Category Archives: Llangollen

Valle Crucis Abbey #1 – An introduction to the Cistercians and Valle Crucis

Valle Crucis is a superb example of a ruined Cistercian abbey, located less than an hour’s drive from the Chester-Wrexham area, in a lovely valley on the edge of a quiet stream that flows into the Dee.  It has been extensively surveyed, the few documents relating to the site and its antecedents have been studied and the site has been excavated both in the 19th Century and in the 1970s.  Importantly, most of the main features of the core buildings are identifiable, and can be discussed in terms of how the monastery was planned and used.  All of  these resources form a good basis for understanding how Valle Crucis was established and used, and what happened to it after it was “suppressed” or decommissioned following Henry VIII’s dissolution of most of Britain’s monasteries.

This is the first of a series of posts looking at monasticism in this part of the northwest, on both sides of the Welsh border, and heading some way down the Marches as far south as Shrewsbury on the English side, and Strata Marcella near Welshpool on the Welsh side.  These posts are quite long, and each can be downloaded and saved as a PDF if preferred.  The PDF of this post, Valle Crucis #1, can be downloaded by clicking here.  Valle Crucis, is used in these first four posts to introduce not only this particular abbey, but also the ideas that lead to monasticism, different monastic orders and the  distinctive architecture that defines most of the monastic orders in Britain.

An “order” is a shared monastic tradition, a set of spiritual ideals often spelled out in considerable detail in rules that covered everything from how many times a day a monk should pray, communally or individually, to where and when they could speak, eat and sleep, and what work they should engage in.  All orders involve a degree of renunciation and isolation by communities of monks.  Monastic architecture reflects both the need to gather a community in one establishment, adhering to a single set of rules, and the need to divorce that establishment from the rest of the world.  Unlike monks, friars could leave the monastic community (friary) to preach and tend to the poor, and were often located in urban contexts, but other orders chose to confine themselves to an abbey to focus their attentions on worship and scholarly activities that celebrated God.  Some chose to locate themselves far from other human habitation.  All were what is now termed Catholic, and all owed allegiance to the Pope, as well as to the heads of their own order, and to the founders who endowed their properties with land and resources.  The religious orders of the 12th and 13th Centuries in Britain were differentiated from one another based not on their religious beliefs, but on their ideas about how best to worship and celebrate God.  They dedicated themselves to spirituality and worship in different ways, based on traditions established in the history of monasticism.

St Pachomius in St Shenouda Monastery, Egypt. Source: St Shenouda Monastery website

Monasticism grew out of an early tradition in 3rd-4th Century A.D. Egypt where the devout might abandon their communities to live as hermits in the desert hills and mountains, divorced from anyone else.  They had as their models St John the Baptist and Jesus, both of whom had engaged in devout isolation in the desert.  Hermits began to organize themselves into communities that focused on offering guidance and communal prayer whilst still offering isolation from the distractions of secular life.   In the 4th Century, former soldier Pachomius, having followed the eremitic path in the Egyptian desert to live the life of a hermit, heard a voice telling him to establish a community for hermits like himself, a coenobitic (“common living”) way of combining isolation from the outside world with communal support and guidance.  This acknowledged that whilst individuals might seek out a life divorced from the material, they could well need help to achieve the sort of enlightenment that they were seeking.  These communities were therefore sources of knowledge, wisdom and education as well as worship.   He established his monastery in Tabennisi in Egypt, and simultaneously began to develop the first set of formal rules for guiding life in a monastery, which grew over time.  The rules combined prayer, solitude and work in a communal and very isolated environment, a difficult balance to strike.  This  was successful and soon spread.  Monasteries began to appear throughout the Mediterranean from where they spread into Europe.

A 12th Century interpretation of St Benedict delivering his monastic rule in the 6th Century AD. Source: Wikipedia, via Monastery of St. Gilles, Nimes France (1129)

In 6th Century Italy, St Benedict developed another set of rules for monastic living that required not only individual prayer and communal worship, but outlined a strict regime of living that included eating merely for fuel rather than enjoyment, a largely vegetarian and very narrow diet, and the requirement for manual work, including contributing to building projects and labouring in the fields.  The concept of an abbey emerged, a religious establishment consisting of both a monastery and a church in a single complex, housing a community of monks who do not leave the premises.  St Benedict’s form of monasticism was popular and spread throughout Europe.

As Benedictine monasticism spread and developed its own personality over the centuries, the strictness of St Benedict’s rules was often abandoned to enable a much more comfortable lifestyle, with an emphasis on liturgy rather than work, a varied and rich diet that included meat, and an emphasis on glorifying God through rich works of art and generous patronage.  Some abbots became involved in religious and state politics beyond the abbey walls, and became influential in their own right, far from the unworldly vision of  monks that St Benedict had promoted.  In the 12th Century this more opulent version of Benedictine monasticism was epitomized by the Cluniac order of monks (named after their abbey at Cluny in France).  The Cluniac order was the apogee of this desire to express devotion through liturgy and art, the elaborate and rich monasteries home to opulent treasures, art works, tapestries and fabulous stained glass that were intended to both reflect and celebrate the glory of God, and the monks entertained lavishly, rubbing shoulders with the rich and powerful.  This trend sat ill with those who sought a simpler, modest, withdrawn and hard-working way of serving God, true to St Benedict.

Johann Petr Molitor, Cistercian monks, murals in the Capitular Hall, Cistercian Abbey Osek, North Bohemia, before 1756. Source: Wikipedia, from the Cistercian Abbey of Osek, North Bohemia

During the early Middle Ages, the Cistercians, named after their first abbey at Citeaux in France (Cistercium in Latin), set about returning to the values of St Benedict, which led to the reformation of some branches of Benedictine-based monasticism.  They combined worship with hard work in remote places that encouraged contemplation, eliminated distractions and enabled focus on a communal but pared down livelihood that was far more in keeping with St Benedict’s more spartan ideals.  Starting at Citeaux in 1098, new Cistercian abbeys were established as a network of child abbeys, each secondary to its own mother, and all owing allegiance to the founding house at its core.  Each new abbey could spawn one or more other abbeys.  The monks wore undyed habits, unlike the other Benedictine orders whose habits were dark brown or black.  Accordingly, they became commonly known as the White Monks.  

