The River Wye and the Wye Valley AONB - By Alan Garner
The Wye was voted the nation’s favourite river in 2010, its unspoilt beauty capturing the imagination of all who visit. One of the most natural rivers in Britain, it rises in the mountains of mid-Wales and flows south for some 150 miles, becoming part of the border between Wales and England before meeting the Severn. In its lower stretches, it meanders for 58 miles through the Wye Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), from just south of Hereford down to Chepstow.
The Wye Valley offers a unique landscape with a fascinating history with so much to see and so much to do and which guarantees a wealth of attractions for the visitor.
Within the AONB a 58 mile/92km stretch of the River Wye winds down the valley through spectacular limestone gorge scenery and dense ravine woodlands. Superb wildlife, intriguing archaeological and industrial remains and impressive geological features all make it into one of the most fascinating Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Designated in 1971, this unique landscape straddles the border between England and Wales. It includes areas within Gloucestershire, Forest of Dean, Herefordshire and Monmouthshire.
At a cursory glance, the lower Wye Valley reveals a tranquil landscape of woodland, pasture and river-meadows, a productive agricultural sector with modern industrial estates on the fringes of the market towns. Scratch the surface of this landscape, however, and an industrial heritage as remarkable as any area of Britain is revealed. It has left tantalising evidence that can be seen today in the most unexpected of locations the length and breadth of the lower Wye Valley area.
Iron has been made in the Wye Valley since Roman times, using the ready supply of timber, good quality ore and abundant charcoal from the Forest of Dean. The river provided transport for the raw materials and finished product, and with the introduction of the blast furnace in the 1500s, its tributaries began to be used for waterpower.
The Lower Wye Valley can genuinely claim to be the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. The first brass made in Britain was founded at Tintern in 1566. Wire making quickly followed, with mills situated on all the tributaries of the Lower Wye - the Angiddy, Whitebrook, Redbrook, Lydbrook and Bishopswood. The area resounded to the noise and smoke of heavy industry for the next 400 years and gave rise to many pioneering industries – none of which is evident today.
The second half of the 16th century saw significant industrial development in the lower Wye Valley. Wireworks were founded at Tintern in the 1560s and at Whitebrook around 1606. Many forges and mills were established in the 17th and 18th centuries, using the waterpower of the narrow, side valleys - notably the Lydbrook, Angiddy, Redbrook, Whitebrook and Valley Brooks.
Tintern Circular- From Wales to England and back to Wales
The start point is Tintern Abbey car park.
Proceed along the river path and reach Abbey Mill and the waterwheel on the River Angiddy.
Join the footpath along the road – you will need to switch to the left-hand side of the road and walk for about half a mile eventually pick up a sign for the Wye Valley Way on the opposite side of the road. Past the church- n fact through the grounds and along side the river- can be muddy after high water or flooding- until you see the remains of a rail bridge over the river.
Take the steps opposite and walk into the grounds of the old Tintern rail station. Look out for the wooden sculptures as you walk towards the old carriages. There is a café – lovely cake, toilets and a museum housed in a railway carriage.
Old signal box and platforms and railway memorabilia here.
Chepstow to Monmouth Branch Railway
Ironically, a branch line railway from Chepstow to Monmouth which was planned in mid-century to cope with industrial expansion was left without its original purpose. An Act of Parliament authorising the line was approved in 1866, and the line was built at cost of £222,000, linked by spur to Tintern wire works via a bridge still in use as footbridge across the Wye. But by the time the railway was opened in 1876 its industrial purpose had all but vanished, and after a period steady decline the brass works closed finally in 1901.
Nevertheless, during this period of decline a new ‘industry’ was emerging in Tintern, namely tourism, which made use of that other great resource of the Wye Valley, namely its outstanding natural beauty, combined with its rich religious and secular history. The arrival of the railway in 1876 helped to boost the popularity of Tintern, and in the early 1900s, crowds of up to 1300 would travel on a special train journey to see Tintern Abbey on the night of the harvest moon.
This saved the railway – for a while but, after being amalgamated with the Great Western Railway in 1905 and nationalised into British Rail following the Second World War, it was closed to passenger traffic in 1959 amidst widespread protests and publicity in the national media. The station at Tintern, once a substantial site with goods yard, engine shed and station master’s house, was opened to the public again in 1975 and is now a popular tourist and heritage centre.
