Monday 5 November 2018

The topographical legacy of the medieval monastery: evolving perceptions and realities of monastic landscapes in the southern Welsh Marches

This post is an abridged version of the discussion chapter framed around the core research questions of my recently submitted PhD thesis, examining a hypothesis that the medieval monastery, over centuries of managing and moulding its precinct and estates, has left a topographical legacy that remains a core though often unrevealed component of the historic landscape, of experienced and remembered sense of place. The aim here to provide a coherent and holistic narrative of carefully selected case study landscapes associated with three monastic houses in the border geography of the southern Welsh Marches.

Firstly, the Augustinian priory of Llanthony in the Black Mountains: the case study focused on the core home estate of Cwmyoy and adjacent sub-manors. A lordship taking the medieval name of Hothneyslade. Secondly, Tintern Abbey on the west bank of the lower River Wye, in Wales but also on ‘the very rim of England’; the case study area made up of the abbey estates on both the Welsh western side of the Wye and the English east: an encircling of home granges and manorial farms around the abbey precinct, referred to here as the ‘Wye Valley estates’. Finally, the Cistercian house of Llantarnam, in the lower Eastern Valley of western Monmouthshire between historic Caerleon and the new town of Cwmbrân. This case study concentrates on the home manor of Magna Porta, a diverse landscape adorned by several granges.

The project has sought to apply, in synthesis, methodology from both landscape archaeology and cultural geography, an underplayed modus operandi within historic landscape study. Walking as fieldwork practice has been a key methodological anchor: the routes of landscape walks across the case study geographies highlighted on the slide. For brevity, however, I will save reflection on how this fieldwork contributed to the research objectives, on how successfully practice from different disciplines blended, for another post.

Suffice to say that provisional thoughts or leads on boundaries, grange farms, field systems and an array of other landscape features were ground-truthed during the walks. It was such rooting around that confirmed or cemented, inter alia, the likely location and bounds of the Llantarnam granges of Dorallt and Llanderfel, Tintern’s Secular Firmary, various grange out-farms and the perimeter and nucleus of Llanthony’s Redcastle manor. The footways followed also embody linear archaeology in themselves: the course and physical remnants of several monastic routeways have been discovered, including the Old Roadway (Llanthony) and the Long Way (Tintern). 

Foundational to this project has been the identification, cataloguing and mapping of reconstructed topographical baselines for the medieval landscapes of the case studies. Once established, these ‘monastic landscapes’ enabled the tracking of later estate evolution, beyond the functional to dig into ‘embedded, deeper meanings’, to shape, in David Austin’s words, a ‘biography of place’ encompassing the perception and remembrance of the monastic legacy.

Comprehensive gazetteers of topographical features compiled for the project signify contemporary historic terrains inhabited by patterns and clusters of material relics from the centuries of monastic estate management. These archaeological clues, together with other evidence assemblages, have enabled the mapping of the landscape features in and around the monastic precinct and the wider medieval hinterland pivotal to the accompanying narratives. This analysis consolidates, extends, and in some cases challenges, existing data-sets, notably David Williams’ inventory of Welsh Cistercian estates. Most of all, it deepens previously preliminary and unconnected portraits of estate extents, economic and agricultural history and site-based testimony into a richer topographical reconstruction. Some of the key characteristics and themes will now be briefly drawn out.

At an estate boundary scale, charters and other medieval sources have offered a draft outline of the case study lands, the detail of a fuller facsimile drawn from post-medieval manorial archives, map regression and field observation. The Strata Florida project has shown how the perimeters of gifted lands were often not new lines in the landscape but trailed existing dykes, tracks and other markers, fossilising the extents of pre-monastic territorial units. Such is the case high on Mynydd Maen where the bounds of Llantarnam’s Magna Porta manor were meared by the Llanderfel Rhiw track and marker stones in an inherited landscape.

In common with the great swathes of monastic territory accumulated across northern England, Wales and the March more widely, these estates demonstrate a balance of underexploited country and long-established agricultural units. Here the early monastic communities – the Cistercians of Llantarnam and Tintern in particular – were certainly busy transforming the landscape through clearance, drainage, new livestock practices and higher-intensity cultivation. Any apparent taming of ‘blank canvas’ wilderness, however, was largely allegoric, the reality more nuanced. Even in these relatively underpeopled terrains there was little wholly unsettled or unmanaged land. Economic activity also had to adapt to local circumstances. As Janet Burton and Julie Kerr have pointed out, the Cistercians were ‘not so much pioneers as entrepreneurs whose successful reorganisation of fragmented estates into granges reshaped the landscape’, delivering a more efficient economy.

