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The Abbey, Neath Abbey, near Skewen, Glamorgan

Name: Neath Abbey

Denomination: Roman Catholic

Built: 12th century

Photography: Dai Bevan (excepted where otherwise indicated)
Date: 2004/2005
Camera: Kodak DX4330 digital

From Wild Wales: Its People, Language and Scenery, by George Borrow (1803-1881):
I reached Llan-- [possibly Llansamlet], a small village half-way between Swansea and Neath, and without stopping continued my course, walking very fast. I had surmounted a hill and had nearly descended that side of it which looked towards the east, having on my left, that is to the north, a wooded height, when an extraordinary scene presented itself to my eyes. Somewhat to the south rose immense stacks of chimneys surrounded by grimy diabolical-looking buildings, in the neighbourhood of which were huge heaps of cinders and black rubbish. From the chimneys, notwithstanding it was Sunday, smoke was proceeding in vobmes, choking the atmosphere all around. From this pandemonium, at the distance of about a quarter of a mile to the south-west, upon a green meadow, stood, looking darkly grey, a ruin of vast size with window holes, towers, spires, and arches. Between it and the accursed pandemonium, lay a horrid filthy place, part of which was swamp and part pool: the pool black as soot, and the swamp of a disgusting leaden colour. Across this place of filth stretched a tramway leading seemingly from the abominable mansions to the ruin. So strange a scene I had never beheld in nature. Had it been on canvas, with the addition of a number of diabolical figures, proceeding along the tramway, it might have stood for Sabbath in Hell—devils proceeding to afternoon worship, and would have formed a picture worthy of the powerful but insane painter Jerome Bos.
After standing for a considerable time staring at the strange spectacle I proceeded. Presently meeting a lad, I asked him what was the name of the ruin.
"The Abbey", he replied.
"Neath Abbey?" said I.
Neath Abbey, Skewen

Note 1. Neath Abbey was a Cistercian monastery, located near the present-day town of Neath. It was once the largest abbey in Wales. Substantial ruins can still be seen, and are in the care of CADW - Welsh Historic Monuments. Tudor historian John Leland called Neath Abbey "the fairest abbey of all Wales". The Abbey was established in AD 1129 when Sir Richard de Granville gave 8,000 acres of his estate in Glamorgan to Savigniac monks from western Normandy. The first monks arrived in 1130. Following the assumption of the Savigniac order into the Cistercian order in 1147, Neath Abbey also became a Cistercian house. The abbey was ravaged by the Welsh uprisings of the 1200s, and eventually dissolved by King Henry VIII in 1539. At this time, the abbey was turned into a large estate. Sir Philip Hobby was the last occupant of the estate.
By 1730, some of the buildings were being used for copper smelting, and the rest were abandoned. In the late 18th century, an iron foundry was opened near the Abbey ruins by a company owned by the Price, Fox and Tregelles families. The archaeology of the abbey was eventually excavated between 1924 and 1935.
[Adapted from the entry on Wikipedia]

Note 2. Throughout the 13th and 14th centuries a significant programme of rebuilding took place. Many of the claustral buildings were renewed, and a huge, new Gothic church replaced the original, simple structure. The west front has survived to some degree, although missing its great window, and gives a clear indication of the original scale and splendour of this Decorated church. Along the length of the nave, the walls have remained standing to a good height. The bases of two chapel altars are still visible in the north transept, a rare stone handrail set above the remains of the monks' night stairs can be seen on the west wall of the south transept, and in the south choir aisle some lovely examples of medieval floor tiles have survived. Only fragmented remains of the cloister and domestic ranges can be found among the ruins of the Tudor mansion, but there is one remarkable chamber of the Cistercian monastery that has survived almost intact. Originally the monks' day room, this splendid rib-vaulted undercroft was probably used as the servants' hall when the Tudor house was created. By the end of the 17th century the mansion was no longer occupied, its structure later utilised to provide basic housing for the men working the copper-smelting furnaces on site. By the end of this era, Neath Abbey must have been virtually unrecognisable. In the early 1920s a massive clearance operation began, before the site was excavated to reveal the extensive remains. Some 4,000 tons of debris were removed from the abbey with the help of Glen Arthur Taylor, leader of the Neath Abbey Research Party, and it is due to his efforts that this magnificent monastery was not lost forever among industrial waste, and the encroaching modern docks complex of Swansea.
[Adapted from The Heritage Trail website]
Neath Abbey, Skewen

