Wye Tour, Part Three: Abbey, Bridges and Castles

As we saw at the end of Part Two, William Gilpin was much taken by his first sight of Goodrich Castle.

This view, which is one of the grandest on the river, I should not scruple to call correctly picturesque.

Unfortunately for me, Gilpin noted his party "rested on our oars to examine it", which is to say they were in a boat, having sailed "four miles from Ross". My parents and I, on the other hand, approached the castle via the English Heritage Car Park & Gift Shop. (Enter, as well as exit, through the gift shop.)

A direct comparison of our viewings is thus sadly not possible; he presents a couple of engravings, but I can't offer a "232 years later" photograph to match.

But that would have been impossbile anyway. Gilpin's view didn't exist.

I suspected as much at first glance. Having seen the river from the castle walls, one look at his engraving had me "calling fake"; the castle certainly overlooks the Wye, but surely not in quite this dramatic a fashion. Surely Gilpin had taken artistic liberties in composition - artistic liberties, in fact, being exactly what the accompanying text encouraged?

Although I failed to confirm this suspicion out on the ground, some googling led me to fellow (actually, rather better) Gilpin-retracer Darryl Baird, who did. In his blog of 2005, he writes:

"I’ve been bothered by its compression of space, akin to the effect from a short-telephoto lens. This was, of course , impossible in 1770. In my readings I’d found Gilpin took a bit of artistic license with the scene in order to compose a Picturesque. Nonetheless, many a devotee of the Picturesque arrived, Gilpin’s journal in hand, and searched in vain for the correctly depicted view. I found more problems with the view as I stood on the river bank and observed the relationship of the castle to the hilltop from the Ross side, it doesn’t sit in that position until you’ve gone past and looked backward."

At any rate, this was our view as we approached on foot, looking over the moat.

Goodrich Castle engraving by William Gilpin, via Google Books Goodrich Castle Goodrich Castle

Entering the castle

Today, striding directly through the open gatehouse into the courtyard would take seconds. With an audio guide directing your attention to the architectural evidence of its military function, it takes quite a while. Even having crossed the moat, we find a series of door / portcullis / gates to traverse, all the while overlooked by numerous arrowholes and overhead vantages from which you could be shot or burned with oil. Chambers for armed watch/guards. Layer upon layer of security; it's almost like they built the place to withstand a siege...

Of course, like so many castles in Britain, it's not so easy to pin down the "they" who built it, and what they built it for. The simple answer is Godric of Mappestone (hence the name), an Ango-Saxon thegn, in about 1080, although some believe Saxon fortifications existed on the site beforehand.

However, the castle as seen today is by no means Godric's design. His timber and earthwork fort was replaced by a stone keep in the 12th century; this was expanded with a curtain wall in the early 13th; this work rebuilt in the late 13th; and so on.

Goodrich Castle
Goodrich Castle Goodrich Castle

Why the need for an increasingly reinforced castle here? At this time, the Welsh Marches were a lawless frontier zone between the Norman-conquered England and the still independent Wales. Raiding parties were common. Edward I's conquest of Wales in 1382 was not the end of the story either, as sporadic Welsh rebellions occured in the Wye valley and the wider border region; but these forces never presented the castle with any serious military challenge or action, and as the Welsh rebellion abated, work at the castle became increasingly a matter of added residential capacity and comfort. These delicate arches for the north east tower's solar, for example, are hardly military.

Goodrich Castle

In the keep, evidence, remains of the multiple storeys of dining and accomodation.

But by the sixteenth century, the castle was unfashionable, too far from London and unnecessarily fortified for a noble's main residence. It found use holding prisoners, or confiscated cattle, from the local court.

Goodrich Castle Goodrich Castle

Scaling the tower allowed a fine over view the extent of the castle, down to the river and across a wide spread of the Wye valley.

Goodrich Castle Goodrich Castle

For the opposite perspective, we descended to the moat.

From here, you get a real sense of how impregnable a castle like this would have appeared to a pre-gunpowder soldier.

Of course, to describe the castle shown here as impregnable is to rather ignore an elephant in the room: it's in ruins.

In the end, Goodrich Castle met its siege, but ironically it came not from the Welsh, but from... the English. During the English Civil War, the castle found its way into Royalist hands, Henry Lingen commanding a force of 200 men and 90 horses. In 1646, Parliamentary forces led by John Birch besieged the castle, and with the aid of Roaring Meg, won the day.

I rather gave the game away by qualifying my previous statement pre-gunpowder, but for anyone yet to put the pieces together, Roaring Meg was a 15.5 inch barrel diameter mortar, the largest mortar of the war. Today, it's on display at the castle.