Citeaux Abbey. Source: Wikipedia

Perhaps the most important Cistercian monastery other than Citeaux, in terms of evangelizing on behalf of the Cistercians, was Clairvaux (founded 1115), which was the home base of abbot St Bernard.  St Bernard was a restless and vocal monastic propogandist of the 12th Century who, in contradiction to the rules of the order, travelled far and wide to bring the Cistercian message to the western world, and whose sayings are still widely quoted: “Arouse yourself, gird your loins, put aside idleness, grasp the nettle and do some hard work.”  He was an advocate of crusades, connected with monarchs, politicians and other religious hierarchy, promoted the cult of the Virgin Mary, and became an unexpected and influential celebrity and icon, the poster-child of the Cistercian message.  Gascoigne calls him “the most influential monk of the Middle Ages.”

St Bernard in his white robes holding a delightfully improbable demon at his feet.  Marcello Baschenis, c.1885. Source: Wikipedia

Very quickly, new Cistercian abbeys proliferated in Europe and across Britain, always in isolated locations, each connected as a daughter to its mother abbey, to which it owed homage and loyalty.  Clairvaux was the mother abbey for Whitland in south Wales, which was established by monks from Clairvaux itself.  Whitland in turn established other abbeys including Strata Marcella near Welshpool, and this abbey in turn established Valle Crucis.  It took 86 years from the foundation of Clairvaux until the foundation of Valle Crucis, but it was only four monastic steps from St Bernard, and that sense of proximity must have resonated at Valle Crucis, as with all the abbeys in Wales.

Every Cistercian abbot had to return from his abbey to Citeaux every year for what was known as the General Chapter, a great conference of abbots.  This was the case even for abbeys that were located overseas, and the British abbeys were subject to this costly and time-consuming annual trek.  Also on an annual basis, the abbot or his prior if he had one (the abbot’s second in command) would visit a given abbey’s daughter abbeys to ensure that everything was running according to the original Benedictine plan.  This led to a degree of standardization and adherence to the order’s rules that was not necessarily seen in the other orders.

The remains at Valle Crucis offer a great opportunity for discussing the main points of Cistercian architecture, life and economic strategy.  It is a site that reinforces many of the observations that have been made about Cistercian monastic traditions throughout Britain, but which is also interesting in its own right.  The Welsh abbeys provide a particular opportunity for considering how their circumstances may have differed from their English counterparts, due to a series of factors including the patronage of Welsh abbeys by the Welsh princes, the wars fought on monastic land by Edward I and Owain Glyndŵr, and the character of the landscape in which the abbeys were built.  Other orders will be discussed in the future.

Introducing Valle Crucis

The East Range

Valle Crucis was built in a scenic valley beneath the Horseshoe Pass near Llangollen, on the banks of Nant Eglwyseg, a fast-moving stream that ran into the Dee and now feeds the Llangollen canal. 

Both choir (or quire) monks and lay brothers were housed at Valle Crucis.  The choir monks and lay brothers lived different lives.  Their refectories, dormitories and latrines were all quite separate, and their roles within the abbey were clearly delineated.  Although the lay brothers would worship in the church, they were confined to the nave and a screen separated them from the choir brothers.  The lay brothers ate more advantageously, as they needed a better diet to support them in their daily work.  Cistercian orders worshiped seven times a day and once at night, and engaged in scholarly pursuits, but were also expected to engage in manual labour, contributing to the work carried out by lay monks.  Lay monks (conversi) were illiterate and worked the land, but were resident at the monastery.  They had their own separate quarters for sleeping and eating, and were confined to a section of the church that was divided from the parts of the church used by the quire monks.  Their church worship was much less frequent than that undertaken by quire monks, as most of their day was taken up by agriculture, crafts and building works.

The name of Valle Crucis is Latin, meaning Valley of the Cross, a reference to the 9th Century inscribed Pillar of Eliseg that was erected to commemorate the ancestors of Concenn of Powys, a  Welsh chieftain who died on pilgrimage to Rome in 858.  Eliseg was Concenn’s great-grandfather.  The inscription is now illegible but was recorded in 1696 and lists great deeds of ancestors, presumably with a view to establishing an incontrovertible connection to the lands on which the cross was constructed.

Survey, excavation, restoration and modern research

Carved head found in the refectory during excavations, and now rather a long way from home in the National Museum in Cardiff.  Source: Evans 2008, p.47

Documentary resources are few and far between for Valle Crucis, so other ways of exploring the history of the site have been employed.  The documentary archives of other monasteries and of related properties have helped to provide some additional information, but the documentary picture remains very threadbare.

Because of the architectural and functional standardization of monastic establishments, it has been possible to extrapolate the roles of much of the site’s key buildings by comparison to other Cistercian abbeys, but this only takes one so far.

Observing the above-ground architecture has taken matters a lot further, telling a story of a major fire forty years after the foundation of the abbey, and the changes in architectural direction that had to be taken as a result.  As the decades and centuries passed, changes in Cistercian values and ideas are captured in the architectural features and new decorative motifs.  This rich source of information has been supplemented by data that has come from the ground.

One of the illustrations from Butler’s 1970 excavations, published in 1976

One of the fads of the 19th Century was antiquarianism, the investigation of ancient sites of all ages.  Excavations became popular activities, although often hair-raising in the level of destruction achieved in the process of the pursuit of dazzling objects.  Valle Crucis did not escape this attention, and a series of archaeological excavations were carried out in both the middle of the 19th century, and in its latter half.   An anonymous letter to Archaeologia Cambrensis dating to 1863 by a visitor to Valle Crucis condemned the mid 19th Century excavations by W.W.E. Wynne, but the subsequent excavations by Harold Hughes appear to have been carried out with rather more integrity.

