Friday morning found us standing outside Tintern Abbey. It's hard to know what to say about this building it is so well known. Some facts: it was founded in 1131, and the abbey church rebuilt in stages in the second half of the 13th century; it remained pretty much unaltered until 1536 and the Dissolution of the Monasteries. For the next two centuries it passed into relative obscurity - the domestic buildings robbed for building stone, but the church left oddly intact - until the late Eighteenth century when it became a locus for the secular cult of Romanticism, and it has been painted, photographed and written about repeatedly ever since. It is, rightly, still on the itinerary of tourists and day-trippers. Rightly, because the church is such an elegant, slightly austere design, as befits a Cistercian house, and its setting is magical. The reasons for choosing this particular place to found an abbey are obvious. It is incredibly idyllic, beautiful. An enclosed, remote place. The proportions of the church are superb. The style is Geometric Decorated with touches of that next stage of Decorated Gothic, Reticulated - eg. the great west window. Everything is clear and lucid. There is no triforium as such but a plain, blank wall, like you might find in some German churches.
The first tours to the Abbey were started by The Rev. John Egerton, who lead parties of friends down river from Ross-on-Wye. Thomas Gray, the poet, and later William Gilpin, anglican priest and aesthetic theorist, made the 'Wye Tour', as it became known, in 1770s in search of the picturesque; "The first source of amusement to the picturesque traveller," Gipin wrote, "is the pursuit of his object - the expectation of new scenes continually opening, and arising to his view." The Wye valley with it's winding course and steep valley offered much to the 'picturesque traveller' including the Abbey then overgrown and surrounded with industry. Gilpin though confessed he wanted to get a ladder and assault the abbey church with a hammer to make it more picturesque for “though the parts are beautiful, the whole is ill-shaped”. The Abbey was only seen for its scenic, landscape value; for other later visitors the melancholic emotions it stirred. Gilpin wrote up his travels in 'Observations on the River Wye and several parts of South Wales, etc. relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; made in the summer of the year 1770', published in 1782. This did much to publicize the 'Wye Tour' and Turner, Coleridge, Wordsworth all followed in Gilpin's wake. "Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey" ('Lyrical Ballads') was written on Wordsworth's second visit in 1798.