff, and beneath a menacing hill.’

‘Llanthony Abbey, Cwmyoy, Monmouthshire’ by JMW Turner, 1794 (Source: Tate Museum,

The late eighteenth and nineteenth century saw a proliferation of paintings and engravings of the priory and its environs. Whilst the wider landscape setting is often somewhat impressionistic, with the hillsides particularly exaggerated, such images not only confirm Llanthony as a key subject within the proliferation of landscape art but also provide some interesting topographical detail. One of the most famous images is by JMW Turner, a prolific chronicler of the historic monuments of the day. His view of the priory (which may have helped to proliferate the use of ‘Abbey’ rather than priory as an appellation) shows the surrounding hills higher and more precipitous than in reality, with a similarly romanticised river scene in the foreground and the priory flooded with ‘heavenly light’ (Sinclair 2001, 142). Commenting on the showing of the painting as part of the Tate Museum Ruin Lust exhibition (March 2014), Iain Sinclair described it as ‘fraudulent’ in its interpretation of the hills and the ‘cataracts’ of the river; an image made for the tourist, the equivalent of modern ‘ruin porn’ (Radio 4 Front Row, 03/03/14). Interestingly, also clearly represented is the still now extant curvilinear enclosure on Loxidge Tump above the ruins, which may originate as a medieval sheep corral operated by the priory as discussed in the previous chapter.

‘Llanthony Abbey’ by Virtue, date unknown.

Although it is rare for such images to focus on anything but the priory ruins themselves, it is interesting to study the landscape backdrop. Often quite generic but sometimes able to illustrate something of the landscape of the time. In Virtue’s painting the enclosed pasture, mountain wall and the nant farmstead of Troed-rhiw-mon can clearly be seen on the opposite side of the valley. A more open, neatly hedged fieldscape is observed in Edward Hayes’ picture of 1800, whilst the priory is often very much part of an agricultural scene with sheep and cattle grazing around the ruins.

‘Llanthony Abbey’ by Edward Dayes, 1800 (Source: National Library of Wales,

The very act of touristic visits to historic sites such as Llanthony was already beginning to become a subject of comment and friction as the century progressed.  The Reverend Francis Kilvert, curate of Clyro just to the north of Hay-on-Wye in Radnorshire in the 1860s chronicled Victorian country life in the south Herefordshire border district through his diaries. He provided a memorable account of a visit to the priory in which, although praising the peaceful situation of the ruins themselves, he also makes clear his distaste for a certain type of Victorian tourist: ‘What was our horror on entering the (priory) enclosure to see two tourists with staves and shoulder belts all complete, postured among the ruins in an attitude of admiration, one of them of course, discoursing learnedly to his gaping companion and pointing out objects of interest with his stick. If there is one thing more hateful than another it is being told what to admire and having objects pointed out to one with a stick. Of all noxious animals too, the most noxious is the tourist. And of all tourists the most vulgar, ill-bred, offensive and loathsome is the British tourist’ (Barber 2003, 107). Kilvert also makes reference to William Wordsworth and either his sister Dorothy or daughter Dora visiting Llanthony, in walks from Llyswen in Brecknockshire via the Gospel Pass. Wordsworth was a regular visitor to Herefordshire though no account of a visit to Llanthony has been found (Barber 2003, 101). This sense of exclusivity is also taken up by ‘The Insect Hunter’ (1838): ‘Llanthony is one of those speaking monuments of the olden time … Luckily this beautiful spot has no road approaching it sufficiently macadamised to admit the passage of the luxurious vehicle of the opulent ruin hunter... it is not therefore and never can be the range of the tourist.’

Arthur Bradley was a prolific writer on Wales and the Marches and his description of an exploration of the Vale of Ewyas provides a good example of the more sober and rational view of the landscape observable in the Edwardian era. He mocks the over-egged dramatic descriptions of earlier visitors: perhaps they had never been out of the city and suffered from ‘nervous delusions’. For instance, an 1813 account (writer not recorded) that exclaimed ‘infinitely grand, awful, and horrific, are the convulsions in the Vale of Ewyas’ (Bradley 1911, 89). Bradley (1911, 95) also had sharp words for Father Ignatius’ foundation of ‘New Llanthony’ at Capel-y-ffin, which he felt could not hope to approach the majesty of the original priory: ‘nor do recent erections in the inner-most sanctuaries of nature appeal to me, however, faithfully they may attempt to adhere to the models of ancient times.’ Commenting on the confusion that the new foundation had caused in the public mind by appropriating the name of the priory he noted: ‘one of the most beautiful of monastic ruins, having due regard to its unique situation, in the whole island has been quite obscured in the public mind’ (Bradley 1911, 96).

