Landscapism is inspired by a long-standing and widening interest in all things relating to landscape, topography and sense of place; a platform to explore and promote landscape-related themes and ideas, stories and activities; to encourage greater inter-connectivity between different disciplines and areas of interest.
Well its done. I've been awarded a Doctorate of Philosophy in Archaeology.
My research has ranged over landscape archaeology, landscape history, monasticism, cultural geography, psychogeography, landscape in art and literature, folklore and further afield. I've probably meandered a bit too widely. 'Deep topography' is what I call it (nicked from Papadimitriou), but that doesn't yet have much currency in academia.
Three full years of landscape contemplation in the field, on walks, at my desk. Sometimes a slog but mostly stimulating and rewarding roaming, a privilege. Followed by a strange few months when its hard to get your bearings, to know when to sit back and think 'phew, I've done it': thesis submitted, but now I need to get a job as PhD funding stops at this point; viva successful with corrections to do, but bloody hell that was a hard experience and now I've got to work on those corrections (in my spare time); corrections submitted and now another wait; examiners approve corrections, subject to formal approval; official award notification - I think this is it: the last hoop, job done. Except the graduation to come with the daft cap and gown number, but that's the 'fun' bit.
Anyway, the thesis is available through the University of Exeter's ORE open access portal and the data-set appendices along with links to related articles and other stuff can also be found here. The core strands of the thesis now need to be synthesized into a long-form journal article and the data-sets lodged with the relevant Historic Environment Records.
I hope that all of this is of some use to others researching or with an interest in the historic landscape, sense of place and our complex reactions to it.
Now my attention turns to scaling the heights of postdoc funding for a future project on paths in the landscape, to future writing projects and to my day job looking after the public footpaths of Bristol town. I might even get round to writing some more long-winded Landscapism blog posts.
The Version of Record of this Author's Manuscript has been published and is available in Landscape History 2019 (40.1, pp 59-70) http://www.tandfonline.com DOI: 10.1080/01433768.2019.1600944
This paper presents evidence, often still observable in the field, ofa coherent and managed network of roads and tracks within the orbit of medieval monasteries and their estates; a component of a wider PhD research project assessing the impact of the medieval monastery on the historic landscape. A hypothesis that the topographical legacy of the monastery has remained a central element (though often hidden or unseen) of the genius loci of a study area in the southern Welsh Marches has been explored, examining how this has influenced the development, experience and remembrance of these landscapes up to the present day.
Fig. 1: Distribution of monastic houses in the southern Welsh Marches study area (Source: map drawn by the author in ArcGIS® using Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 Scale Colour Raster, 2016 and 1:5000 Historic Counties data layers, downloaded from Digimap® under licence, http://digimap.edina.ac.uk/, and Historic Counties Trust http://county-borders.co.uk/).
The area under examination here encompasses Herefordshire south of the River Wye, the Forest of Dean district of Gloucestershire and most of the historic county of Monmouthshire. This region, spanning the Anglo-Welsh border, contains a mixture of pays, of both upland and lowland, and champion and bocagelandscape character and was also heavily colonized by several religious orders during the Middle Ages, as can be seen in the distribution map at Fig. 1. Within this regional geography, the Cistercian abbeys of Llantarnam and Tintern and Augustinian Llanthony Priory provide the case study landscapes for the project.
Three routeways in particular – one from each house – are described. Each has been walked by the author as part of a wider traversing of the case study terrains, deploying, in synthesis, field methods from both landscape archaeology and cultural geography - still an underutilised modus operandi in the context of historic landscape study. Such exploration on foot is partly inspired by Andrew Fleming’s (2009, 2010) walking and horse-back journeying on the Monks’ Trod long-distance road linking Strata Florida Abbey with its granges across the uplands of mid-Wales.
