Abbey loses one set of visitors and gets ready for another

 

Its namesake in Wales may be more renowned - largely because of its association with the poetry of Wordsworth - but Co Wexford's Tintern Abbey, with its 100 acres of mixed woodland, is on the way to becoming a visitor attraction of national and international importance.

When it opens next June after years of painstaking refurbishment by the National Monuments Branch of the Heritage Service, the abbey - surely one of the most majestic settings in the country - will evoke new interest in an era of great historic significance and abiding legend.

There has been a minor contemporary twist to the seven centuries of the abbey's history. For the first 300 years, it was occupied by Cistercian monks: then a powerful English family, the Colcloughs, lived there through many generations and 400 years.

The latest community to take up residence in the abbey precincts departed a few weeks ago after a stay which, although brief, caused considerable ripples locally. Since last November an encampment of up to 30 families of New Age travellers had built up on the banks of the small inlet just below the abbey walls.

Although Wexford people are generally tolerant, concern slowly grew over the development of this ad-hoc community. There were complaints about sheep being killed by dogs and plantations of young trees destroyed by horses. Local residents were worried about the sanitary conditions of the community which included small children and suffered the appalling weather conditions of recent months. It is said two babies were born at Christmas.

The unorthodox lifestyle of the travellers was certainly a factor in the spreading unease. Although there were no allegations of serious anti-social behaviour, local people were worried and the idyllic grounds of the abbey ceased to be frequented for walks.

Of greater concern was the potential effect on the tourist attraction of the abbey, with the reopening due this summer and the travellers' encampment growing by the week.

A local committee was formed to explore legal ways of restoring the abbey to its previous state of secluded tranquillity. However, the New Age community finally decided voluntarily to move on and barriers have been erected to deny access to high vehicles. Tintern Abbey has had an of ten turbulent and fascinating past. It was founded in the early 13th century by a Norman knight, William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke and Lord of Leinster.

His ship was caught in a raging storm as he journeyed to Ireland and he vowed he would build a church wherever he safely landed. The ship was washed up at Bannow Bay and it was here he established the monastery, colonising it with Cistercian monks from Tintern Abbey in Wales.

The foundation became known as Tintern Minor, or Tintern de Voto (of the vow), and the monks - expert farmers - successfully developed the 9,000 acres they had been granted by Marshall in the vicinity.

It became a centre of power, both spiritual and temporal. The abbot was a peer and sat in parliament until 1447. After the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, the abbey was empty and used by local people as a burial ground. A hundred skeletons of men, women and children were discovered there during excavation work in 1982.

Soon, however, the estates were granted to Anthony Colclough, from Staffordshire, an officer in King Henry's army in Ire land. He converted the tower into a fortified residence and further developed the grounds where his descendants then lived for four centuries. The last direct descendant, Lucy Marie Biddulph Colclough, vacated her historic home in 1959 through ill health and donated the abbey to the nation.

Conservation work has progressed steadily, and this summer the visitor will enter through refurbished 19th-century buildings incorporating some of the original cloister range walls of the abbey. There will be a visitor building, including a small tea-room housed in a former coach house.

The nave, chancel and chapel will be open, as well as a maze of ancient paths and woodland trails, some leading to magnificent walled gardens and the ruins of mills and outlying small churches and graveyards.

There is much further work to be done, but the exceptional beauty of Tintern and its environs must make it one of the outstanding tourist attractions of the south-east.