In 1970 the site was excavated by Lawrence Butler.  He reported on the findings, including the chronological sequences from the site, and full details of the pottery in 1976.  The pottery was limited in type and form but covered the full range of the site from construction to dissolution.  The faunal remains were analyzed by the ever excellent Graeme Barker as part of that project’s post-excavation work, to provide information about diet and economic activities, and his report was published in the same year.  The results of this particular project are of great interest as Butler found evidence of the earliest clearance of the site and was able to clarify details of fire, flood and alterations to the architecture in line both with these events and in response to the relaxation of Cistercian rules.

Because work has been concentrated on the core abbey buildings, it is less clear how the larger monastic precinct was organized.  This is the area surrounding and beyond the abbey’s heart, that were essential to the abbey’s economic survival, in which agricultural and activities took place, and in which vital supplies were stored for consumption or trade.  

Illustration from the 1895 excavation report by Harold Hughes.

Restoration work began with clearance of the site for excavation, but more ambitious work followed.  Sir Gilbert Scott, the renowned Victorian architect, was employed to repair the west front of the church in 1872, and Sir Theodore Martin restored part of the east end in 1896.  The difference in the stonework at the  and the site has been made safe for visitors.

After passing into the hands of the Ministry of Works in 1950, Valle Crucis was eventually transferred into the care of Cadw in 2008, which retains responsibility for the site.  Between them the site was made safe for visitors and Cadw has expended some effort on information signage to help visitors understand some of the site’s history.


How Valle Crucis and other Welsh abbeys were founded

12th Century links between Cistercian monasteries. Source: Evans, D.H. Valle Crucis Abbey (Cadw). Although Citeaux, the node for all Cistercian abbeys, established early new bases in France, it was Clairvaux under the lead of St Bernard that was responsible for the earliest new abbeys in Wales. Of these Whitland was the most important for the northward spread of monasticism. The green lines emanating from Savigny reflect the Savignac order, which merged with the Cistercians after only 20 years, in 1147. So although Basingwerk in the north and Neath in the south were founded as Savignac orders, after 1147 they were brought under the rule of the Cistercians at Citeaux.

Valley Crucis was at the northeastern end of a branch of a monastic chain that spread from south Wales to the north over a period of some 60 years during the 12th Century, building on a much older European monastic tradition.  The Cistercian order of monks spread through Wales during the 12th Century AD from the of Wales where it was established by monks from the French monastery Clairvaux, forming an eastern and a western chain of monasteries.

The first new Cistercian abbeys were established in Wales in the wake of the Norman conquest, the earliest at Tintern in 1131, and had a distinctly Anglo-Norman flavour.  However, a second strand of Cistercian monasticism spread in Wales.  It began at Whitland (Abaty Hendy-gwyn ar Daf), founded in 1140 by monks from St Bernard’s abbey at Clairvaux, second only to the Cistercians’ founding abbey at Citeaux.  Whitland spawned a series of abbeys that were funded by the native Welsh princes and were populated mainly by Welsh monks, a pura Wallia (Welsh Wales) version of Cistercian monasticism that nurtured Welsh literature and learning.  This spread into the poorer and more remote areas of Wales.

Valle Crucis was founded in 1201, the daughter house of Strata Marcella Abbey (Abaty Ystrad Marchell) near Welshpool, founded by Owain Cyfeiliog, prince of southern Powys, itself a daughter house of Whitland.   Establishing an abbey was an expensive undertaking, both in terms of its construction and providing it with the resources to ensure ongoing economic security. Accordingly, every new abbey required an endowment by a donor, someone with enough land and wealth to give some of it away in return for divine good will and the prayers offered by the monks for the souls of the donor and his family.  The donor usually required a guarantee that they would be buried within the abbey church, and that their family would be buried either within the church itself or within the monastery precinct.  Monks were considered to have a hotline to God.  Having dedicated their lives to Him, and living sin-free lives, they built up a surplus of virtue and influence that could be employed on behalf of the living in order to provide for them in the afterlife, an intercession to minimize the impact of sins committed in life.  Valle Crucis Abbey was founded by Prince Madog ap Gruffydd. 

Original sacristy entrance, 13th Century.

Prince Madog ap Gruffydd controlled the territory of Powys Fadog from the Tanat valley in the south to the edge of Chester from 1191 until his death in 1236, and was an ally of his cousin Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (Llywelyn the Great), prince of Gwynedd, d.1240.  In accordance both with tradition, and to fulfil the terms of his original financing and support of the abbey, he was buried in the abbey church at Valle Crucis, although the exact site of the grave has been lost.  The map above left shows the territorial divisions in Wales in 1267, with Powys Fadog bordering Chester, Gwynedd, southern Powys (Powys Wenwynwyn) and England. 

Valle Crucis was supplied with at least twelve monks (considered by St Benedict to be the minimum number for founding a monastery, following the twelve apostles), possibly thirteen, who were installed in temporary accommodation with a wooden church.  Work would have begun immediately on the stone church, the sacristy and the accommodation, and the 1970 excavation found unmistakeable signs of this work.

Choice of location

The map to the left (Ordnance Survey SJ24/34) shows the relative locations of Valle Crucis Abbey, the Pillar of Eliseg and Castell Dinas Brân, all a short drive from Llangollen, which was probably a large village that would have benefitted from the proximity of the monastery and its associated farms (known as granges).

Ordnance Survey map SJ24/34, showing the relative locations of Valle Crucis Abbey, the Pillar of Eliseg and Castell Dinas Brân (the latter not built until 1270, 69 years after the foundation of Valle Crucis)

The Cistercian ideal of a contemplative existence away from distractions meant that new abbeys were sited where monks could practise their devotions in relative seclusion, although not in complete isolation.  They were often near to well-established routes, and they always located themselves near to water that would be used for drinking, cooking, cleaning, ritual purification, as well as fishing and sometimes for powering water mills.  Abbeys were supposed to be economically self-sufficient, so abbeys still needed to be near enough to manors and villages to enable them to trade their produce, mainly agricultural, in exchange for the basics required for sustaining the abbey, both the choir monks (the dedicated monks within the monastery) and the conversi or lay brotherhood.