The problem with medieval roads
The popular view of medieval roads is that they were much like medieval life: nasty, brutish and short. Such route-ways were poorly maintained, difficult to progress along and largely restricted to relatively parochial journeying. This narrative suggests long centuries of struggling through the muddy, rutted remains of the Roman road system, waterways the preferred option for long-distance travel or bulk transport (Oram 2016, p. 303). Medieval ways, in this view, were generally not carefully planned or engineered; rather, they were more spontaneous developments, as popular routes from A to B ‘made and maintained themselves’ through use (Wright 1985, p.42). As Paul Hindle (2002, p. 6) has pointed out, ‘essentially the road was not a physical entity, a thin strip of land with definite boundaries; rather it was a right of way, an ‘easement’, with both legal and customary status’. Though constant use would often lead to a physical track developing, in many places its actual course, unconstrained by fence, hedge or wall, may not have been stable over time (Morriss 2005, p. 13). Outside of the shrinking open commons, in country where the landscape was being plotted and pieced into an increasingly enclosed tapestry of field, arable strip and coppice, many of these roadways would become narrow and sunken, surviving into modern times as the holloway ‘ghosts’ of medieval travel and transport (Muir 2004, p. 170); ‘landmarks that speak of habit rather than of suddenness … the result of repeated human actions’ (Macfarlane et al 2012, p. 3).
Tracing the origin and line of the roads and trackways of the Middle Ages is often a difficult task. Whilst documentary evidence for medieval ways is fragmentary and incidental, the physical trace can be more substantial. Old tracks are, however, an elusive artefact, now often hard to recognise on the ground: sometimes manifest archaeologically as little-altered holloways, narrow terraces or other earthwork remains, otherwise more ‘transient drift ways’ linking farm and field only visible from aerial photography or satellite imagery, or even obliterated or much altered by subsequent generations of wayfarers and later changes in transport infrastructure, agricultural practice, enclosure and encroaching vegetation (Colyer 1984, p. 12; Hindle 2002, p6; Taylor 1979, pp.117, 119). As it is often difficult to date old trackways based on field evidence alone, documentary confirmation of medieval use (often sparse), name evidence or dated associated archaeology is needed to provide certainty, constraining the study of this important component of the medieval landscape. As a consequence, relatively little has been written about ‘where the roads were’ or identifying examples of integrated networks (Hindle 2002, p. 5). To some extent, the literature that has appeared on this subject has tended to buttress the ‘nasty and brutish’ interpretation.
Christopher Taylor’s (1979, p. 150) view, conveying almost Pythonesque medievalism, seems still to predominate: ‘any movement along medieval roads was uncomfortable at best and unbelievably difficult at worst’; but were things always this bad? An assumption of unmade and arduous ways as the medieval norm may partly be due to the aforementioned lack of study and fieldwork, limited documentary evidence and the overlay of modern roads in more recent times (Morriss 2005, p. 114). Yet communities and organisations such as the monastic orders had a motivation to maintain roads out of economic self-interest and to bolster their symbolic function as boundary features, keeping tracks in reasonable order and clear of obstruction for their day-to-day use, as will now be explored (Morriss 2005, pp. 37-8; Oram 2016, p. 306).
Following monastic routes
This paper presents examples from monastic estates to suggest that medieval abbeys and priories, powerful corporations of their time, were forging and improving communication networks across their landed possessions in a sustained and systematic way. Monastic houses would have required a network of paths and lanes for the regular movement of stock, produce, people and goods to and from geographically spread estates, farms andsatellites, provincial markets, neighbouring monastic and secular nodes and so forth. They were also a focus for the regular movement of monks, ecclesiastical officials and high-status dignitaries, traders and other visitors and travellers who would need to follow such routes. Pilgrims, the poor seeking charity and other more workaday movement would have added to the ebb and flow. All the while, monasteries were engaged in expansive agricultural and industrial production to meet the needs of the conventual community, as well as trading surplus produce with the wider world (notably the export of wool). A serviceable communications network to facilitate both parochial and longer distance business and trade was essential. Social, economic, ecclesiastical and political activities were therefore a key driver in the development and usage of route-ways by monasteries throughout the countryside (Rackham 1986, p. 270). As Richard Muir (2001, p. 58) has pointed out in relation to Cistercian establishments in the north of England:
‘The members of the great Cistercian houses, and particularly the lay brethren who served them, needed to be on the move. Their granges spanned areas very much larger than most farms, whilst their far-flung estates involved them in considerable travel.’