Proceed along the old line going north and after 400 yards ascend to Brockweir bridge – a wooden structure but still well used. Over the bridge – into England -Gloucestershire - and at the end take a left turn immediately after the bridge – see an interpretation board on the wall, shows that ship building was a feature of the 18 and 19 century, river boats for haulage, (If you walk uphill from the bridge for a mile you will find The Brockweir and Hewelsfield village shop and cafe – locally run by volunteers, lovely cakes and lunches and splendid local produce for sale – well worth the visit.)
Pass through a small passage way between houses, turn right and back to Brockweir bridge- keep left and past an old religious building, The Monks House cottage – see the inscription on the door, and the Brockwier Country Inn on your right. In 100 yards reach the Moravian church – here you should enter this fascinating building- its history is shown on the far wall.
The Moravian Church history
The Moravian presence in Brockweir dates back to 1833. Then, Brockweir was a busy little port with a thriving ship-building industry. It was the highest point up-river which the larger ships could reach and so became the place where the larger vessels loaded and unloaded, smaller river craft transferring goods to and from places as far up-river as Hereford. In those days Brockweir had a population of about 350. There was no place of worship but seven public houses! A contemporary writer described it as being 'noted as a city of refuge for persons of desperate and lawless character. The Lord's Day was kept as a day of unhallowed revelling and desecrated by cockfighting, gambling and quarrelling. The peaceful river- bank setting where the Church is now situated was once the site of much of this revelry.
In 1831 a Tintem doctor, worried about the spiritual state of the villagers as well as their physical health, wrote about the situation to the Moravian Minister in Bristol. The Minister came and spoke to the villagers and received an encouraging response. The building of the church began, financed by voluntary contributions. It was opened on 2nd May 1833 when 400 adults and 120 children attended the service of dedication.
The Church continued in Brockweir, weathering the decline of the ship-building trade in the 1870's, the coming of the railway in 1874, and the bridging of the river in 1902. But in 1961 the congregation numbers were so low that the Church was on the point of closing. The Baptist Church in Monmouth heard of this, and under their Minister [Rev. Dennis Monger] undertook to keep the Church open. This was a modern ecumenical experiment and the Brockweir Moravian/Baptist experience became well known both locally and nationally. By 1993 the Church had grown and was able to 'stand on its own two feet' again. But the Moravians in Brockweir acknowledge that they owe a great debt to the Monmouth Baptists, and to Rev. Monger in particular.
From the church, keep to the riverbank for 200 yards or so, then bear left slightly up hill to a hedge and stile on your left. Then keep right along a broad track into woodland. Eventually reach signs for Tintern going right down steep slope, reaching the old track bed of the railway shown above- follow over the bridge and to Abbey Mill – food and drink here – then follow your outward journey to the car park at Tintern Abbey.
Here if you turn left – climb through the trees on a winding and sometimes rocky path – reach after a further mile, the Devils Pulpit with tremendous views over Tintern Abbey and the winding river Wye. Return the same way – be careful on the downhill rocky section particularly if it’s wet.
Part of this path is the Offa’s Dyke Path
This diversion adds 2.5 miles to your journey.
Walk distance – 4.5 miles. Easy walking mainly flat on the main walk.
Add 1.25 miles if you divert to the café at Hewelsfield, and 2.5 miles if you visit the Devils Pulpit
Tintern Abbey is a national icon – still standing in roofless splendour on the banks of the River Wye nearly 500 years since its tragic fall from grace.
It was founded in 1131 by Cistercian monks, who were happy to make do with timber buildings at first. Abbot Henry, a reformed robber, was better known for his habit of crying at the altar than for his architectural ambitions.
A simple stone church and cloisters came later. But then, thanks to the patronage of wealthy Marcher lords, the white-robed monks began to think bigger.
In 1269 they began to build a new abbey church and didn’t stop until they’d created one of the masterpieces of British Gothic architecture. The great west front with its seven-lancet window and the soaring arches of the nave still take the breath away.
So grateful were the monks to their powerful patron Roger Bigod that they were still handing out alms on his behalf in 1535. But by then King Henry VIII’s English Reformation was well underway.
Only a year later Tintern surrendered in the first round of the dissolution of the monasteries – and the great abbey began slowly to turn into a majestic ruin.
The village of Tintern is the stunning home to a world-famous Cistercian abbey and an ancient industrial heritage. Sitting quietly in the Wye Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, it is a wonderful place in which to live, raise families and enjoy the spirit of community.
Tintern also welcomes the thousands of visitors who pass this way each year, seeking the renewal which comes from a short time spent in its surroundings.