Just above the town of Caerphilly and the Norman deer park in the Aber Valley lies one of Wales’s oldest pilgrimage routes – an ancient walking trail connecting the Cistercian abbey at Llantarnam Abbey to the holy shrine at Penrhys some 20 miles to the west. The Cistercians – a strict religious order hailing originally from the town of Citeaux near Dijon in France – had been founded in 1098 as a breakaway from the Benedictine Order that the Cistercian founders considered to have strayed from the strict doctrine of its patron St. Benedict. Dressed all in white, as opposed to the black garb of the Benedictines, the Cistercians pledged themselves to a life of severe austerity and a commitment to agriculture and manual labour.
I’d learned about this route a few weeks before when I’d gone to visit Dr. Madeleine Grey, a local historian who’d caught my attention when I’d been reading about the early Welsh saints. It turned out that another of her historical passions was mapping and walking ancient pilgrimage routes. She was the co-creator of The Cistercian Way, a long-term mapping project to establish a series of walking trails retracing the footsteps of the monks who would travel across Wales from one abbey to another.
Maddy (as everyone called her) had agreed to go for a chat and walk with me in Forest Fawr woods near the 19th century Castell Coch (Red Castle) north of Cardiff. She’d brought along her neighbours’ dog, Nell, for the walk. It was a typically bonkers black spaniel and it raced back and forth into the woodland undergrowth and round our feet as we tried to walk.
Maddy had curly grey hair tied up in a loose bun, a peppy attitude and a walking pace that belied the fact that she had recently retired from full-time academia. She wore a mauve sweater, blue jeans and very well-lived in hiking boots. She talked as fast as she walked and, as someone used to lecturing, she’d come ready to talk.
“You might want to record our conversation as we walk,” she said as we started out up past the castle grounds and into the woods. “It’s okay, I take good notes,” I replied, my notebook and pen at the ready. She shot me a glance as if to say, “You really think you can listen, write and walk at my pace all at the same time!” I got the feeling Maddy had more faith in Nell the spaniel keeping up with what she was about to tell me. And the dog was plainly mad.
Within the first 10 minutes of walking Maddy had given me a breakneck history of Forest Fawr; how Sir Henry Sidney started an iron smelting operation in the woods and jumpstarted the iron industry in Wales; how he identified that this area was perfect for industry because of it abundant supplies of fresh water, mineral ores like iron and how he must have been an ace diplomat because he managed to endear himself to the courts of both Queen Elizabeth I and her rival, Mary Tudor. Not to mention how we were walking through one of the significant beech woods in all of Wales (and one of the only ones found this far west).
We’d only just reached the top of the hill and my head was spinning and heart was pumping due to the information I was trying to consume and the pace we were walking. “Tell me about the Cistercians. Why were they so important to the Norman Lords?” I asked as we walked.
Maddy had spent many years as an academic teaching medieval history to undergrads and had this knack of explaining in a way that was simple enough to stick in even the most scattered student brain. I suspected she was taking the same approach with me.
“The Cistercians were professionals,” explained Maddy. “In medieval times, if you wanted a bit of praying done you brought in the Cistercians. It was a bit like today if you have a problem with the electrics you bring in an electrician.”
They had arrived in Wales at the invitation of the Norman Lords and quickly established important and influential monasteries at sites like Margam (near Swansea), Strata Florida (in mid-Wales), Cymmer in North Wales, Tintern on the border with England at the River Wye and Llantarnam (just north of Newport). They brought with them an air of European sophistication – you might call it a Cistercian je ne sais quoi – to life in Wales as well as a devotion to a strict Christian doctrine that the Norman rulers were sorely lacking.
The Cistercians also had very strict land quality standards that had to be met before they agreed to establish a new monastery given the importance they placed on agriculture. So, as Maddy described, when a Marcher lord invited the Cistercians to establish an abbey they first sent an advance team to assess the viability of the land before committing.
This commitment to agriculture and hard labour on the land would have major ramifications for the woodlands that became part of the Cistercian estates. The monks felled large numbers of trees for assarting (clearing land for agriculture). According to one account by Gerald of Wales, the monks at one Abbey on the Welsh/English border “changed [one of the finest] oak wood[s] into a wheat field.” The monks also cut down forests on the order of local authorities to stem the spate of crimes such as robberies and murders.
The biggest long-term impact of the monks’ agricultural prowess came from their introduction of large-scale sheep farming. In 1291, the official Taxatio Ecclesiastica (a census of taxation on churches in England, Wales and Ireland) reported that six monasteries alone in Wales were responsible for more than 18,000 sheep. To maintain this number of sheep the monks either had to build extensive open pasture enclosures or let them graze the surrounding woodlands.
Over time the sheep population of Wales slowly started to roam thousands of hectares of hillside and became very much part of how we think of the Welsh landscape. But as the sheep steadily grazed their way through the uplands of Wales they became a dominant barrier to any chances that Wales’ ancient natural woodlands could reforest.
As I followed Maddy through the convoluted woodland paths above Castell Coch, stopping only to yell at Nell who’d disappeared down on old abandoned mine shaft, I asked her what got her interested in walking.
“Oh I don’t know,” she said. “It was probably that the only way I could get my students interested in the history I was teaching was by taking them out into the field and finding it for themselves. They always seemed to like a good walk!”
The walking bug never left her. So much so that, more than 20 years after starting the Cistercian Way project, she is still fine-tuning the routes. “It is so very hard to map. There is a lot of educated guesswork – like much of Welsh history to be honest,” she said, adding:
“Still, solvitur ambulando” as I like to say. That’s latin for “work it out by walking!”