Ignatius was followed as resident of the new monastery at Capel-y-ffin by an equally controversial figure in Eric Gill, who set up an artistic and religious community there in the 1920s: an ‘experiment in communal living’ (Sinclair 2001, 211). Gill, sculptor, typeface designer, printmaker and unorthodox Catholic was taken by ‘the awesome power of the valley that has attracted people on spiritual pilgrimage for almost a millennium.’ A suitably remote place to set up a Christian community of craftsmen on the borders of mainstream society (Mason 1975, 54; Miles 1992, 15, 164). Influenced by the Utopian medieval aesthetic of William Morris and John Ruskin, Gill fostered a ‘half peasant-like, half monk-like atmosphere’ (Miles 1992, 47). Unlike other artistic visitors, Gill’s work whilst in the valley did not really reflect the landscape that surrounded him, though he returned regularly afterwards and members of his family remained until the 1970s. The landscape proved a more profound influence on one of the other members of the community, painter-poet David Jones. The border landscape of the Vale fuelled his ‘imagined construct’ of Wales’ past and his experimental painting style, reflecting the dominant rhythms in the local landscape through the use of subdued textures and colour (Miles 1992, 15, 143).

‘Hill Pastures, Capel-y-ffin’ by David Jones, 1926.

One of the first fictional works to be sparked by Llanthony and its landscape returns to the theme of the supernatural. M.R. James (1994, 5), premier exponent of the English ghost story, used Herefordshire as the ‘imagined scene’ for one of his most famous, A View From a Hill (1925). The key dramatic setting for the story is the fictional ‘Fulnaker Priory’ with Llanthony as its probable real-life inspiration (Pardoe and Pardoe 2004). A local writer much influenced by James’ style was L.T.C. Rolt. He used Llanthony and the valley as a thinly-disguised setting for two of the stories in his supernatural collection, Sleep No More (1948), and in his memoir described how being enveloped by mist as he climbed over the ridge from Longtown to Llanthony became an inspiration for his stories (Rolt 2009, 9). ICwm Garon the main character follows a mountain path from a Norman castle (based on the route from Longtown to Llanthony) to reach an inn at ‘Llangaron Abbey’ (the fictionalised Llanthony) where his supernatural adventure plays out in ‘Cwm Garon’ (the Vale of Ewyas). A wayfarer similarly seeks out shelter at the ‘Priory Hotel at Llanvethney’ (Llanthony again) in The House of Vengeance (Rolt 2013, 31-49, 121-9). In her introduction to a recent collection of his stories, Susan Hill remarks on how the Black Mountains combine ‘tranquillity, beauty and spirituality’ with ‘dread, menace, depression and foreboding’ (Rolt 2013, x). Alfred Watkins was another local man who wandered extensively in the environs of Llanthony. The central ‘ley lines’ theory of his book, The Old Straight Track (1925), was and is eccentric and has been thoroughly discredited as having any scholarly credence, particularly in the context of its later ‘New Age’ trappings. His research does though makes reference to many local sites and it seems that some of his ideas and epiphanies came to him whilst exploring the area: ‘there is a favoured spotLlanthonyin the heart of the Black Mountains where primitive tracks and notches can well be studied’ (Watkins 2005b, 52).

Seeking ‘concentrated solitude’ the artist Eric Ravilious spent several weeks staying at a farmhouse near Capel-y-ffin in the winter of 1938 and was visited by John Piper (Powers 2002, 42). Both produced a number of landscape paintings, with Piper creating naturalistic images of the priory but also moving into the surrounding countryside to focus on the agricultural buildings of the estate. The work of Piper and Ravilious reflects a move towards more impressionistic and less literal interpretations of landscape as the twentieth century progressed, other examples of which can be seen below. Edgar Holloway was another visitor to Capel-y-ffin in the middle years of the twentieth century and his work ‘Mountain Path, Llanthony Valley’ depicts a working figure on the parish road with the mountain wall and nant farms clearly visible.
‘Llanthony’, 1941 (top) and ‘Ty Isaf’, 1939-40 (bottom) by John Piper.

‘Llanthony Abbey’ by John Craxton, 1942.

'Llanthony Abbey’ by Gwilim Pritchard, 2005.

‘Mountain Path, Llanthony Valley’ by Edgar Holloway, 1943.