The castle was slighted (deliberately part-destroyed to render it indefensible) the following year, and never rebuilt.

Goodrich Castle Goodrich Castle

The chapel offers two stained glass windows, one Wye-inspired, and the other commerating lost RAF airmen of WW2.

Goodrich Castle Goodrich Castle

Tintern Abbey

And so on to another essential stop on any Gilpin inspired itinerary: Tintern Abbey.

So to recap: 1793, Observations on the River Wye is published; a fever of picturesque tourism ensues, with Tintern Abbey as a focus point. The spendour of the ruins was renowned throughout artistic and literary elites: Wordsworth, inspired to poetry in the 1790s; J.M.W.Turner, inspired to paint around the same time; Tennyson, inspired to poetry in 1847...

Obviously then, we can assume Gilpin gave the Abbey a rave review.

Gilpin's engraving of Tintern Abbey

Not exactly. As this blog about Jane Austen's relationship to Gilpin's writing discovers with amusement, he finds the arrangement unsatisfying, and even suggests taking a hammer to the place to create a more pleasingly ruined form.

Though the parts are beautiful, the whole is ill-shaped. No ruins of the tower are left, which might give form and contrast to the buttresses and walls. Instead of this a number of gable ends hurt the eye with their regularity, and disgust it by the vulgarity of their shape. A mallet judiciously used (but who durst use it?) might be of service in fracturing some of them; particularly those of the cross-aisles, which are both disagreeable in themselves, and confound the perspective.
Tintern Abbey

It should be clarified at this point he is talking only about the view from outside, from a distance.

In this photograph, I can almost see where he's coming from -- with no tower to draw the eye vertically, were the left hand side of the building to be further ruined, a more dynamic, jagged, silhouette with a stronger vertical emphasis would emerge. I wouldn't agree to the point of considering any mallet use to be judicious, however.

As he gets closer, though, he declares it a "very enchanting piece of ruin", happily detailing the "Ivy, in masses uncommonly large" and various mosses, lichens and plants which have colourfully overtaken the remains.

Tintern Abbey

Today, some moss and lichen is evident - considering lichen survives in the arctic, or in space, it would be a tough job to get rid of it if you tried, not that anyone has. But the overall impression is far from overgrown; the Abbey is now managed by Cadw, the Welsh government's equivalent of English Heritage, and they keep it rather tidy.

Too tidy for Gilpin, you'd imagine, although not over-maintained by my twenty-first century standards, accustomed to horrors of tourist packaging the like of which Gilpin could never have dreamt. The lawns are neat, and threaded by modern paths, but the broken down walls and foundations of the outer buildings are blessedly free of the clutter of fencing and signage that is often evident, with varying degrees of necesssity, at historic and archaelogical sites.

Tintern Abbey

But let there be no mistake - stepping inside is the real treat.

But when we enter it, we see it in most perfection; perfection;

And that's all the Gilpin quoting I'll do for a while, because never mind narrative hooks, just stop and take a look at this place.

Also keep in mind this was mostly built in the 13th century (although construction extended between 1136 and 1536).

Tintern Abbey

The sheer height is awesome enough, but the proportions are also incredibly graceful. Long and slim without being narrow, soaring without becoming vertiginous... I could probably find some golden ratios in here if I tried hard enough, but I'm not that sort of guy.

The vacant window at the far end is simply epic; the scale of (medieval) glass required to fill it is slightly boggling.

Indeed, roofless, and stripped of glass, it is hard to imagine this as a 13th century working monastery church, lit by the candles and echoing with the prayers and chants of the first Cistercian settlement of monks in Wales.

Tintern Abbey

But the architecture is so fine that even the arched skeleton of what was designed nonetheless fulfils its duty, inspiring an automatic sense of quiet contemplation and reverence.

I have no idea who this guy is. I didn't get him to pose. This is just what this building does.


Look at those columns, thick enough to stand with firm might, thin enough, and sculpted into a clustered shape, to avoid any danger of stoutness.

Tintern Abbey

The columns were also useful to me as a photographer. Although not peak-season crowded with other tourists, there was one coachload of retired sightseers and a handful of other solo, couple or family tourists, and for the most part I felt their brightly coloured waterproofs detracted from the desired ambience of the photograph. With sufficient patience, you could fire off a shot in the half a second where all the various people in the frame stepped behind various pillars...

Tintern Abbey

And look at those beautiful pointed arches, part-filled by the lush green of the Wye's wooded hillside shores.