This can be seen in the development of Tintern’s Wye Valley estates. Backwater Porthcasseg manor transformed into the epicentre of the abbey’s farming operations, the new granges of Ruding and Secular Firmary and their secondary farms carved out of abundant wooded margins. South, west and across the Wye, the established but perhaps moribund arable farms of Rogerstone, Trelleck and Modesgate expanded and worked harder by teams of lay brothers. As with the large tracts of Yorkshire in the hands of the Cistercians, the countryside was substantially worked and moulded during the monastic centuries of corporate continuity and privilege, creating a structure that is largely still retained. Within the margins of the estate boundaries, the medieval landscape maps present a broad template mirrored in the historic environment today: a general land-use segmentation into sectors of woodland, farmed land and open common; the location of the larger farmsteads and routeways; relict landscape features of grange and manorial infrastructure such as fishponds, mills, sheepcotes and fish weirs; and networks of chapels and churches.
Clearing of woodland, the exploitation of previously marginal country and changes in agricultural techniques may have taken place with or without monastic stewardship and the role of local farming communities as key agents of landscape change should not be overlooked. The scale and intensity of transition, however, speak of the planning, resources and sustained resolve displayed by monasteries and their workforce, particularly in the pioneering stage of dynamic estate management and grange-led re-orientation. The dominant players in galvanising this landscape modification were the flourishing granges of Llantarnam and Tintern, the large valley farms of Hothneyslade.

At the grange and individual farm spatial level, the core demesne estates and specialist farmsteads surrounding the monastery and general land-use character have been defined and mapped. More tentative has been the tracing of medieval field boundaries associated with these steadings. Here, contemporary documentary evidence has been slight. Moreover, the field systems remaining in the historic landscape often display regular forms that suggest post-medieval re-setting of farmed land. There are some exceptions. Llantarnam’s highland bercary of Rhyswg, carved out of an elevated wooded ridge, is sub-divided by small rectilinear enclosures bounded by earth-banked out-grown beech hedges suggesting their origin as assarts, the conversi workforce laying out a designed grid to enable efficient stock rearing and self-sufficiency. Field-names, particularly those of older documents and maps, sometimes also hint at ancient farming practice, the case study gazetteers cataloguing an array of examples that speak of arable and common tillage, livestock and other land-use.

Perhaps most revealing, however, are the occasional impressions of now vanished enclosures highlighted by LiDAR beneath the post-medieval palimpsest, such as those at Penterry and Porthcasseg on the plateau above Tintern. Such glimpses, though, offer-up only partial or indicative infilling amidst the more confidently drawn grange and estate boundaries and general land-use patterns.

The evidence drawn from the case studies points to a somewhat unenclosed farmed environment across many of the hill-country granges and tenanted farming communities: picture the rolling grasslands interspersed with wood cover of the archetypal Alpine valley. Crops and livestock kept around the farmsteads certainly penned in, demarcated and protected by the fence and wall of the infield, the wider outfield space encompassing (sometimes large) tracts of rotational or transient enclosures. A more open prospect across the extensive outlying ground: the wood-pasture hillsides and long flood meadowlands along the valley floor. This patina only later transformed into the patchwork of individual fields so characteristic of these landscapes today and in living memory.

Of the grange courts themselves, their building ranges and yards would seem, in most cases, to have been overlain by succeeding post-medieval farmsteads and the infrastructure of modern farming (or in the case of Llantarnam’s closest granges, the built environment of Cwmbrân). This is a familiar monastic story: for instance, few surviving buildings have been found at the numerous granges of the well-studied Fountains Abbey. As direct management of large monastic estates declined in the later Middle Ages, many granges and monastic farms reorganised to meet the more modest needs and differing farming priorities of their lay tenants. The grand stone buildings of these ‘miniature monasteries’ often fell into disuse or were replaced with smaller structures more suited to local agricultural needs. Such ‘downsizing’ and subsequent post-medieval rebuilding in stone explains the paucity of surviving grange architecture. Numerous of the successor farmsteads in the case study areas have, though, been shown to include some remnant late-medieval or early post-medieval fabric, most strikingly Llwyn-celyn, south of Llanthony, where it is hoped that ongoing architectural restoration will reveal more of its monastic history.

Some parallels and contrasts between the case study medieval landscapes will now be examined. All three monasteries emerged from their foundation stage with a consolidated and considerable block of home estates surrounding the precinct – enhanced by exchange and purchase – which remained largely stable throughout the monastic epoch and beyond. This pattern, repeated for many similarly-sized houses, further dispels the myth that the primary goal of the new monastic communities of the twelfth century was to settle in wild and untamed places isolated from the surrounding countryside. The houses and their religious and lay communities became deeply embedded in the surrounding landscape, economy and society. Tintern’s extensive landed holdings and network of grange farms elevated the abbey to become an important regional landowner; also the case, though at a more parochial level, for Llantarnam and Llanthony.