Although little is known about Llangollen in the late 12th Century, there was some type of settlement recorded there based around a church, and in 1284, Edward I granted the manor of Llangollen to Roger Mortimer, together with the rights for a weekly market and two annual fairs.  Llangollen was far enough away for monks to feel that they were isolated from civilization, but near enough to a village to enable contacts to be established if required for sourcing produce, raw materials and other goods.  The site of the abbey was clearly idyllic.  The following is an evocative excerpt from a paper by John Williams, who reported on the abbey in 1846 in the journal Archaeologia Cambrensis:  

Luxuriantly watered by a clear stream and sheltered by high hills, the sides of which are gracefully ornamented by trees, the place altogether appears as if especially intended to be the home of peace and happiness – a paradise for restored man, where he might securely worship his Creator and cultivate the graces of heaven implanted in his soul.

The sad remains of Strata Marcella Abbey, which supplied the founding monks of Valle Crucis.  Source: Coflein website – RCAHMW, taken by C.R. Musson, 2/1/1995.

The founding monks of Valle Crucis from Strata Marcella near Welshpool certainly thought so.  They moved the residents of the existing hamlet of Llanegwest to a new location in order to establish themselves in this particular paradise in the form of a fine abbey.  Llanegwest was probably a fairly tiny settlement, and it was relocated to Maelor Gymraeg (on the far northeastern border).  This was by no means unusual, and there are enough records of hamlets and villages being moved to make way for a monastic establishment for this to be seen as a fairly standard (if somewhat ruthless) act in the establishment of a new Cistercian abbey.

The fish pond at Valle Crucis

The Cistercians were renowned for their use of water, which in some abbeys included sophisticated networks of sunken drains that fed into and out of monastic buildings.  The siting of Valle Crucis next to the Eglwyseg was essential for sourcing water that was used for cooking, cleaning, washing, for use in rituals and for creating a fish pond and a drainage system to flush both the choir monks’ and lay brothers’ latrines.

The pond is an expanded version of the original one, and is the only one surviving in Wales.  As early Cistercians could not eat meat under St Benedict’s rules, except on certain nominated days, fish was often an important component of the diet.  As the rules relaxed, meat found its way into the diet on more than just special days, but in the early abbeys fish was often responsible for providing much-needed protein.

The latrines, located on the first floor at the end of the dormitories, were flushed by drains below, which diverted fast-moving stream water to clear waste back into the stream,  presumably downriver of the monastery.  Cleanliness was an important component of monastic life, with monks washing their hands before each meal, and latrines associated with the devil.

Pillar of Eliseg by David Parkes 1809. Source: National Library of Wales

Finally, the Pillar of Eliseg may or may not have influenced the location of the abbey, even though it provided the abbey with its name.  It is, however, entirely possible that the presence of the ancient cross as a clear and ancient statement of Christian affiliation would have been particularly attractive to the new abbot and his monks.  Perhaps more significantly, it was probably particularly resonant for the founder-patron of the abbey, Prince Madog ap Gruffydd, embedded as the monument was with memories of the past inhabitants of the region who sought to defend it against all-comers.  With the Marcher Lords at the borders and the English beyond, Madog probably felt a close affinity with Concenn and his predecessors.   The cross still stands to the north of the abbey, but is considerably shorter, with bits missing, including the top, base and arms of the cross.  In the view to the right by David Parkes, dated 1809, the remains of Valle Crucis are visible at the lower left of the image.

I had initially assumed that the siting of Valle Crucis took into account the proximity of Dinas Brân, a Medieval castle that was also located in the Vale of Llangollen and can be seen from the abbey.  The castle was not, however, built until 1270.

View from the interior of Valle Crucis. I find it hard to get my head around the idea that this and other very narrow views were all that the monks would have seen. They could not explore the environment in which their abbey was located, because they were confined to the monastic precinct.  They could merely see it, never truly experience it.


The remains of Valle Crucis

Valley Crucis provides a very useful template for understanding other monasteries in the Benedictine tradition, all incorporating a church and the main monastic buildings arranged around a square cloister, consisting of a walkway connecting the buildings around a garden or “garth.”

Cadw site plan, with photographs of mine added to show the relative location of some of the key features (click to expand).

Above is a site plan of Valle Crucis, which adopted the typical layout of a Benedictine abbey that the Cistercians had adopted, basing themselves on the Benedictine rule.  The earliest known abbey in Britain that adopted this basic layout was Glastonbury Abbey.  Part 2 will show this image again, and look at these and other features in detail, discussing how they reflect historical developments from the foundation of the abbey at the beginning of the 13th Century, via fire, flood, fluctuating fortunes and changing ideas to its dissolution in the mid 16th century.

As I mentioned at the start of this post, Valle Crucis is not merely of interest as a component of the Vale of Llangollen landscape, but is a useful representative of both Welsh and English Cistercian traditions.  It both exemplifies many of the historical details that have been assembled about Cistercian monasticism in Britain, and provides an impressive volume of data that both reinforces existing knowledge and adds to it.  Some of this will be explored further in the next three posts.

This post, Part 1, has introduced the Cistercian order and explained why Valle Crucis was located where it is.  The next post, part 2 will look at the history of the abbey, and then take key features one by one, looking at how these features can be seen in terms of historical developments between the foundation of the abbey at the beginning of the 13th Century to its dissolution in the mid 16th century.  Part 3 will look at how life was lived in the monastery in terms of everyday activities, the roles allocated to monks, the subsistence strategies employed,  and how illness and death were handled.  Part 4 will go on to look at the dissolution of the monasteries and what happened to Valle Crucis after it ceased to be a religious establishment.

Sources for parts 1-4:

Resources that were of particular use are picked out in bold.