However, much as I was finding the abbey's architecture a feast, the overall picturesque (photographic) experience was sadly second rate.

The reason was my perpetual enemy: an blank, featureless overcast sky. No nice contrasts to pick out here.

Worse, not atmospherically thick and dark cloud, but a thin, bright, glare-y kind of overcast, which in a regular exposure has the habit of bleaching out to a fringe-y white through the windows and arches, as somewhat evident here. I thus far lack the knowledge to do HDR, so I (almost) contented myself with a little basic manual touching up.

But fundamentally these beguiling arches shouldn't need photoshop; with that day's weather they just weren't as beguiling as they could be, would be with direct sunlight lighting the stone and breaking into shafts of light and shadow between columns.

Tintern Abbey

How do I know?

Because for about 11 glorious / infuriating seconds, the sun glimmered out, and taunted me with what I was missing.

The glimmer was literally so short as to provide me with this one, solitary shot.

It reminded me how much of my satisfaction with photos can come down to the weather. Imagine this place with stronger sunshine and blue sky, or better yet, mist. Once again, Gilpin provides a neat truism for photographers, before there were photographers:

Different lights make so great a change even in the composition of landscape, at least in the apparent composition of it, that they create a scene perfectly new.

Oh, to live nearby and stake out this place in all weathers. But as a weekend visitor to the region, day tripping under parental locomotion, our unpredictable weather had only one chance to step up for me, -- and it gave me (almost) its worst shot.

Tintern Abbey


So, onward down the winding Wye, to the town of Chepstow.

Just a couple of miles above the Wye's confluence with the Severn, Chepstow's location on a curve of the high-cliffed river made it an strategically powerful site for fortification. The Normans didn't waste any time, founding a castle here in 1067. The Great Tower dates from those earliest days, and is considered the oldest surviving post-Roman stone fortification in Britain.

These days, the main battle Chepstow seems to be fighting is Britain in Bloom.

Floral Chepstow

No chance of hiding the main attaction behind a bouquet, though.

Perched high above the water, the castle is an attention-seeking presence from across the river, the grand bulk of medieval stonework rising flush from the sheer cliffs.

Chepstow Castle

From the town, the Great Tower set back and is less imposing. Instead, the thirteenth-century lower bailey and gatehouse projects toward the town, with the huge round Marten's Tower, built later in the 13th century by Roger Bigod III, emphatically overlooking the neighbouring streets.

Let's head through that gatehouse and look inside.

Chepstow Castle Chepstow Castle

Entering the castle, you are first drawn into the hall block on the north of the lower bailey, another 13th century Roger Bigod development.

A window frames the highly picturesque, pastoral scene of grazing cows in a field across the river.

Window, Chepstow Castle

Another room contains a rather different, memorable view of the river. A "bay window" type arrangement with its ledge jutting out from the cliff, a hole in the bench open directly to the river, frighteningly far below. Well, why bother building plumbing if you can park a crapper 80 ft above a river?

A thankfully rather more solid-feeling cliffside platform affords this view up the cliff to the Great Hall.

Chepstow Castle above the Wye

Having explored the various rooms of this section, you emerge in the bailey and are once again drawn up the slope toward the Great Hall.

Chepstow Castle

The reverse view through that archway is wonderful.

Chepstow Castle

From in the middle bailey, you can look down at where you were looking up from, moments ago.

As a child, I inherited my father's piles of Jack Higgins and Alistair Maclean novels, and as such, I am unable to look upon this scene without becoming almost overwhelmed at the possibilities for gripping adventures and swashbuckling derring-do that such a location could host.

In 1942, a high ranking German naval officer of unrivalled intelligence value is captured in the Atlantic, just days after a German spy was revealed at the highest levels of British Military Intelligence. Reeling from these revelations and unable to trust his usual network of safe houses, Alec Thornside installs the naval officer at Chepstow castle. Discovering this, the Germans team up with an ex-IRA commando retired to the Welsh borders, drawing on his local knowledge and philosophical, enigmatic charisma and leadership to mount a daring raid up the Wye...
Chepstow Castle above the Wye Chepstow Castle above the Wye
Chepstow Castle above the Wye

Back in 2012, there was a man of specialist skills at work, but it was a rather slower paced kind of work.

He wasn't a commando (or, if he was, it was in a past life he didn't mention), but I'm not sure what his job title actually would be.

Heritage technician? Historical carpenter? Restoration expert?

He was undertaking maintenance to an enormous, 500-year old door.

500 year old door at Chepstow Castle

We reached the "far end" of this generally long, thin castle, and admired the view down to the Wye one more time.