The monastery was at the heart of a web of highways and byways. ‘Way-leave’, the right of passage, was an essential aspect of the monastic economy (Williams 2001, p. 249). For instance, many of Tintern Abbey’s charters guaranteed explicit rights of ‘a free road’, access and passage ‘free from toll’ or any other hindrance throughout the donor’s lands (Heath 1806, unpaginated; PRO 1908, p. 105). This not only made a geographically dispersed network of granges and manors feasible, but also enabled the abbey, its estates and the wider world to be physically linked by a system of travel-ways radiating out from the convent. Communication was also a factor in the strategic acquisition and consolidation of monastic estates, with holdings strung along routes to markets, coastal ports and quays (Bezant 2013, p. 137; Hindle 1998, p. 44). For example, Tintern’s Modesgate grange became a staging post on the way to and from the abbey’s Gloucestershire lands. Reached from the Abbey Passage ferry across the Wye, Modesgate was a nodal point for land routes fanning out to the abbey’s granges and further east into England. From the slipway, a well-preserved rise of pitched stone and banked path testifies to both the heavy traffic using this route and the sophistication of its construction (Fig. 2). This track then splits, the left-hand branch a broad, cobbled pathway to Brockweir grange known as the Monks’ Path; the right-hand way, Abbey Road, climbing to Modesgate via the Abbey Gate through an early-medieval earthwork associated with Offa’s Dyke (Baggs & Jurica 1996, p. 151; Morgan & Smith 1972a, p. 58; 1972b, p. 106; Thomas 1839, p. 41).1
Fig. 2: Stone-pitched track climbing from the Abbey Passage ferry at Tintern (Source: author).
Much of the monastic-era road network would have continued in use after the Dissolution, whether by the local populace or for longer-distance travel, for instance as part of drovers’ ways. Shorn of the monastic rationale for movement, however, other old tracks fell out of favour or,whilst still used for parochial traffic, declined in use and repair (Fleming 2009, pp. 83-5). There is some evidence of a significant deterioration in the general state of the road system by the end of the sixteenth century, perhaps partly explained by the fall of the monasteries which had been responsible for much of the road maintenance that had taken place; also, no doubt, due to a rapid general growth in trade and economic prosperity putting additional pressure on the network (Hindle 2002, p. 17; Morriss 2005, p. 40). During a parliamentary enquiry prior to the counties’ Turnpike Act in the mid-eighteenth century, Colonel Valentine Morris, owner of Piercefield Park south of Tintern, replied to the questions ‘what roads are there in Monmouthshire?’ with ‘None’, and ‘How then do you travel?’ with ‘In ditches’ (Taylor 1861, p. 32). The nineteenth century saw a shift, accelerated during road modernisation in the mid-twentieth century, in which previously important routes, their usage often stretching back to the Middle Ages, became marginal and eventually fell out of regular use and repair. Such ‘roads’ have in some cases been revived as walking paths or bridleways or have quietly sunk back into the landscape.
Traversing the hills to Llanthony Priory
So, to the first case study example. From historic and modern cartography, a thick spread of trackways can be traced radiating out from Llanthony Priory, deep in the Vale of Ewyas in the Black Mountains, and connecting it with its manorial hinterland of Hothneyslade and the wider communication network. The landscape inherited by the priory would have included pre-existing – often prehistoric – tracks up to and along the mountain watersheds, either from transhumance practice or long-standing trade routes, often remaining in medieval use: the path traversing the western heights of the valley was still known as the ‘great ridge road’ in the late-sixteenth century (Colyer 1984, p. 10).2 As the priory’s manorial estate evolved throughout Hothneyslade, lower-level lanes developed binding farmsteads, churches and hamlets more permanently.