Books and papers

Anonymous (A. Traveller) 1863.  Valle Crucis Abbey – Correspondence To the Editor of Archaeologia Cambrensis.  Archaeologia Cambrensis, 3rd series, No.33, January 1863, p.68-72
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/2995788/67#?xywh=-1466%2C103%2C5111%2C3522

Aston, M. 2000. Monasteries in the Landscape.  Tempus

Barker, G. 1976.  Diet and Economy at Valle Crucis:  The Report on the Animal Bones.  Archaeologia Cambrensis 125 (1976), p.117-126

Butler, L.A.S. 1976.  Valle Crucis Abbey:  An Excavation in 1970.  Archaeologia Cambrensis 125 (1976), p.80-116
https://journals.library.wales/view/4718179/4747123/95#?xywh=-1521%2C-15%2C5975%2C3940

Burton, J. and Kerr, J. 2011.  The Cistercians in the Middle Ages.  Boydell Press

Clwyd and Powys Archaeological Trust.  Historic Settlement Survey – Denbighshire – 2014.  Llangollen SJ 2150 4190, 105978.
https://cpat.org.uk/ycom/denbigh/llangollen.pdf

Coppack, G. 1990.  Abbeys and Priories. Batsford.

Evans D.H. 2008, Valle Crucis Abbey, Cadw

Edwards, N. 2008.  The Pillar of Eliseg.  In: Evans D.H., Valle Crucis Abbey, Cadw

Gascoigne, B. 2004 (revised edition).  A Brief History of Christianity. Constable and Robinson

Greene, J.P. 1992.  Medieval Monasteries.  Leicester University Press

Hughes, H. 1894, Valle Crucis Abbey. Archaeologia Cambrensis, 5th series, 11:43 (1894), p.69-85, 257-75
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/3009987/#?xywh=-853%2C-196%2C3885%2C3913

Hughes, H. 1895. Valle Crucis Abbey. Archaeologia Cambrensis, 5th series, 12:45 (1895), pp. 5-17
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/3010260/#?xywh=-853%2C-196%2C3885%2C3913

Jones, O.W. 2013. Historical writing in Medieval Wales.  PhD thesis, Bangor University
https://research.bangor.ac.uk/portal/files/20577287/null

Platt, C. 1984.  The Abbeys and Priories of Medieval England. Chancellor Press

Robinson, D. 2006.  The Cistercians in Wales. Architecture and Archaeology 1130-1540.  Society of Antiquaries London

Silvester, R.J., and Hankinson, R., 2015. The Monastic Granges of East Wales. The Scheduling Enhancement Programme: Welshpool. Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust (CPAT)

Williams, D. 1984.  The Welsh Cistercians.  Cyhoeddiadau Sistersiaidd

Williams, J.  1846.  Valle Crucis Abbey.  Archaeologia Cambrensis, 1 , 1846 p.17-32, 151-153, 279-280
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/2989093/17#?xywh=-893%2C45%2C3900%2C3929

Wynne, W. W. E. 1848. Valle Crucis Abbey.  Archaeologia Cambrensis, 3:11 (1848), p.228-229
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/2991333/41#?xywh=-913%2C-241%2C3920%2C3949

Wynne, W. W. E. 1849. Excavations at Valle Crucis Abbey.  Archaeologia Cambrensis, 4:13 (1849), p.22-27
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/2991554/21#?xywh=-849%2C-1035%2C3920%2C3949

Wynne, W. W. E.  1851. Excavations at Valle Crucis Abbey.  Archaeologia Cambrensis, new series, 8 (1851), p.282-284
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/2990655/21#?xywh=-893%2C-221%2C3920%2C3949

Wynne, W. W. E. 1852. Excavations at Valle Crucis Abbey.  Archaeologia Cambrensis, new series, 10 (1852), pp. 93-96
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/2990849/12#?xywh=-893%2C-199%2C3900%2C3929

Yorke, T. 2004.  The English Abbey Explained.  Monasteries – Priories.  Countryside Books

Websites

Ancient and Medieval Architecture
Llantysilio – Valle Crucis Abbey
https://tinyurl.com/8fuybma9

Coflein
Valle Crucis
https://coflein.gov.uk/en/site/95205/

English Heritage
Valle Crucis Abbey
https://cadw.gov.wales/visit/places-to-visit/valle-crucis-abbey

Monastic Wales
Valle Crucis (Abbey)
https://www.monasticwales.org/browsedb.php?func=showsite&siteID=35

The Cistercians in Yorkshire
https://www.dhi.ac.uk/cistercians/

 

 

A visit to the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct near Llangollen – Thomas Telford’s iron trough 126ft over the Dee

It is without question a marvel of modern engineering and a remarkable sight, but what strikes most people when they first see the 1000ft (c.305m) Pontcysyllte  canal aqueduct is that the handrail along the pedestrian walkway 127ft (38.5m) over the river Dee is only a few steps away from the other side of the narrow canal trough, which has no handrail at all to separate a boat user from a straight drop into the valley bottom.  Until you lean over the towpath’s handrail and look straight down, 127ft is a rather abstract number.  The photograph on the right shows me crossing it on a 40ft narrowboat in the 1990s on a two week canal holiday.  What you cannot see are the white knuckles with which I am gripping the tiller for dear life, in spite of having absolutely no fear of heights, because there was absolutely nothing between me and that drop.  The aqueduct, Grade I listed, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2009, is the longest and highest in Britain.  It’s a long way down.

The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct passing over the Dee valley at Trevor. Source: Dronepics Wales

Seen from below or from a distance, the Pontcysyllte aqueduct is a fabulous sight, not pretty but truly awe-inspiring, and it shows exactly what Pontcysyllte is:  an iron trough built on 18 vast tapering brick piers, with 19 arches.  It was all about function, nothing to do with aesthetics, and has no ornamentation to soften it, but the sheer ambition of it grips the imagination and makes one look beyond the factual details of the thing.  It really is superb.  There is a path leading down along the side of the approach to the aqueduct into the valley below, a long but well maintained track to the valley bottom, where you can walk along the Dee and get a long at the aqueduct from a distance.  That’s one for another day.