The influence of expansive monastic land management across south-east Wales on medieval life was, though, often interrupted or checked by wider events and the degree of hostility, either from the local populace or neighbouring landowners. Perceived or real political loyalties in times of dispute and conflict such as the Glyndŵr revolt often had implications for the stability and financial health of the monastery. Llanthony and Tintern, founded and patronised by Anglo-Norman nobility were, moreover, heavily subject to the fortunes of their benefactors; high-status dependents of the fiefdoms commanded from the castles at Longtown and Chepstow.

Llantarnam was somewhat out of step with this prevailing Marcher hegemony. Its very foundation by the great Welsh house of Strata Florida and the native lords of Caerleon was as a bulwark against Norman incursion. The monastery precinct, abbot’s park and demesne estates interlocked with a wider native lordly countryside: the abbey conjoined with the adjacent lordship centre and deer park of Caerleon. 

To classify these shrewdly planned and plotted landscapes as uniformly ‘monastic’ would be something of a caricature. Though exemplars of expansion and agrarian intensification, the home granges of Llantarnam and Tintern were not isolated within an uncultivated vacuum. The abbeys were also lords of manorial tenants peopling the wider expanses gifted to them. Evidence is, though, lacking as to the extent to which the existing peasantry were incorporated into the lay grange workforce or displaced by the new farming system as seen at some of the holdings of Fountains Abbey. Whilst the Cistercian grange model was underscoring landscape management at Llantarnam and Tintern, moreover, this is less evident for Augustinian Llanthony. The canon’s stewardship of the Hothneyslade manors was often notional as the fortunes of the priory ebbed and flowed and it finally became a much-reduced cell of the more flourishing Gloucester house, exercising looser lordly control over its independently-minded tenantry. Nevertheless, here can still be seen a degree of agricultural planning and innovation that betokens a monastic influence, a working of this previously marginal topography more efficiently to support the priory and maximise income. The fertile alluvial soils of the lower and eastern side of the Vale of Ewyas exploited by the bigger arable valley farms, pastoral farming and woodland management intensified elsewhere.

One clear thread running through the three case studies is the existence of a network of roads and trackways connecting the monastery, its geographically spread manors, granges and farmsteads and the wider world. Trade, high-status visitors, pilgrims and local traffic, the multiple catalysts for a named and marked, maintained and managed system of transit and safe passage. Spotlighting and recreating these routeways foregrounds considerations of movement and the multiple meanings of these shared ways: to connect but also to mark and codify the landscape and people’s interaction within it. Travelling through, for instance, the Abbey Gate before the descent down to the Wye ferry to Tintern representing not just a waymark but also a passing from the open forest of Tidenham Chase into prescribed monastic land. As such routes spread out from the monastery, they also took on a geo-political role: linking economically and strategically important places, acting as both ‘instruments of elite control’ and safe space in sometimes bleak and hostile country.

Examples of constructed trackways such as the cobbled way above the Passage ferry to Tintern and the stonework on the Fish Path down to Llanthony, banked or hollowed depending on the terrain, highlight their role as multi-purpose critical infrastructure. It is not hard to imagine that the effort, resources and planning that went into building the monastery and developing its agricultural holdings would also be channelled into these important routeways, bonding the house with its estates and the outside world to ensure safe and efficient passage. As with Andrew Fleming’s findings on studying the Monks Trod and other Strata Florida tracks, the evidence suggests an, often underestimated, level of sophistication and investment in medieval road construction and maintenance. A transition of routes from general directions of travel into defined, maintained and named roads and footways can be heralded as a key monastic topographical legacy.

Moving now beyond the monastic era, the case study landscapes experienced a remarkable level of post-Dissolution continuity in the estate configuration developed by the monasteries. Local gentry – the Arnolds (Llanthony), Herberts (Tintern) and Morgans (Llantarnam) – had cultivated prominent roles in the lay administration of the late-monastic estates and, no doubt, long-term ambitions to take control when circumstances allowed. They were swift to secure the abbey and priory sites and their extensive landed possessions after the suppression. Manors and grange farms remained as integral working units within these high-status domains, to be inherited or purchased from this first generation of secular landowners. It was the inexorable splintering of great landed estates from the late-nineteenth century onwards that saw this durability breached: the lost monasteries only experiencing the final ‘dissolution of their landscapes’ in the post-war decades as country estates were rapidly broken up, a full 400 years after their religious communities were expelled.

It was not only the monastic estate unit that remained imprinted on the landscape. As already alluded to, the land-use model moulded during the monastic centuries has endured: a template for, rather than a mere staging post towards the modern landscape, though evolved further and embellished in the post-medieval era. Successor communities took on extant social and physical landscapes and, although they applied their own agency in adapting this inherited terrain were often much-influenced by what went before. Post-medieval farmers around Llanthony and Tintern may have rationalised their practices to reflect a more individualised and market-driven agriculture but they did so on the back of the ‘heavy-lifting’ of their medieval predecessors in establishing the core farm units. Even the seemingly overriding modern townscape of Cwmbrân retains important trace elements of the medieval Magna Porta manor and its grange farms.