In the nineteenth century, the Reverend Roberts (1846, p. 218) noted that medieval sources regularly mentioned the high route over the Hatterall ridge as ‘the ordinary way to Llanthony.’ Before alternative low-level valley routes to the south were instigated, this was the main way for most visitors and traffic from the lordship stronghold at Longtown and the priory’s many estates in Herefordshire and England more widely. The track now most used to reach the priory ruins from the ridgeway (part of the Offa’s Dyke Long Distance Trail) is commonly called ‘the Beer Path’. Received wisdom, as oft repeated in guide books and other literary references, is that this name derives from the Welsh Rhiw Arw, originally cwrw meaning ‘ale’, a memory of the use of the path by the canons of Llanthony to transport ale (Hurley 2010, p. 91; Sinclair 2001, p. 313; Watkins 2005, p. 51). This, though, is a cautionary tale of the risk of misinterpreting names in the landscape. Rhiw Cwrw (‘ale pass’) is, in fact, an ancient naming of the saddle over which the way from Longtown, bastion of the de Lacy Marcher Lords and benefactors of the priory, climbs from the other side of the Hatterall ridge. Rhiw Cwrw was first recorded in the eighth century, in the Book of Llandaff, and so the name pre-dates the priory by at least several centuries (Coplestone-Crow 1989, p. 56; Wedell 2008, unpaginated). The Beer Path descending to the priory seems latterly to have taken on an Anglicised version of this old name, so giving rise to the story of monks carrying ale along this trail (Hando 1944, p. 91). That its line reaches the priory enclosure via a nondescript field path crossing its northern boundary rather than arriving at the gatehouse to the south is also problematic if it is to be considered monastic. A more likely origin is as a rhiw or drift road used by farmers to move stock up and down from the common upland grazing.
Fieldwork for this project has identified a now-disused track (prominent in the aerial photograph at Fig. 3) charting a gentler course down slope of and parallel with the Beer Path as the likely main medieval approach to the priory from the Hatterall ridgeways. Its lower portion, Old Roadway on the tithe map, is now in part a deeply-incised and overgrown sunken way: one of ‘the deep holloways that seam the landscape’ in Robert Macfarlane’s (Macfarlane et al 2012, p. 4) words, arcing into the approach lane to the priory, elsewhere a broad drove-way now cut by watered gulleys.3 As it climbs the hillside, the track crosses a stream at which the remains of a rudimentary stone bridge, medieval in form, can be observed (Andrew Fleming pers. comment). It then rises to run with and cross the post-medieval ‘parish road’ travelling along the eastern flank of the valley before ascending the upper heights of the hillside to switchback and meet the way to Longtown at a crossroads with the ridgeway on the Rhiw Cwrw col.
Here the track also runs close to the ruined farmstead of Footway before climbing more steeply to the ridge, the name a memory of the passing routeway, literally the ‘foot of the way’ or perhaps derived from ffordd meaning ‘road’. A 1679 manorial court entry records that ‘we find that the way leading from Lanthony to Footway … find it only a bridleway’: an indication of the diminished status and poor state of this previously important monastic circuit, perhaps now only used as a farmer’s rhiw to the high pasture.4 The centre of gravity had by then long shifted from movement between the priory and the old Longtown seat of the de Lacys to Llanvihangel Crucorney to the south, home of the Arnold family, secular lords of Llanthony’s local estates after the priory’s demise.
William of Wycombe’s5 12th century Mirror of the Life of prior Robert de Béthune provides a visceral recounting of the prior’s journey by night over the Hatterall ridge from Longtown, via this track:
‘When he arrived at the foot of the mountain they call Hattarell night had already shut in the day … He ascends slowly, sounding the road with his staff … And now at last he attains the summit of the mountain, where the upright shaft of a cross offers a place of rest … Rising from his resting place, he attempts the descent of the mountain, which he finds to be even more severe than the ascent … The benighted guest knocks at the door of the porter’s lodge, is recognised, and admitted’ (Roberts 1846, pp. 214-5).
Further fieldwork has identified the earth-banks and stonework of an engineered terrace-way descending to Llanthony from Bal-bach on the opposite side of the valley down the steep gully of Cwm-bwchel. This track, lined with significant segments of the relict stone slabs and revetment walling of its construction, connected with both the ‘Great ridge road’ along the western elevation of the valley and a route, Rhiw Pyscod (‘fish track’), over the Black Mountains to Llangorse Lake in Brecknockshire on which the canons had fishing rights; the track used to deliver live fish wrapped in wet rushes to the priory fishponds (Procter 2012, p. 103; Roberts 1846, p. 233).