Neath Abbey, Skewen
Photograph by Tom Bevan, 1970s/'80s (scanned from 35mm slide, Pentax camera)

Below: Possible arrangement of original buildings at Neath Abbey, proposed by Cooper (1992)
Neath Abbey, Skewen
        1. West front of church
        2. Laybrothers' range
        3. Kitchen
        4. Frater
        5. Dormitory range
        6. Reredorter building
4, 5, 6 all overbuilt by later abbot's building and post monastic mansion.

The height of the church may be roughly guessed from the ruined corners of the west front but little else remains of its glory. In the south transept the night stairs to the monks' dormitory remain partially intact with the stone handrail set in the wall, a rare survival. The east range is utterly ruined except in the southern part where the vaulted undercroft of the dormitory survives. The base of the day stairs from the dormitory may also be seen. The reredorter and drainage arrangements reveal interesting details. The western range. the oldest surviving part of the abbey, is substantially intact with a fourteenth-century gateway leading through the range into the lane abutting the cloister. The doorway from the cloister into the church has beautiful moulding, an indication of what treasures have been lost. A short distance from the ruins, the abbey gatehouse survives, in part, by the main road leading into Skewen.
[Adapted from: Abbeys and Priories of Wales, by R. N. Cooper, Christopher Davies (Publishers) Ltd., Swansea, 1992; ISBN 0-7154-07120]

Note 3: There are two more reconstruction drawings (by Dylan Roberts) and an aerial view of Neath Abbey in the on-line Coflein database (NPRN 133).

Below: Three early 19th century engravings of Neath Abbey.
Neath Abbey, Skewen
Unknown artist
John Leland, who saw the Abbey shortly before its monastic inmates were expelled, described it as the "fairest Abbey in all Wales", and Lewis Morganwg, a writer of the period, waxed eloquent in its praise:
Like the sky of the Vale of Ebron (says he) is the covering of this monastery; weighty is the lead that roofs this abode—the dark-blue canopy of the dwellings of the godly. Every colour is seen in the crystal windows; every fair and high-wrought form beams forth through them like the rays of the sun. Portals of radiant guardians! Here are seen the graceful robes of Prelates ... gold and jewels, the tribute of the wealthy ... the gold-adorned choir, the nave, the gilded tabernacle work, the pinnacles ... on the glass, imperial arms; a ceiling resplendent with kingly bearings, and on the surrounding border the shields of princes, the arms of Neath of a hundred ages ... the arms of the best men under the crown of Harry. The vast and lofty roof is like the sparkling heavens on high; above are seen archangels' forms; the floor beneath is for the people of earth, all the tribes of Babel—for them it is wrought of variegated stone. The bells, the benedictions, and the peaceful songs of praise, proclaim the peaceful thanksgivings of the white monks.
[Source: Guide to South Wales (eighth edition), Ward, Lock & Co., Ltd., London and Melbourne, 1951]

From Wild Wales: Its People, Language and Scenery, by George Borrow (1803-1881):
Having often heard of this abbey in its day was one of the most famous in Wales, I determined to go and inspect it. It was with some difficulty that I found my way to it. It stood, as I have already observed, in a meadow, and was on almost every side surrounded by majestic hills. To give any clear description of this ruined pile would be impossible, the dilapidation is so great, dilapidation evidently less the effect of time than of awful violence, perhaps that of gunpowder. The southern is by far the most perfect portion of the building; there you see not only walls but roofs....
Neath Abbey, Skewen
Unknown artist
...Fronting you full south, is a mass of masonry with two immense arches, other arches behind them: entering, you find yourself beneath a vaulted roof, and passing on you come to an oblong square which may have been a church; an iron-barred window on your right enables you to look into a mighty vault, the roof of which is supported by beautiful pillars.
Neath Abbey, Skewen
Drawn by Henri Gastineau, engraved by W. Wallis

Further photographs (by John Ball): Images of Wales Neath Abbey feature
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