Within this settled framework, though, a new fieldscape emerged, open sheep-walks, wood-pasture and flood-meadows progressively enclosed in straight lines and the old infield-oufield reconfigured to reflect changing farming practice and tenancy arrangements (as the tithe maps surveying Llanthony’s Cwmyoy manor record). Manifest here was a decisive shift away from communal rights and activity towards an emergent ‘private, hedged landscape’. The power of the monastic corporations had been replaced by prominent secular landowners and newly cash-rich farmers of the ‘middling sort’, such as the powerful cartel of upwardly mobile provincial families who monopolised the Cwmyoy manor court. It was the piecemeal enclosure by agreement enacted by these enterprising and relentless proto-capitalists that fenced, hedged and walled these landscapes. Its gestation traced to independently-minded farmed-out granges and tenancies of the last decades of monastic ownership but flowering mainly from the late-sixteenth through to the early-eighteenth century. Later waves of similarly grass-rooted endeavour saw further intake from open common and waste as a rising and land-hungry populace set-up new steadings, though more top-down and expansive Parliamentary Inclosure was never enacted across these particular upland commons.

Though the building ranges of the medieval granges – designed for monastic communities and practices now past – either fell into disrepair, were demolished or replaced, their names survived. Even where the physical presence had vanished, such place-names endured as what Alexandra Walsham has termed prompting ‘mnemonics’, a lexicon symbolising continuity, antiquity and high status. Llanderfel, its pilgrims long gone and its chapel high on a shelf of Mynydd Maen above Llantarnam falling into ruin, lingered as a place of local significance. Llanderfel Rhiw, wending above the chapel and grange, remained part of the boundary circuit cited in manor surveys, along with ‘the brother’s gate’ indicating the north-western extent of the old abbey lands of Magna Porta. Such boundary markers incorporating ‘material traces of the past’ helped to shape parochial identity and knowledge; anchoring nodes underpinning custom and tradition.

All three former monasteries had in common an ongoing afterlife and renewal, transformations which retained strong echoes of medieval life, architecture and landscape. This post-suppression history has now lasted longer than the era of monastic corporations. Although all were integrated into post-medieval secular estates, the trajectories of the abandoned cloisters and their surrounding monastic fabric varied.

The disused hulk of Llantarnam Abbey soon saw rebirth as a new gentry mansion, trading on its monastic past but also the author of the destruction of much of the old medieval fabric. The ‘abbey’ name was retained, such an address conferring a status and history particularly important for gentry keen to stress or promote their pedigree. A new house with ancient antecedents in place, William Morgan proceeded to further bolster his position in society by developing the precinct and former abbot’s park into a contemporary Elizabethan garden and parkland landscape, retaining features such as the Magna Porta gate. Such monastic remnants incorporated into the grounds of a great house or estate later folded into the ideal of a picturesque landscape.

By contrast, the claustral buildings at Llanthony and Tintern remained largely intact as coveted property but never became the permanent seats of their owners (and were long utilised for more rustic utility and partially ravaged for building materials). Curiously, given its later veneration, the dramatic wreck of the abbey at Tintern did not become the centrepiece of a gentry landscape, falling instead into backwater anonymity until Georgian resurrection.

Llanthony did witness a late attempt at transformation into a country house estate by Walter Savage Landor. The old priory was to be the heart of ambitious plans to create a ‘new Llanthony’; not just a house but an ‘ideal community’ and a landscape by design, an echo of its monastic past. Ultimately unfulfilled, Landor’s vision nevertheless exemplified renewed enthusiasm for historic places during the Romantic era.

The priory was revered by the discerning aesthete and enjoyer of country pursuits, but it was Tintern that was to latterly become simultaneously ‘both fashionable and commercialised’, remaining one of the more visited heritage sites in the country. Both survived and thrived as worthy relics of the monastic and medieval past into the modern age of heritage tourism. At Llantarnam, with little surviving fabric on which to construct a medieval narrative, the successor house and grounds passed through the acme and decline of the Victorian country estate era, slipping into prosaic institutional use. Even though the old abbey is long gone, though, its memory has framed successor topography and utility, from the continuation of the Catholic spirit by the Morgan family to renewed religious purpose as a post-war nunnery.

As the lordly inheritors of monastic estates valued and proclaimed their continuity with the past, so too did their tenants. The post-medieval copyholders of Cwmyoy controlling the manor court were busy forging new homes, lives and agricultural incomes from the old demesne manor of Llanthony. Their manor court books still though proudly foregrounded a history of ‘the Abby of Lanthony which gives name to the Lordship’, quoting the original land grants to the priory from which the manor sprung. This incantation confirmed not only the ancient bounds of the estate but also its pedigree as the Augustinian’s home ground, historic links to the priory still symbolically important to the forward-looking court members. One of their number also took the trouble to adorn the entrance of his new farmhouse at Ty-hwnt-y-bwlch with an archway appropriated from its ruins; a gesture at once both respectful and profane.