Some old ‘ways’ to Tintern Abbey
Now turning southwards down the lower Wye Valley to Tintern Abbey, at the apex of a web of land and water communication (Fig. 4). Several land routes radiated out south-westwards from the Great Gatehouse to the abbey’s Monmouthshire estates, connecting with other recorded medieval ways. What is now a minor lane runs from the gate before dividing into the Long Way path via Ruding grange and the Stony Way over the high Porthcasseg plateau: these were alternative routes to the key demesne grange at Rogerstone, the lordship hub of Chepstow and the abbey’s Severn-shore holdings.
Fig. 4: Medieval routeways around Tintern Abbey and its Wye Valley estates (Source: map drawn by the author in ArcGIS® using Ordnance Survey 1:10560 County Series 1st edition, Monmouthshire, 1887 and Gloucestershire, 1889 data layer, downloaded from Digimap® under licence, http://digimap.edina.ac.uk/).
‘The way leading from the abbey … which is called Stony Way’, first recorded in 1451,was a major cobbled lane, its surface still substantially in place in parts, climbing a narrow valley southward towards Porthcasseg and presumed by Welsh Cistercian historian David Williams (1976, p. 134) to be a ‘monastic enterprise’ (Bond 2010, p. 294; Bradney 1993, p. 256) (Fig. 5). Before cutting through a limestone cleft, the way commences as a track divided from a parallel stream by a stone revetment, morphing into a deep-banked holloway running on to the metalled lane passing Porthcasseg Farm and down to the medieval vill of St. Arvans. On a visit to Tintern in 1795, the poets Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge experienced a floundering night-time return from a long day out, down the steep and rocky Stony Way (Matheson undated, unpaginated). A decade later Charles Heath (1806, unpaginated) walked the way, described as the ‘foot road from Tintern to Chepstow’, now reduced to a narrow and rough byway through encroaching woods.
Fig. 5: The Stony Way, climbing away from Tintern Abbey (Source: author).
A level and more circuitous passage to St. Arvans was followed by the Long Way, recorded in the mid-fifteenth century, which tracked a course along a narrow shelf between the Wye and looming limestone cliffs avoiding the steep climb up and over the shoulder of Gaer Hill and a sharp descent to the abbey.6 This was a better prospect for heavier loads or during inclement weather. Footways charted on a 1763 estate map form a shadowy trace of the way.7 Its previously unrecorded course, following Public Rights of Way and disused embanked terrace-ways through the woods of the Wye Valley, has been retraced on the ground during this project. The early-nineteenth century turnpike road through the valley which became the modern A466 was cut through the precipitous Black Cliff and Wyndcliff, parallel with, and in places overlying, the old monastic track. Prior to the coming of this ‘new terrace’ road, the narrow and meandering Long Way had seemingly long ceased to be used as a through way to Tintern.
From St. Arvans southwards past Rogerstone grange, these two tracks joined to become the Lodeway running south-west to link with highways to Tintern’s estates in the Caldicot Levels (Williams 1999, p. 27). There are some hints of road maintenance: in 1440 Porthcasseg tenants were admonished and fined for not repairing stretches of the Lodeway between St. Arvans, Rogerstone and Itton which may have been paved (Williams 1990, p. 27; 1999, p. 27). Lodeway intrigues as a toponym with various possible origins. Lode is a place-name element denoting several Severn ferry crossings and may indicate the way taken to a landing-point on the navigable estuary. Other possible derivations are from the Old English lad denoting a watercourse or drainage channel, perhaps signifying the route to the abbey’s reclaimed and ditched holdings on the Levels, or lodes, a south-west English term for veins or strata of minerals (Gelling & Cole 2003, p. 82; Mills 1995, p. 214; Raistrick 1972, p. 21). W.H. Thomas (1839, p. 14) mentions local ‘lodes’ of limestone in the nineteenth century and the naming..
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..
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 of 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 ...
I wrote this for @NewHumanist before I saw Kingsnorth's latest essay, but it pretty much says what I want to say about it. Nature writing and fascist greenwash. Get stuck in. https://t.co/AyLIKRVa75