Then we looped back to the Lower Bailey, this time via the walls on the town (southern) side.

Chepstow Castle above the Wye

From the battlements on the south, a view over the town. The western pillar of the Severn Bridge is faintly visible in the distance.

(That's a subtle foreshadowing of future content.)

Chepstow seen from the castle

Back to the lower bailey, and I spotted a plaque that provided a curious echo of Goodrich Castle.

As at Goodrich, this castle found a defining moment not in contests between the Norman and Welsh, but during the English Civil War.

Chepstow Castle

It reads:

On the 25th day of May 1648 near this spot was slain SIR NICHOLAS KEMEYS
Knight and Baronet of Cefn Mably and Llanvair Iscoed
Member of Parliament and High Sheriff for the Counties of Monmouth and Glamorgan
Whilst defending this castle for King Charles I against the forces of Oliver Cromwell
Chepstow Castle

Being a fan of bridges, I wanted to go check out the quaint white bridge over the river we'd seen from the castle.

The last building on the aptly-named road there, Bridge Street, was the Bridge Inn, self-styled first and last pub in Wales. I can't help thinking there must be more than one of those.

The First & Last Pub in Wales

The cast iron Old Wye Bridge was built in 1816, replacing various wooden crossings at the site since Norman times.

The Wye here has one of the highest tidal ranges in the world, as you can see by comparing Wikipedia's low tide and high tide shots.

Old Wye Bridge, Chepstow

While we were in the area there was one more bridge I had to see, and this aerial photograph offers a fantastic perspective of the locality.

The Old Wye Bridge is in the bottom left; shortly downstream, a railway bridge and newer road bridge carrying the A48 cross in tandem. The railway bridge is a rebuilt Brunel design, but the object of my attention now was a more modern construction: the Severn Bridge.

Old Wye Bridge, Chepstow

Severn Bridge

According to the Severn Bridges Visitor Centre, the Severn Bridge was the 6th longest span in the world when it opened in 1966, and is now the 20th.

Their site is a little out of date, though, as China's epic bout of bridgebuilding in recent years has pushed it down to 28th (at the time of writing, anyway).

So, unlike the Humber bridge, the first seriously long suspension bridge I visited, it was never a world record holder -- this matter not a bit, though, for in size and elegance it is "world class" nonetheless.

Severn Bridge

The Severn is the longest river in the UK and although beaten to the title of highest discharge by Scotland's River Tay, it does take that title within England and Wales. As the bridge was built at a relatively narrow point, it shows. The river had both the breadth and the obviously powerful current to inspire automatic respect, verging on fear or awe, which is not often the case with Britain's mostly tame rivers.

One slightly unusual feature of the design is the typically vertical support cables being arranged in a non-vertical zig-zagging pattern, an attempt to reduce vibration.

Severn Bridge

Before the bridge was built, anyone wanting to avoid a 60 mile detour via Gloucester would have taken the Aust Ferry, and we were stood at its western terminus, the old ferry ramp surviving almost directly under the bridge.

This is Beachley, on the peninsula of land formed between Severn and Wye; although on the "Welsh side" of the Severn Bridge, the border here follows the Wye, so we were on English soil.

Severn Bridge

Although not a world-leader in length, the Severn Bridge did innovate with the aerodynamic shape of its deck, with the cycle/pedestrian paths cantilevered outwards from the main box.

From underneath, this shape only adds elegance to the inherently elegant form of a suspension bridge.

In fact, I might go as far as to say that suspension bridges are the most elegant form of infrastructure, full stop.

Severn Bridge Severn Bridge

Their spans stretch off to a far distant point with such an absence of clutter, such a low overall ratio of "stuff" to its length and height, such a slim deck supported by even slimmer cables... no other structure can embody such awe-inspiring might and scale, balanced with such delicate lightness and simplicity.

Despite the impressive scale of the bridge, it didn't take long for traffic on the M4 to outgrow it, and so thirty years later it was joined by the Second Severn Crossing. This combination of a central cable-stayed section with long viaducts on the mudflats either side may be more directly aligned to the route of the M4, it may carry more traffic, it may be less susceptible to closures in high winds, and it may have been more cost-effective than building another longer, wider suspension bridge... but it's really not the same, is it?

Cable-stayed bridges can be elegant, of course, like the Milau Viaduct, Octavio Frias de Oliveira bridge, or various Santiago Calatrava creations. This one, though, is not. No curves, no symmetry, and no aesthetic vision making a triumph of their absence - as a seeker of the picturesque, I'll stick to the graceful parabolas of the original Severn Bridge.

Severn Bridge Second Severn Crossing