At a more mundane workaday level, field-names such as Ynys-y-prior (‘the prior’s water meadow’), part of the bounds of Cwmyoy recited in 1612, and roads retaining monastic monikers, such as the Monks Path and Stony Way out of Tintern, also reinforced this memory. Aside from such folk-naming and snippets gleaned from manorial and legal documents, folklore myths and stories articulated a sense of history and place, as seen in the tales of phantom monks and hidden tunnels recounted in all three case studies.  

The physical and perceptual landscape ‘of signposts to the destroyed monastic era’, often integral to local consciousness but unscrutinised and taken for granted or lying dormant, became the rich seam from which would spring the antiquarianism, Romantic art and literature, tourism and heritage engagement of the future. Tintern, of course, was something of a national figurehead in the revival of interest in historical places and this is reflected in the way the abbey’s immediate surrounds became heavily adorned with layers of touristic infrastructure: neat lawns, visitor centre, car park, public house and other commercial elements.

Llanthony has often been perceived to be a more rewarding and authentic experience of past times and landscape, something of a hidden gem. These words from Victorian antiquarian, Edward Freeman, still seem prescient for anyone affronted by heritage industry paraphernalia and coach parties today:
‘Tintern is nothing to Llanthony…almost too perfect, too neat, too trim…Llanthony is an utter ruin … One can wander in and out unrestrained.’
The spiritual antiquity expressed by the priory also seems to have been a magnet for free-spirited and idealistic mavericks – Landor, Father Ignatius, Eric Gill – inspired by ‘the Ewyas Valley and its mythological overload’ as expressed by psychogeographer Iain Sinclair, for whom traversing the valley was to be in the presence of the walkers of the past. These searchers were looking to take on the mantle of the Llanthony canons, inspired by a foundation myth of creating a new utopian community amidst the harsh ‘wilderness’.

As one respondent to an on-line survey carried out for this project had it, the Llanthony valley ‘does seem to be unique in its fascination for creative visitors and inhabitants.’ By contrast, since the early visitations of Gilpin, Wordsworth and Turner, Tintern has arguably lacked a cutting-edge artistic narrative. Where Llanthony inspired the impressionistic, challenging imagery of the likes of Edward Burra, David Jones and John Piper and the esoteric writings of Iain Sinclair and Allen Ginsberg, artistic responses to Tintern have tended to the more mainstream and conservative, often mired in Romantic-era sensibilities.

Now to address the problems and opportunities for managing these landscapes in the future. Landscape can evoke the past, but it can also hide and lead to forgetting. Although conspicuous relict markers such as chapels and farmsteads can be conduits for remembering the past, often the evidence of the impact of monastic houses on the landscape lies more covertly around us, unsuspected.

This hidden-ness is particularly striking when surveying the half-remembrance of Llantarnam Abbey in the contemporary landscape adorning its sequestered location. With no historic ruins as a draw, there has been no significant heritage conservation or promotion. Much of the adjacent – and limited – infrastructure of public paths, stiles and signage is often in poor condition, overgrown and blighted by fly-tipping; the precinct landscape remorselessly encroached upon by incremental urban development.

Often unseen though in plain sight, even at the more visited and promoted heritage hubs of Llanthony and Tintern, is the monastic inheritance of estate and farm extents and boundaries, land-use patterns, field systems and communications networks drawn together in this study. Such meta topographies litter the landscape but are paradoxically often difficult to read: it can literally be hard to see ‘the wood for the trees.’ Much is made of the sylvan situation of Llanthony and Tintern, but these greenwoods are so often packaged as part of the unchanging, ‘unspoilt natural beauty’ of the monastic setting, removing the heritage ruin from its connected and evolving landscape context. Groves such as the Abbot’s Wood or Coed Cwmyoy were not simply a pleasant or untamed place for devotional contemplation. Their real medieval value and utility as coppice, grazing or repurposed agricultural land - is underplayed or uncharted. And, in recent decades, the woods have been returning in more ragged form after a long span of denudation: the old commons of the Wye Valley around Tintern ‘concealing everywhere within its woodland the signs of the old agricultural landscape.’

Many footpaths through the woods and meadows enable the visitor to explore this gilded countryside, to obtain breath-taking vistas of the monastic ruins in their seemingly timeless frame. These very by-ways are themselves an unheralded living relic of the monkish centuries, their significance habitually unfathomed even as the walker adds to the footfall of the years. These well-trodden arteries once hummed with great waves of traffic keeping the monastic economy on the move before – like those of the Romans before them – declining into a long ‘Dark Age’ of neglected forgetting, as the realms of the monastery reverted to out-of-the-way backwaters once more; no longer pivots of travel and commerce. 

