Architecture, culture, history and landscapes – together with food – are at the top of my list of things to experience whenever I am visiting a new place. Being a person who wears her heart on her sleeve, sometimes these can bring tears to my eyes, leave me in awe, and take my breath away. The ancient ruins of Tintern Abbey, in the former County of Gwent in south-east Wales, did all of that.
Planning our itinerary, Peter broke the news that he'd added Wales to the adventure, as he was more than keen to go to Cardiff to see the Dr Who Experience. Yes! Fist pump from me too. Looking through guide books, we realised our journey would take us from London to Cornwall, then to Cardiff and onwards through the Wye Valley before heading to Bath. Perfect.
We had seen a snippet about the 12th century Cistercian abbey on the BBC's Escape to the Country – which I will shamelessly declare as being among our favourite television programs – and we'd previously both read about it in books detailing the works of landscape painter, Joseph Mallord William Turner, and also the poet, William Wordsworth. Both artistes were fascinated by the Abbey's ruins and surrounding countryside, which really is quite beautiful. Funnily enough, Wordsworth wrote his verse titled "Lines Composted a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798" at around the same time that Turner was painting magnificent watercolours showcasing the grandeur of the buildings, circa 1795. Although we missed seeing them, Turner's paintings of the Abbey are apparently exhibited at The British Museum and also at The Tate.
Tintern Abbey was founded in 1131 by an Anglo-Norman lord known as Walter fitz Richard of Clare. How's that for a name!? Building commenced on the Gothic church in 1269 and it would be more than 60 years before it was completed. The land around the Abbey was divided into agricultural plots and some 400 monks and brothers lived and worked there over the following centuries. Many are said to have died during the Black Death, which swept through in 1348. Still, the simple way of monastic life continued until 1536, when the Abbey fell victim to Henry VIII's dissolution of monasteries. Then the property was granted to the Earl of Worcester and the building was stripped of its roof – the lead and some of the stone being sold off. As Turner's paintings show, nature took over and the Abbey would soon be covered in creeping vines. One can imagine that it must have been a spectacular sight to behold then, as it is now.
From 1901-28, major conservation work took place on the Abbey and these days it is in the care of Cadw, Welsh Historic Monuments. A further two year conservation programme has recently been completed on the west front. Art exhibitions and other events are held there regularly and it is open daily to visitors. Perhaps one of the most interesting and visually striking events is Stargazing at the Abbey, part of the Museums at Night, which takes place in May.
At the Abbey's visitor centre, I bought a wee little cookbook written by Bobby Freeman, a well-known Welsh restaurateur and cookery writer. In A Book of Welsh Country Cakes and Buns, I found the recipe for Teisen cnau cyll Gwent or Gwent hazelnut sandwich. Ms Freeman writes that she sourced the recipe from the 1796 diary of Anne Hughes, a farmer's wife who attributed it to her 'cousin Floe'. According to Mrs Hughes, the cake was intended to be "cut up in divers shapes". I've seen it sliced down the middle and served, filled with jam and cream. Or you can divide the mixture between two tins. As it's not a high-rise cake, I prefer to bake it as a single layer and serve it sliced simply into wedges. It's a keeper.
GWENT HAZELNUT CAKE
(Teisen cnau cyll Gwent)
110g vanilla infused caster sugar
200g butter, softened
3 free-range eggs
125g self raising flour
55g hazelnuts, chopped
Preheat oven to 190 degrees C. Grease an 8-inch round cake tin and line it with baking parchment. Combine the butter and caster sugar in a bowl and beat until light and creamy. Add the eggs one at a time, and beat in with the flour until well mixed. Transfer the batter into the prepared tin. Sprinkle the top with the chopped hazelnuts and bake for 30 minutes until golden. Serves 8.
Recipe adapted from A Book of Welsh Country Cakes and Buns by Bobby Freeman.
Postcards from Tintern Abbey...
Now tell me, dear readers, do you wear your heart on your sleeve? What sorts of things bring tears to your eyes and take your breath away? And have you ever been to Tintern Abbey?
Hello. I'm Liz, a writer, cook and traveller based in Canberra, Australia.
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.