Today we are near the Swansea area and exploring Neath Abbey, At its peak and in the 14th century the beautiful and impressive Cistercian abbey at Neath was once the largest in Wales. Its ruins are often in comparison to the better known and more famous Tintern Abbey that is set in Monmouthshire, though here at Neath the ruins are less complete in structure and the setting of the site isn’t as dramatic, it really doesn’t take away the stunning architecture left and the substantial remains that sit peacefully in an urban neighbourhood. This abbey has the remains of a huge church and an 16th century mansion, why not join us as we wander around and explore.
When walking into the entrance of the ruins, you don’t quite expect what you see here, it certainly has a great way of hiding such a medieval masterpiece but it soon opens up and if you wait till the end you’ll be able to see the abbey from an aerial perspective. It’s fantastic to be able to explore several of the different buildings at your own pace and take in and imagine how it would look in its heyday when it was roaring with people going about their day to day business. Founded in 1130, it later became part of the Cistercian order; it was established on an 8,000 acre site within the lands of Richard de Grenville, who was one of the twelve knights of Glamorgan. Like similar catholic establishments, the abbey prospered for several centuries until closed as part of Henry VIII’s suppression of the monasteries in 1539.
The abbey flourished for over 400 years, although its peaceful existence was interrupted several times by Welsh uprisings during the 13th and 14th century which in turn made it necessary for various rebuilding works to commence, including replacement of the initial rather modest church with a much larger one. After the dissolution the site was taken by Sir Richard Williams, who converted part of the complex into a mansion, retaining some of the original components including the monk’s day room and under croft. The mansion was occupied for around 200 years and later saw use as a copper smelting workshop, before of course laying derelict for a time. Taken into state care in 1944, the site is now owned by Cadw, and is a popular site for walkers, dog walkers and for filming, the abbey has been used extensively in televisions shows such as Doctor Who and Merlin.
The great abbey church has the familiar cruciform design, with the nave to the west, leading to the choir and presbytery, these enclosed by low internal walls, and all lined by full length aisles, with north and south transepts at either side. Most of the walls of the nave survive, and incorporate several huge window openings, while part of the west front is significantly higher, with two full height columns either side of the space occupied by the main window.
The presbytery, the choir and two sets of three pillars either side of the nave are now just foundations, but the two transepts also have some tall wall remnants, and arched windows. The east end of the church is the least complete section, and around here (and the north transept) are some huge fallen blocks of masonry, It was really incredible to see just how impressive, strong and large these stone blocks were and how they have collapsed over the years. Still with recognisable features such as arches and vaulting, left here since destruction following the 16th century dissolution; suggesting that the place was deliberately ruined rather than simply left to decay. Most of the carved decoration was ripped out so that the stone could be recut for use in the Tudor mansion, but some of the delicate carving around the windows remains in place. The interior of the church was illuminated by two rows of gothic vaulted windows, it would have been richly decorated covered in heraldic motifs and hunting scenes.
Walking through the first building is the refectory of the lay brothers, Hardly any trace now remains of the earliest, Norman monastery but some of the best surviving buildings at Neath, and also some of the earliest to survive, are in the west range where the lay-brothers lived. The inner gatehouse, the entrance to the cloister ran though this range, with the lay-brothers’ refectory on one side of it and their dayroom on the other. Above them was the dormitory where they slept. The lay brothers’ range was built in the Early English style of the early 13th century. Elements of this style also remain in the corresponding accommodation for the choir monks in the east and south ranges on the other side of the cloister, although much of this was altered after the Reformation when they were incorporated in the new owner’s mansion, or was allowed to fall into ruin. However, the vaulted under croft to their dormitory still survives more or less intact.
Wandering around the cloister, it really was the hub and the heart of the abbey, it was an open courtyard that was used as a garden while the surrounding covered walkways linked the various rooms and buildings of the abbey. I really like its design, simple but you can go and see everything in sight.
On the south side of the monastery is a square kitchen, then a monk’s refectory and a smaller warming room, where the brothers could gather by the common fireplace. Its fire was sustained throughout the winter. The largest room of the southern wing was a refectory extended far to the south, to which it was richly decorated. Some more of the buildings include the lavabo, where stone bowls are placed for washing hands before meals.
When we visited the Tudor mansion had been affected badly by Spring rain, which had the effect of making some of the stonework unsafe. As a result we could only view the mansion from behind fences. It was around the 1500s, when one of the last abbots of Neath built himself comfortable and stylish lodgings over the southern end of the complex, and after the suppression, some of the monastic buildings were converted into a grand private house.
The eastern range was directly adjacent to the southern part of the church; it was a rectangular building from the first half of the 13th century in which the sacristy was located, and a chapter house with a vault that was supported by four pillars and a parlour, the parlour was located next to the chapter house and was somewhere where the monks could speak without breaking their vow of silence, but it would only be for important matters, not gossip. From the cloister, passages were led to each of these rooms, the chapter house was of course very important, it served for the daily meetings of monks, whilst they listened to the rule of St Benedict and discussed all the interests of the abbey and conducted the courts. It’s said that abbots were often buried in Cistercian chapter houses too. More rooms protrude from the eastern part of the range with two barrel vaulted rooms and a large five bay chamber, originally used for the daytime work of the monks.
Unfortunately we weren’t able to go inside the under croft, which is a recently refurbished chamber. It has been inaccessible for several years due to on-going conservation, where inside it is home to some beautiful mosaic tiles and fascinating monastic remains and artefacts. Hopefully the next time we visit it will be able to be explored, or by the time we hope you come here to catch a glimpse of the monastic day room where the monks worked and lived. The best surviving part of the abbey church is perhaps the night stair, which led sleepy monks from their dormitory to the church for prayers. Above the stair is a wonderfully carved human head, but much of the original stonework elsewhere has been lost.
Walking the site is incredible, you can view many of the surviving ranges with the preserved pillars and column foundations, walk through the interiors of the passageways in the footsteps of the monks, peek inside the windows of the Tudor mansion, marvel at the church remains that give a great impression of its scale or sit on the number of talking information benches that CADW have kindly put in where you can sit back and listen to some of the history and find out why and how the buildings were used, as usual they’ve done a great job with their interactive audio, but I think more than anything what’s great about coming to Neath is that you are able to explore at your own pace, normally with no one there so you can really get a great feel for the abbey ruins and discover just how beautiful this place would have been when in use. Other great things to note about visiting here is that there is parking for the abbey just right outside along the approach road, entry inside is free, no toilets here, and its normally unstaffed but hopefully the site will gain some more conservation to it because its an absolute beauty to see and its one that needs to be put back on the map again.
Its hidden and undervalued, a true welsh abbey worth visiting.
Till next time!