Dark Matters – Sites of Interest (November 2018)
In his latest exploration
DOMINIC KILDARE wanders
A LESSER-KNOWN HAUNTED OLD ABBEY
THE influence of the stunning ruins of Yorkshire’s Whitby Abbey in the creation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is well known.
Tintern Abbey, in the beautiful Wye Valley borderlands of England and Wales, meanwhile features (with a reference to the poetry of Wordsworth) in that other Gothic masterpiece, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
The ruins of Neath Abbey, in South Wales, are considerably less famous (their connections with fiction, as far as I’m aware, confined to use as a backdrop for occasional past episodes of the BBC’s Doctor Who, as well as Merlin (another drama that some may remember).
But – in the judgment of this traveller, at least – these impressive remains are well worth a visit. Tudor historian John Leland called Neath ‘the fairest abbey in all Wales.’ Not, perhaps, the adjective that I would plump for. Eerie maybe. Atmospheric most definitely.
The abbey, a short way out of the market town of Neath, in the county of West Glamorgan, was founded in 1130 as a daughter house of Savigny in France, and was absorbed into the Cistercian Order in 1147.
Extensive remains survive, together with those of a sixteenth-century mansion raised within its precincts. Like all monastic houses, it suffered in the Reformation of Henry VIII and by the 18th century some of its buildings were being used for copper smelting, while others were abandoned.
Unlike, say, Llanthony Abbey, which has a rather remote location in Hay-on-Wye book festival country, one of Neath’s bonuses for the modern-day pilgrim, particularly those using public transport, is its accessibility. It lies off a road served with buses and is within reasonable (albeit not short) walking distance of the town of Neath (via canal and river paths). In recent years the abbey has been undergoing a conservation programme overseen by Welsh ancient monuments body, CADW.
Some of its ruins seem to reach for the sky in a way that makes them seem very much not man-made but, indeed, primordial.
It is these towering fragments that give the place its air of strangeness. The site also possesses a certain stillness and a a sense of remoteness, never mind the activities going on in the various buildings that lie close by. This effect is reinforced by the calmness of the nearby canal.
The abbey is said to be haunted.
King Edward II (1284-1327) is said to have taken refuge there while fleeing the forces of his wife Isabella and Roger Mortimer. The king, his regime overthrown, was believed to be making for Ireland. He was betrayed, so it is said, by one of the abbey’s brothers.
Captured near Llantrisant, South Wales, in November 1326, Edward is believed to have died some while later at Berkeley Castle, in Gloucestershire, England. Some accounts claim he was tortured and that he met a particularly violent death (though more recent historians have dismissed some of the more lurid assertions).
The monk who betrayed him is said to wander the abbey ruins at Neath seeking absolution.
My walk into the town of Neath along first a canal and then a river path was a lonely one, at times involving passage through underpasses (for the roads above) heavy with graffiti and occasionally dim and out of public view (see picture below).
I met no problems, observing, among other things, a heron with a wonderful wingspan. However, some solo explorers might be happier waiting for one of the buses to Swansea or Neath (whose Victorian buildings include the interesting masonic lodge (below).