In some cases, as with the overgrown, stream-hollowed Old Roadway down from the Hatterall ridge to Llanthony and the serpentine Long Way snaking southwards from Tintern above the Wye, these routes have fallen out of the remembered landscape. Or, as with Grange Road, once the approach to Llantarnam’s Gelli-las grange, now a prosaic urban supermarket access road, morphed into faint memories.

Individual features within this landscape patchwork are often even more forgotten, neglected or remote. A determined landscape researcher may be able to clamber and struggle through brambles and down muddy inclines to find the overgrown remains of Tintern’s Stoweir fish-house or the old walls of the lost Secular Firmary grange, but the casual passer-by is unlikely to realise that they are even there. 

It may seem curious that in places such as Llanthony and Tintern, designated and much frequented for their historic value and scenic beauty, this wider monastic landscape inheritance can be so seemingly overlooked. It is certainly the case that they have been well represented as landmarks in touristic guides to regional identities such as the Brecon Beacons, Wye Valley, Welsh Border Country and so forth. The monastic ruins are frequently the centre-point or a thematic feature of walks, driving tours and cycle routes. Accounts of their architecture, archaeology and history often, though, seem abstracted or detached from any sense of passing through a landscape that was also deeply infused with monastic influence. A narrative of the enwrapping historic environment beyond the precinct walls – the web of monastic granges and agricultural estates, of forged or co-opted trackways – is generally absent.

That much of the cultural landscape advanced here so often passes under the radar is not just a question of the public missing out on opportunities to experience heritage monuments in a richer context. As the case study gazetteers which accompany this analysis demonstrate, many of these landscape features are absent from historic environment records, or only appear in an unconnected and ad-hoc manner. This paucity of formal evidence puts unrecorded everyday elements of the landscape at risk of potential despoliation and damage.

For instance, the development squeeze around Llantarnam has seen much of the historic fabric of the abbey precinct and its home granges built upon without archaeological assessment, whilst other under-recorded features nearby are also under threat or lack conservation plans. More positively, interest in the pilgrim trail from the abbey to Penrhys in recent years has seen a coalition of residents, archaeologists and historians walking and examining the conjectured route, largely under the umbrella of the HLC-funded Ancient Cwmbrân & The Cistercians project. As a result, a linear piece of history stubbornly retaining its place in the modern-day topography of Cwmbrân has been foregrounded and chronicled. Such community engagement and media exposure has also been a central motif of the Strata Florida Project, where a Trust has recently been established to manage the abbey ruins and the surrounding post-medieval farm as a long-term research and heritage enterprise.

The walking trail (and circuits for cycling or other forms of transport) is a self-evident way that the monastic biography of these landscapes can be brought to life and experienced. Obvious perhaps, but surprisingly little implemented. Where walks have been promoted they tend to remain very much site-focused rather than engaging with the story of the wider landscape. Echoes of the monastic landscape appear incidentally and unheralded. This is even the case with initiatives such as the Cistercian Way (a long-distance itinerary linking all the monasteries of that order across Wales) and St. Thomas Way (recreating a medieval pilgrimage from Swansea to Hereford) which, to this observer, seem not to take full advantage of or promote the monastic trackways and geographies that they pass along and through between heritage ‘sites’.

The routes followed in the landscape walks designed for this thesis could provide a blue-print for more immersive guided experiences, anchored to the memory of monastic ways, landscapes and locations, and I have been involved in organising such themed walks for the Llanthony Valley and District History Group. At Llanthony there are additional opportunities to integrate the monastic landscape narrative into the Landmark Trust’s restoration of the late-medieval farmstead at Llwyn-celyn (where a threshing barn is becoming a HLF-funded visitor and education centre, a new gateway for visitors to the valley).

Innovative techniques increasingly used in heritage management can, moreover, be harnessed to complement and enhance walking-based experiences. Democratisation of access to GPS, high-resolution mapping and so forth through mobile technology and social media can enable a much more immersive and participatory engagement with the archaeology of landscape. Guided walks, online promotion and mobile apps that integrate time-depth representations and rememberings could do much to raise awareness of the wider monastic legacy in the landscape. 

To sum up, many elements of the monastic landscape identified here adorn today’s historic environment: embedded topographical memory often unseen or unheralded, hidden in plain sight. The formulation, consolidation or pivotal evolution of estate unit boundaries, land-use patterns, exploited marginal terrain, farmsteads, field systems, field- and place-names and many individual features layering present-day landscape character can be traced to the transformations engineered by these monastic agents of change. Perhaps most strikingly, networks of communication routes remain grooved into the landscape, their continued navigation a symbol of monastic durability. Once unearthed, such evidence unlocks ‘landscape history’ so often stranded, in Graham Fairclough’s words, in ‘anachronistic “periods”’, folding the historic dimension more clearly into the contemporary landscape.