Raymond Williams, one of the foremost men of letters of post-war Britain was a native of Pandy, across the Honddu from the priory lands of the old Redcastle manor. In his later years he produced a great work of fiction based on a scholarly framework, weaving historical events and landscape into a long-form narrative chronicling 25,000 years of the district’s history: The People of the Black Mountains (1990a, 1990b), a mixing of real events and people with invented narratives. Produced by a local writer steeped in the culture of the area but also a highly-regarded academic, the two books provide a more informed feeling for the landscape than many purely academic or descriptive accounts, and give voice to the unheard people of history: lowly novice canons, tenant farmers, women generally. The work’s value is both as an example of literary descriptions of Llanthony, but also as commentary on the contemporary landscape of the priory estates. The following extract describes the scene after the devastation caused during the Glyndŵr rebellion:

‘The priory of Llanthony stood empty and neglected, its store room broken open. The monks no longer felt safe among their Welsh tenants, and had withdrawn to Hereford. Below a mountain stream, their retting mill had fallen into disrepair. The dried shocks of flax, pulled each day by the abbey’s labourers, stood abandoned … Sheep grazed above the empty abbey, and across the river over the slopes towards the Coed y Dial’ (Williams 1990b, 300).

The later twentieth and early twenty-first century has seen further layers of writing embedded in the landscapes surrounding Llanthony. Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill (1982) fictionalises the landscape of the eastern fringe of the Black Mountains and was partly inspired whilst the writer spent time in the Vale of Ewyas. Chatwin was staying with the painter Ozzy Jones at his house in Nant Bwch above Capel-y-ffin, occupied by another artist and writer Reg Gammon during the 1940s and 1950s.  More recently Resistance, Owen Sheers (2007, 276) World War Two tale of a German invasion of Britain is largely set in the Olchon and Llanthony valleys, ‘a graveyard of failures, littered with the remnants of men foolish enough to think its geography sufficient to extract themselves from the world.’ The psychogeographical writer Iain Sinclair offered a more esoteric fiction on the subject of Llanthony in Landor’s Tower, a novel in which the narrator/ main character has been commissioned to write a book about ‘Walter Savage Landor and his gloriously misconceived utopian experiment in the Ewyas Valley’ (Sinclair 2001, 8). The novel spends dense pages in the footsteps of the ghosts of Landor, Ignatius and Gill around the priory, Siarpal and on the Hatterall ridge. To the narrator, the landscape setting of the priory was: ‘nothing more than a device to slow the pulse of the visitors, preparing them for the move into the surrounding countryside. The priory, this geological freak, had no centre; it was all view, the further you walked away from it, the more it made sense’ (Sinclair 2001, 312). Sinclair, who has also written on the ‘Beat Poets’ of 1950s America is a link in a chain with another enigmatic outsider who spent time around Llanthony. Allan Ginsberg composed his epic stream of consciousness poem, Wales Visitation, here in 1967, a record of an ‘LSD-fuelled hill walk’ (Ginsberg 1979; Sinclair 2001, 86). These are but the latest additions to a canon of artistic responses to the genius loci of Llanthony and the Vale of Ewyas that seems to be endlessly flowering.

Allan Ginsberg in the Vale of Ewyas, 1967 (Source: 


  1. Interesting piece and very useful references, especially the mention of Allen Ginsberg's Welsh Visitation which I tracked down and attempted to read... but I did like the line: "Heaven balanced on a grass blade." People of the Black Mountains is a delight; especially the passage that begins: "See this layered sandstone in the short mountain grass. Place your right hand on it, palm downward. See where the summer sun rises and where it stands at noon. Direct your index finger midway between them. Spread your fingers, not widely. You now hold this place in your hand." Now whenever I am walking in the mountains I refer to my right hand. Really enjoying your posts. Thank you.

  2. Thanks Peter. Ginsberg's poem is pretty full on, but also evocative of the place of its composition (even without LSD!).

    I agree that Raymond Williams' 'right hand' description of the topography of the Black Mountains is absolutely spot on, hard to beat as a simple but ingenious descriptor for a particular upland.

    I have an idea for a book on the landscape of the Black Mountains which I hope to one day see to fruition but I am somewhat daunted by the shadow of Williams and his People of the Black Mountains work - it might be fiction but he was a mighty writer and scholar and it is a fine study of landscape, economic, political and social history as well as a great story.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this and also the illustrations. I was thinking Eddie will be doing a book which will be worth getting one day. I'm with the Llanthony & District History group. Keep up the good work.

  4. I agree that Raymond Williams' 'right hand' description of the topography of the Black Mountains is absolutely spot on, hard to beat as a simple but ingenious descriptor for a particular upland.



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