It was a beautiful day, absolutely flawless, with cerulean blue skies, a golden sun warming one’s face, and a brightness of autumnal colours that takes some beating.  After attending the Remembrance Day commemoration at the Churton war memorial, with a memorable and moving address, and a two-minute silence filled with birdsong, I collected the car first, the parent next, and we proceeded towards Trevor, on the A539 to Llangollen.  There’s a brown signpost pointing to the aqueduct’s pay-and-display car park at the Trevor Basin, which is the home of a number of canal boat companies today, but when it was built was used for the transhipment of coal, building stone, iron products, timber and bricks, much of which was brought to the canal wharf by horse-drawn waggons.

Map of the key canal features in the Vale of Llangollen. I have added a red arrow to show the best car park for Pontcysyllte. Click to enlarge. Source: Pontcysyllte Aqueduct & Canal World Heritage Site

Thomas Telford and his chosen team

Portrait of Thomas Telford, who chose to be painted with the Pontcysyllte aqueduct in the background. Engraved by W. Raddon from a painting by S. Lane.

The aqueduct (built (1794-1805) was part of the Ellesmere Canal project.  It is one of the many British civil engineering projects that has the names of Thomas Telford (1757-1834), ironmaster William “Merlin” Hazeldine (1763-1840) and master stonemason John Simpson (1755-1815) attached to it, three men who had brought their particular skills to many different joint projects and in doing so had developed an invaluable relationship of trust and mutual respect.

Thomas Telford started his career as a stone mason, working in London on buildings such as Somerset House, and had ambitions to develop his career as an architect.  When he became the County Surveyor for Shropshire, he worked on a great variety of building projects including, by his own estimation, 40 road bridges between 1790 and 1796, two of which employed iron in their construction.   Hazledine had initially trained as a millwright, but  his family owned a small foundry  and Hazeldine went on to grow his iron casting business with the large Coleham Foundry at Shrewsbury.  Hazledine and Telford, both Freemasons, had met at Salopian Lodge  in Shrewsbury in 1789 and become friends and professional collaborators.  On one of his earliest projects in Shrewsbury Telford hired a childhood friend Matthew Davidson to oversee works, and Davidson employed master stonemason John Simpson who worked on many of Telford’s projects. Telford described Simpson as “a treasure of talents and integrity.”

Although Telford is by far the best known of the three, he, Hazledine and Simpson worked together frequently on many different projects to produce some of the great civil engineering constructions of their era, mainly bridges.  All three were involved with the Pontcysyllte aqueduct, where  Matthew Davidson also joined them, but the story of the canal starts before any of them were recruited to work for the Ellesmere Canal project.

Background to the aqueduct

The Trevor Basin today.

The big name in canal construction was James Brindley (1716-1772), who was responsible for building over 365 miles of canals by the time he died.  Brindely realized that any inland waterway network would need to connect to all the great navigable rivers that connected to the sea, including the Thames, the Mersey, the Severn and the Trent, incorporating other important navigable rivers like the the Avon and the Dee.  Most of his canals were contour canals, wherever possible built on the level and avoiding slopes so that locks and lifts could be avoided.  The network was therefore a sprawling affair, but it revolutionized transport, avoiding roads that would become mired and impassable in winter, as well as unnavigable sections of rivers, and the riverine problems of drought and flood.  Water into and out of the canal system was regulated and therefore predictable, and allowed year-round transport.  The advantages became very clear very quickly, and manufacturing and trading businesses began to locate themselves at critical points on the canal network.  Eagerness to invest in infrastructure resulted in a canal boom in the late 1780s and 1790s.  Each new section of canal required an Act of Parliament, subject to Royal Assent, and Act after Act was passed as the network expanded.

The complex arrangement of the Ellesmere Canal and its branches is shown as a think blue winding line. The thick blue line is the Dee. The yellow lines are roads. Click to see a bigger version. Source: Wikipedia

In 1791 a proposal for a canal to link the Mersey at Netherpool (later renamed Ellesmere Canal) to the river Dee at Chester and the Severn at Shrewsbury was discussed by three Shropshire entrepreneurs, carrying mainly coal, iron and lime, supported by other goods as well.  It was decided that a branch would be needed to Wrexham and Ruabon and onwards, via Chirk, bypassing Oswestry at its west, to Shrewsbury in the south with a branch to Whitchurch in the east and another to Llanymynech.  Originally it was planned to run a branch from Ruabon to reach the Irenant slate quarries near Llantysilio, via Llangollen, but this was at first dropped and later revived for different reasons (discussed below).  That branch would in turn connect to the Montgomery Canal from Frankton Junction via Welshpool to Newtown in mid Wales (for carrying limestone, coal, timber, stone and slates).

This seriously ambitious plan found sufficient support for a surveyor to be hired and possible routes to be explored.   William Jessop, an experienced canal engineer, was hired to head up the project and oversee all of its different components.  After disagreements over the final route were resolved (albeit not to everyone’s satisfaction), the Ellesmere Canal proposal went through parliament and received its Royal Assent in April 1793.  There were still a lot of technical and logistical details to resolve, including how the canal was to cross the Dee and Ceiriog valleys.

It was clear that Jessop needed help, and although the internal promotion of William Turner was Jessop’s first choice, Telford was brought in without his input. It is not certain how Telford, increasingly bored with life as a county surveyor, managed to insert himself into this ambitious engineering project, but the canal was already generating considerable excitement in the area and it looks as though he heard of the position and sought the support of one of Britain’s most prominent industrialists, John Wilkinson, to help him secure it.  Jessop made it clear in his letters what he thought of having Telford, who he had never met, brought in against his wishes as his right hand man, and refused to attend the meeting that appointed Telford to the Ellesmere Canal Company.  In spite of this rocky start, Jessop and Telford seem to have hammered out a decent working relationship, with Jessop teaching Telford what he needed to know about canal construction, and Telford injecting some ideas into the project.  Like Jessop, Telford managed to broker a deal to enable him to carry out other projects when his personal presence was not necessary, and this enabled him to work on other civil engineering works whilst the Ellesmere Canal was being built.

