School memories of William Wordsworth‘s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” caused us to rent a car and load in the dog and boots — thus joining a grand tradition of literary tourism to a site that has been visited as an attraction since 1782. According to the excellent Tintern Abbey by David Robinson, the ruined Tintern Abbey had been largely ignored as a place of interest until one Reverend William Gilpin published an account of his boat trip, Observations on the River Wye (1792). The little matter of a revolution on the continent and ongoing war with France encouraged travel close to home (today a mere two-hour drive from London). The forges and furnaces of the iron industry, dating from the 1560s, were part of the attraction, as were the river Wye and the surrounding hills. Tintern Abbey in the 1790s was overgrown by ivy, and rubble had been gathered into piles.
On Saturday afternoon, shouts from the soccer game across the road drifted into the empty spaces. Now stripped of ivy, with trimmed grass in the nave, reinforced walls, and not a speck of litter about the place, the abbey is simply beautiful. Founded in 1131 and built, rebuilt, and extended into the 13th Century, it combines the austere with the Gothic. Without furnishings or signs of occupation, architectural details such as the window traceries stand out against the stone.
Enchanted by the light and shadow playing across empty windows and darkening walls, I thought not of Wordsworth but of the Cistercian monks in their white wool gowns making their way down the night stairs at 2 a.m. Were they allowed into the warming room after this very early service? What happened to them when Henry VIII ordered the desecration of their religious retreat?
Apart from the title, Wordsworth’s poem is not about the abbey, but about its surrounding hills, “steep and lofty cliffs” and “a wild secluded scene.” The hills have history, too, and that older than the abbey’s: an earthwork defensive wall, Offa’s Dyke, was built in the 780s. Was Wordsworth taking a hike on the dyke? He first came alone in 1793 and then came with his sister Dorothy in 1798, the year the poem was composed and published.
Buying my postcards in the shop, I said, “The light is lovely at this time of day.” The young woman laughed and said, “Yes, it isn’t raining.” So we had a lucky hour.
On Sunday we climbed up part of Offa’s Dyke. Up a steep path both stony and muddy, pausing to breathe the dank air, to wonder at the nearly tropical growth. Wordsworth got that right: “the deep and gloomy wood.” Grateful was I to reach the Devil’s Pulpit at the top, where I could look down on Tintern Abbey, a building that seems to have absorbed the reverence for it brought by its visitors.
But I have questions. Times were tough here after the Second World War. Did people feel like visiting a ruin then after the destruction of the bombs? Or did they come for the peace of Offa’s Dyke walk? Because here’s the thing: I can’t picture Mordecai Richler dragging his kids here (did he even own hiking boots?), nor Margaret Laurence. Norman Levine was closer, but he too had a family to support in tough times. I’m trying to create a picture of what life was like for a Canadian writer in the UK in the 1950s and 60s. And whether such sites as Tintern Abbey were part of that life.