A manifesto has been sketched out here for highlighting and encountering often under-appreciated elements of the landscape and medieval life anew, their meaning rediscovered and repurposed. There is considerable scope and potential to complement and enrich the public’s experience of medieval monastic ‘heritage sites’, contextualising the remains of the abbey or priory in their holistic monastic (and successor) landscape setting, moving beyond a reductive presentation framing such sites with a backdrop of generic ‘natural beauty’. 

A more productive reckoning with landscape through an ‘intertwining of past, present and future’ is advocated, moving the frame of reference away from elite site history to an engagement, immersive or more ephemeral, with the everyday elements that populate an enriched topophilia and sense of place. ‘We are surrounded by the greatest of free shows. Places. Most of them made by man, remade by man’, proclaimed Jonathan Meades in his topographical compendium, Museum Without Walls. This study has illuminated a rich but often ill-lit or concealed component of this treasury, landscapes shaped on the ground and in the mind by the medieval monastery.

Friday 13 July 2018

On Arcadia

Hotfoot from viewing new documentary film Arcadia, some initial thoughts on what seems quite a zeitgeist-y piece of work for those in the landscape/ place bubble.

Directed by Paul Wright, the film is constructed from digitised footage in the BFI National Archive inter-cut with fictional excerpts from cinema and television.* An 'old-weird-Britain mash-up' of imagery swirling around the last hundred years that hangs on the directors wish to explore 'how we connect with the land around us and with each other'. Adrian Utley of Portishead and Goldfrapp's Will Gregory provide the soundtrack, pulsing audio-cue's amongst the visual montage, recalling British Sea Power's work for From the Sea to the Land Beyond. Here and there the spectral folk voice of Anne Briggs melts and distorts into the mix.

The narrative, such as it is, rests on a journey through the seasons; but this is a loose story, and all the better for it. A lack of intruding commentary also gives the footage space to tell a story, gifting the watcher's imagination permission to roam. Paul Wright has explained how atmospheres, ideas and themes for each 'season' underscored the search through the deep and rich archive sources, though the aim was often to seek out material 'that you wouldn't expect to be in a film about the British countryside.' This cut-up approach reflects the director's desire to create sensory experiences through image and sound rather than a straight-forward linear narrative progression. As such, comparisons have been made with Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi films scored by Philip Glass. Common ground can also be found with the Robinson films of Patrick Keiller. Political or politicised questions of society's relationship with the land and nature, of identity, of class are surfaced but this is no polemic, it is left to the viewer to piece together their own interpretation. A point to return to.

Arcadia has been positioned as a 'folk horror' artifact, part of a fecund wyrd Britain arcania that has come out of the long shadows to be part of the contemporary landscape vibe. Although the film has deliberately avoided using some of the more obvious and over-exposed reference points such as The Wicker Man, the folk horror genre is certainly well-represented through haunting imagery of bodies rising from the grave in Requiem for a Village and the like. Also present are snatches of the frankly strange folk rituals on display in a highly-recommended previous BFI crate-digging exercise, Here's a Health to the Barley Mow  

As for my own feelings on viewing the film, an initial reaction was that it was following a rather hackneyed trope of contrasting modern dystopian imagery with a seemingly idyllic past, but as the temporal contrasts progressed and mingled a more nuanced and muddied picture emerged. All to the good. This is what history shows us. Processes and patterns of change - in life, society, the landscape - are complex, contradictory and unexpected, hard to pin down, especially when you are in the moment. Humanity may well be experiencing a long fall, unable now to stop a self-inflicted wrecking ball from wiping out civilisations and eco-systems. This may be already happening; we know we can do better. But we can't really know what the future holds: what great and terrible prospects and unforeseen technologies and events will come to pass. 

Many of the visions of sunlit unchanging rurality that front-load the film are pure mid-twentieth century propaganda. Much of it would surely have looked archaic (though perhaps reassuring) to contemporary viewers. Yes, those children playing cricket on the village green look innocently happy, but kids were still dying of TB and suffering from rickets; the coming welfare state desperately needed. The countryside looks ravishing and immutable, but it always does in sun-bleached black and white. Captured on these early reels was a receding world. The farm labourers were already a dying breed and, in truth, their forebears had suffered untold ructions and dislocations over centuries past. Things had been so stable and orderly in the Victorian English village that many could not wait to defect to the foul, teeming rising cities of wages and freedom or endure harsh journeys to the unknown potential of the colonies (or had no other choice).   

The juxtapose of old and new tempts another thought: that folk rituals, hippy happenings, raves, music festivals and other raged communions with nature all share a common wealth through the ages; psychic (or psychedelic) portals out of normality. Echoes of a Merrie England always on the margins, dangerous and under threat. The past may be gone but it can punch through time, revived or repurposed into something new but familiar, even if we don't realise it. That's how history rolls. Same old wyrd magic, same old shite.  