Building the aqueduct

Work began at Netherpool on the Mersey, renamed Ellesmere Port, in 1793.  The 9-mile canal ran down the Wirral to meet the Dee at Chester, and went so well that it opened for traffic in 1795 and was an immediate success.  While this section was underway, discussions were underway about how the canal might cross the Dee.  The original idea presented to the directors by Jessop and Turner, and apparently not opposed by Telford, was a relatively low level stone channel crossing three stone arches, with step locks either side to manage the ascent to and descent from the level of the canal to the aqueduct.   This would have been an expensive option, requiring not only the locks but the management of the water that would feed the locks.  Even after this had been agreed in principle, concerns resulted in a new plan for an iron channel on stone columns.  It is likely that it was proposed by Telford and supported by Jessop partly because it would have reduced the cost as iron was lighter, easier to work and move, and cost less.  A sketch by Telford from March 1794 survives showing an early version of this aqueduct design.

Telford’s Grade 1 listed Longdon-on-Tern aqueduct in Shropshire, 1796. Source: Chris Allen, Wikimedia

In early 1795 Telford had the opportunity to try out a smaller, less ambitious version of the design at Longdon-on-Tern on the new Shrewsbury Canal, on which Telford was also working, as replacement for the incumbent engineer who had died mid-project.  Later in the same year he had built a fully navigable iron aqueduct on a canal that had none of the problems of leakage or shattering that had worried other engineers.  Whether or not this was taken into account by the directors of the Ellesmere Canal Company, they decided in the same year to go for the iron trough on immense stone piers that was eventually built.

Telford’s friend and frequent collaborator, master mason John Simpson soon joined him on the project.  Telford also brought in Matthew Davidson, his childhood friend of Telford, a stone mason, civil engineer and excellent organizer, to oversee the bridge works.  Telford and Davidson had worked successfully together on Telford’s Montford Bridge project of 1790 – 1792.  Shortly afterwards, William Hazledine arrived to establish an ironworks and take charge of the construction work for the iron ribs and the trough.  By assembling three men that he had worked with before and trusted absolutely, Telford was not only ensuring that the project was in good hands, but that he had a team who could operate in his absence. The foundation stone for the aqueduct was laid on 25th July 1795.

Jessop and Telford made wooden models to test the design for the trough, finding that 1000s of iron parts would be needed.  The cast iron for the aqueduct was made of cast iron that was produced in William Hazledine’s new iron foundry nearby at Plas Kynaston, Cefn Mawr.  Hazledine established the Plas Kynaston foundry to service the construction of the Pontcysyllte aqueduct, thereafter taking advantage of the canal network to carry his cast iron in segments to be transhipped by river or sea to where it was needed.  When he built the Eaton Hall Iron Bridge at Aldford on the river Dee (described on an earlier post) it was from Plas Kynaston that the iron was shipped by canal.

After 1801 Jessop was much less involved and Telford also had interests elsewhere, and Telford was also involved in other projects, leaving Davidson, Hazledine and Simpson to run with the project.  The piers rose steadily, each built in turn from south to north by, at the peak of the project, over 500 men.  Jessop had been desperately worried from the beginning by the dangers to workmen’s lives of such tall piers, and safety precautions were taken very seriously, with the loss of only one life.  The iron parts were manufactured as needed at Plas Kynaston, and were numbered according to the order in which they would be needed so that only pieces needed at any one time would be delivered to the site.  First, ribs of iron were fitted to the piers, and then the trough was bolted on top, after which a wooden towpath was fitted to the side.  The entire project was finished in 1805, and opened on a sunny afternoon on November 26th 1805 at a grandiose ceremony followed by a lavish feast.  The entire cost for the aqueduct project was £47,018, which in today’s money translates as around £617,855 (National Archives Currency Convertor).

Metalwork over and under the arch at the left-hand Rhos y Coed bridge.

Although not as visible in the finished design, iron was also used in the Chirk aqueduct on the Llangollen canal where ten semi-circular masonry arches were crossed by a water channel with an iron bed plate and brick sides sealed using hydraulic mortar.  As well as in the aqueducts, iron was used in various ancillary structures too.  for example, Bridge 29, Rhos y Coed, at the Trevor Basin has visible iron metalwork supplementing the stone arch, and iron was used to cap the weir at the Horseshoe Falls.

The role of the aqueduct

Map from Nicholson’s Guide to the Central canal system, showing the stump end (framed in orange) of the planned Ruabon to Chester section of the canal, which was never built and now houses the attractive Trevor boatyard where the visitor centre is located. Source: Nicholson 1989

The Pontcysyllte aqueduct was almost immediately  in danger of becoming something of a white elephant, because its original role as a direct route to Wrexham and Chester was never fulfilled.  The section that led past Trevor Basin over the aqueduct was supposed to run straight on to the west of Ruabon, via Wrexham and on to Chester where it would link with the Wirral stretch leading to the Mersey and to the  Dee and the Shropshire Union Canal.  All that is left of the Trevor-Ruabon-Wrexham-Chester branch is a stump end occupied by the Trevor Basin, where the car park is located.  This is clearly visible on Nicholson’s map left, where the main line of the canal comes to a sudden, abrupt end.

The abandonment of this important part of the original plan was due to both engineering problems and financial issues.  There were only  two obvious engineering options – an enormous tunnel or a series of locks climbing towards Wrexham and another descending into the Cheshire plain where the canal could run along the flat plain to Chester.  The tunnel would have been appallingly costly, and it was difficult to know how the locks, by no means a low-cost option themselves, could have been supplied with the sufficient water.  Although other technologies were considered, they were rejected for reasons of practicality and cost.  This left the problem of where the water was to come from to feed the rest of the Ellesmere Canal and its branches.

Horseshoe Falls

At the far end of the Llangollen canal is Telford’s great arc of a weir, today known as the “Horseshoe Falls,” marking the point at which the Dee begins to feed the Llangollen canal.  An original survey had considered using the water of the Dee as it fell from Snowndonia via Lake  Tegid at Bala and through the Vale of Llangollen as a water source for the canal.  The idea had been to link the canal to a slate works, feeding the canal at the same time.  This proposal was now revisited.  The owner of Lake Tegid gave his permission and the plan was actioned.  At the Horseshoe Falls the canal is fed with water from the Dee via a sluice and meter, and today carries over 11 million gallons of Dee water a day, emptying it into Hurleston reservoir, just north of Nantwich, where the Llangollen Canal meets the Shropshire Union Canal.  I will be posting more about the Horseshoe Falls weir on another day.  There is no turning point for vessels over 10ft long beyond Llangollen, so the final stretch is only used by minimal traffic today.

This means that the vast aqueduct, such a remarkable feat of civil engineering, would only ever lead to the relatively unimportant narrow section of canal and feeder to a complete dead end at Llantisilio after passing high through Llangollen.  This navigable channel is approached from the aqueduct by negotiating a sharp left-hand corner just beyond the exit of the trough.  Although this seems like a sad role for an aqueduct that should have carried many times the traffic that it eventually did, without the aqueduct there would have been no water to feed the rest of the system.

Even without the Ruabon – Chester link, those wishing to carry all their goods by canal were still able to connect to the main canal system, although to reach Chester they had to take a very long way round, and Wrexham was excluded completely.  The Llangollen canal still linked to the Shrophsire Union at its eastern end, from which the rest of the vast canal network could be reached.

  • Chester could still be reached by travelling the full length of the Llangollen canal to Hurleston Junction, just north of Nantwich, on the Shropshire Union Canal.  From here Chester was nearly 16 miles away.
  • Just to the north of Hurleston Junction was the Middlewich Branch, which headed east and linked to the Trent and Mersey Canal, from where Manchester, Stoke on Trent, the eastern Midlands and Yorkshire could all be reached.
  • In the opposite direction, from Hurleston Junction the Shropshire Union ran directly to Birmingham, which was a vast junction for canals in all directions, including London on the Thames and Gloucester on the Severn.

The Cefn Mawr railway viaduct, which opened in 1848.

Along the line that the original canal would have taken, a cast iron tramway was built to connect local collieries and ironworks with the canal, the iron supplied by Hazledine.  This made the Trevor Basin a particularly important hub of activity, taken delivery of bricks, tiles, coal, iron limestone, slate and sandstone for transhipping along the canal.  It was also a boatyard, with  working narrowboats being built and repaired by Hills Boatyard in the dry dock next to the Visitor Centre (now occupied by a floating take-away café).  Later, there was an interchange with the steam railway.

Visiting Pontcysyllte

A small pay-and-display car park is available for visitors at the Trevor Basin, now the home of some canal trip and holiday companies.  There is also a pub with outdoor seating, and a take-away small café on a little boat next to the visitor centre.  There is a lot of disabled parking provided for in the small car park, which is reached from the A539 in Trevor, clearly signposted with brown heritage signposting.   The aqueduct is a very short walk from the car park, and the towpath heads for miles in both directions.

If, before or after crossing the aqueduct, you are interested in finding out more about the general context of the aqueduct and its location in relation to other parts of the canal, at the Trevor Basin there is a visitor centre, a small but nicely put together display space.  As well as a map of the area that takes up a wall and shows all the main features of the landscape and the canal system itself, there is a display of some of the tools that were used in the construction of the aqueduct, which are startlingly basic, and photographs and artists’ impressions of some of the supporting works, including the foundry at Plas Kynaston.  There are ring folders full of additional information, including facts and figures, that you can look through.

Walking the aqueduct itself is not for everyone.  The towpath is rock solid, with a tall handrail on the valley side, but only wide enough for two people, so there is a lot of stopping still to allow others to pass and there is nothing to stop you falling into the canal.  The canal is only just over 6ft (1.8m) wide, and beyond that is an unrestricted (no handrail, no nothing) drop 127ft to the valley floor.  A couple who I passed told me that they were determined to walk the full length and back, but were conquering their fears to do so, and they were gripping firmly to the handrail.

An alternative to walking is to cross by boat.  There are a number of short cruises that leave the Trevor Basin and run for about 20 minutes before turning and coming back (depending on which one you take and the time of year).

For those with uncooperative legs, everything is on the flat, so it is a very good walk for those who find uphill sections of walks difficult.  After rainfall, towpaths always become a bit muddy, and can be slippery, but even though we’ve had some rainfall recently, it was fine.  The towpath between Trevor and Llangollen is beautiful, and a good choice if you can face the aqueduct.

I noticed that one of the passenger boats said that it was suitable for disabled passengers, but I would recommend getting in touch with them first to find out about timings, prices and suitability for different types of disability.

Sources

Books and papers

Glover, J.  2017.  Man Of Iron.  Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain. Bloomsbury

Lynn, P. A. 2019.  World Heritage Canal.  Thomas Telford and the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.  Whittles Publishing.

Nicholson, R. 1989 (4th edition). Nicholson/Ordnance Survey Guide to the Waterways 2: Central. Robert Nicholson Publications and Ordnance Survey

Rolt, L.T.C. 1958, 2007.  Thomas Telford. The History Press.

Pattison, A.  n.d. William Hazledine (1763-1840): A Pioneering Shropshire Ironmaster.  West Midlands History https://historywm.com/articles/william-hazeldine-1763-1840  (Pattison’s full 278-page M.Phil, on which the article is based, is available here: https://etheses.bham.ac.uk/id/eprint/3358/1/Pattison12MPhil.pdf )

Websites

Canal and River Trust
Montgomery Canal
https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/enjoy-the-waterways/canal-and-river-network/montgomery-canal?gclid=CjwKCAiAp8iMBhAqEiwAJb94z7aIVzLoaYuqtwbDdRQsaUL73ssnmF_u1LpoURZmI9YxVUlrKi15whoCtxoQAvD_BwE

DronePics Wales
Pontcysyllte
https://dronepics.wales/pontcysyllte/

Engineering Timelines
Longdon-on-Tern aqueduct
http://www.engineering-timelines.com/scripts/engineeringItem.asp?id=308

Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History
James Brindley
https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/James_Brindley
William Hazledine
https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/William_Crosley_(1802-1838)
William Jessop
https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/William_Jessop

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Canal World Heritage Site
https://www.pontcysyllte-aqueduct.co.uk/