Many a paradox here, but then the English vision of arcadia was always conflicted. As Adam Nicholson has chronicled, Renaissance England 'dreamed of a lost world, an ideal and unapproachable realm of bliss and beauty'; a seeking of 'the perfect interfolding of the human and the natural' as perceived in Classical pastorals. Nicholson characterises this movement as at once a search for the simpler Golden Age of ancient Sicily and Greek Arcadia - a longing underpinning many subsequent counter-cultures - whilst also being inherently conservative and elitist, raging against the forces of modernity: 'a dream of nature' though one exclusive to a rich squirarchy, heavily mediated and manipulated. A forgotten idealism which flowered but was then crushed by a brutal civil war. 

The visceral sonic and visual representations crackling through this film aptly show how the search for Arcadia has always been mixed-up, conflicted and probably doomed. 

An afterword on the recent Twitter squall on the Paul Kingsnorth's essay written to accompany the release of Arcadia. The piece, criticised for pandering to re-emerging 'blood and soil' nationalism, seems to have disappeared from the web, but a couple of Twitter responses to it and the author's 'open letter' reply posted on his website can be seen below. My own initial take was that, having previously admired Paul's non-conformism (and writing), these are dangerous Brexit-cult times in which to express sentiments that could be interpreted as mystical English exceptionalism. This may be a bit alarmist (Hell, Gareth Southgate may even come riding over the hill to show us a new more-inclusive path to Eden!). Anyway, have a read of both sides of the story and see what you think ...

 * The archive films which are utilised are listed on the Arcadia website.  

Tuesday 17 April 2018

Pagan sampler interlude

New substantive post on the way soon, an archaeology of walking; in the meantime here's a musical interlude, some post-Easter pagan and animist sounds.

Trembling Bells - Christ's Entry Into Govan

Goat - Let It Burn

Mandy Morton and Spriguns (Spriguns of Tolgus) - Witchfinder

Erland Cooper - Solun Goose

Thursday 4 January 2018

Pathways through long winter days until bright Phoebus shines down again

A quick ramble here through an assemblage of mid-winter cultural highlights. If record shops are a species indicator of a civilised polis (which they surely are), then it was good to have affirmation that the force remains strong in Bristol with the opening of a new Rough Trade store. A first wander around the racks yielded Bright Pheobus, songs by Lal and Mike Waterson, newly re-released on vinyl. Its 'lost folk-rock classic' story is unfurled in sleeve notes by Pete Paphides largely replicated in a Radio 4 documentary. Featuring Richard Thompson, Ashley Hutchings and a seemingly endless cast of early 70s electric folk, Bright Pheobus has joined the ever-replenished cast of misunderstood or under-marketed records of the time which have resurfaced, championed anew. A highlight for me is the track, Child Among the Weeds, featuring Lal Waterson and Bob Davenport's extraordinary, unrestrained vocals.

The post-war folk music revival is not covered by Steve Roud's magisterial (i.e. dauntingly massive) Folk Song In England, but I will try and persevere with this sweeping history of, well folk song in England. A chapter on sea shanties is included, a sound brought to vivid life by a communal sing-along with Halifax's finest renderers of whaling song, Kimber's Men, upstairs at The Greenbank, Easton in November. Other reading matter on 'the book pile' comes in the form of the multitude of pagan arcania found within the pages of Folk Horror Revival: Field Studies and the no-less fascinating A Natural History of the Hedgerow by John Wright. The 'folk horror' label perhaps encompasses Ben Myers The Gallows Pole, which I enthusiastically reviewed earlier in the year and remains a favourite recent fiction read.

Elsewhere on BBC radio, The Drover's Path fitted the bill as a suitably wintry Christmas Eve ghost story, Nick Luscombe presented Radio 3's Late Junction's favourite albums of 2017 and there was a gripping dramatisation of Neil Gaiman's refreshingly non-standard fantasy Anansi Boys, starring Jacob Anderson, Grey Worm from Game of Thrones; a Season Six box set of which was my Christmas guilty pleasure. Robert Macfarlane's #TheDarkIsRising Twitter-athon led to another gem from the BBC radio archive, a 1997 adaptation of Susan Cooper's midwinter classic chronicling a duel between the Dark and the Light across snowy Sussex downland. The ubiquitous (in a good way) Mr Macfarlane also brought forth his importantly beautiful collaborative work with artist Jackie Morris, The Lost Words; if ever there was an example of a Christmas present bought for your child that would give as much pleasure to the giver as the receiver, then this was it.

Fly bird fly on your raven wings
Take to the sky and sing for the love of wheeling and turning

These words, images and songs spun around my head as a post-Christmas walk around YGrib, Waun Fach and Pen Trumau in the post-snow, but still frozen, western Black Mountains literally blew the cobwebs away; awaiting the days when bright Phoebus will shine down again.