The Most Beautiful Religious Sites in Wales 20 August 2015
With more than 600,000 people visiting Wales’s religious sites each year, it would appear the concept of ‘faith tourism’ in the region is undergoing somewhat of a renaissance. Indeed, Cadw, the Welsh Government’s historic environment service, has reported a year-on-year growth in visits to religious sites like Tintern Abbey.
As the peak summer tourism season looms, Dr Kate Roberts, Cadw’s Senior Inspector of Ancient Monuments and Archaeology, looks at some of the country’s most significant religious sites, and explores the unique details, legends and complex histories that make them such popular places to visit.
St Davids Bishop’s Palace
Being located in Britain’s smallest city doesn’t stop St Davids Bishop’s Palace from pulling in visitors. Despite its size, the city has seen some of the country’s most significant religious histories play out within its boundaries, encouraging many to regard the area with great importance.
Indeed, in the 12th century, the pope declared that two pilgrimages to St Davids were equivalent to one to Rome. St David himself founded a monastery, probably close to where the cathedral built in his name now stands. The accompanying Bishop’s Palace was built in the 1300s. In contrast to the frugal life of St David and his monks, the bishops lived in the grand palace where they feasted and entertained nobles and kings. The structure evokes a period when religion was the order of the day and bishops were powerbrokers par excellence. Back then the building would have been a riot of colour – red walls, green slate tiles and black and white checkerboard stonework on top.
A recent Cadw conservation project found that quartz stone was used for some of the white of the checkerboard. This would have made it sparkle in sunlight – an undeniable touch of Medieval ‘bling’. From the 16th century onwards, when the bishops moved their main residence further east to Abergwili, the palace fell into increasing disrepair, with some bishops even taking the opportunity to make money by opening it up for tenants.
Today, visual and audio interpretation displays bring this fascinating religious site to life with sounds of a busy bishop’s palace including bells, singings and even galloping horses. It may have spiralled from riches to rags but the Palace is not about to be forgotten; in the last seven years summertime visitors to palace have doubled as people from in and outside Wales made their way to the site to celebrate the life of Wales’s patron saint.
St Non’s Chapel
A faith tourism visit out west is not complete without also stopping at the church dedicated to St David’s mother, St Non. Resting on the outer most tip of the Pembrokeshire coastline, St Non’s Chapel is undoubtedly popular not only as a place of pilgrimage, but as a tranquil spot with one of the most picturesque backdrops in Wales. St Non’s day is celebrated on 2 March, the day after her famous son’s, meaning visits to her Chapel enjoy an uplift across St David’s Day week in particular.
Strata Florida Abbey
Strata Florida Abbey is a monument both admired for its captivating beauty and famed for its historical importance. 2014 was its 850th anniversary year, meaning visits to the site were particularly resonant. Indeed, visits across the Easter weekend in particular – a time when visits to religious sites are particularly pertinent – rose 70% on recent years.
Perhaps the most intriguing spot at the site is the stepped pit or basin in the central aisle. Archaeologists and historians have long puzzled over this and what it might have been used for. The basin itself is out of alignment with the rest of the church – a clue that it may be the remaining trace of an even older feature, possibly a Holy Well.
One theory is that it may have been used for the Mandatum Rite, the Holy Week tradition in which an abbot would wash the feet of 12 monks – four monks, four novices, and four lay brothers – just as Jesus did to his disciples.
The basin is just one of the many traces left in this site that hint at its fascinating past – from its height as pit-stop for poets travelling the land seeking room and board in return for providing poetry and entertainment, to final resting place of members of Wales’s powerful Deheubarth dynasty.
The end of the Abbey came in the 16th century when Henry VIII ordered the monasteries to be closed down and their lands sold. The abbey was abandoned and over the following centuries fell into ruin, its buildings robbed for stone.
Miraculously, the unique west doorway survived and remains to this day as a welcoming sight for visitors to this remarkable and tranquil cultural site.
Valle Crucis Abbey
Cistercian monks loved all things austere. Solitude ruled absolute. Set in the remote yet magical location of Llantysilio in Llangollen, Valle Crucis Abbey must have at least raised a smile or two amongst the serious-minded brethren. Built to house pious Cistercian monks in the thirteenth century, the abbey was once governed by orthodox austerity but was later ranked as the second richest monastery after Tintern.
The site took its name from the nearby Holy Cross – which today we call the Pillar of Eliseg, and together the monuments reveal details of a distant power play between the Welsh and the English. The cross was erected to honour Eliseg, Prince of Powys in the eighth century and rumoured foe of Offa – famed for creating Offa’s Dyke. According to a carving on the pillar – sadly no longer readable – Eliseg “united the inheritance of Powys through force from the power of the English””.
Visits to Valle Crucis Abbey have grown by a fifth over the last two years, as locals and tourists alike come to discover the remnants of a Cistercian heritage and centuries-long feud between neighbouring countries.
The best-preserved medieval abbey in Wales, and undeniably one of Wales’s most famous religious sites, majestic Tintern sits merely yards away from the banks of the River Wye on the English border.
The gorgeous surroundings have provided the inspiration to countless artists – from William Wordsworth to JMW Turner. So it comes as no surprise that Tintern is Cadw’s most widely visited religious site.
More than 67,000 people took a trip there in 2014, while the site has in general enjoyed a steady growth in visitors as more people, many from outside of Wales, wish to learn more about the Abbey muse. The present-day remains are a mixture of building works covering a 400-year period between 1131 and 1536.
When Cromwell’s men closed the abbey in 1536, they stripped it of all of its wealth, including more than 13kg of silver and gilt plate that was sent straight to the King’s treasury. The valuable lead from the roof was also stripped, leaving the abbey exposed to the elements. Visitors can marvel at the vast windows and later decorative details displayed in the walls, doorways and soaring archways and picture Cistercian life within this beautiful place.
A religious legacy
Religion was central to Medieval society, which explains why much of Wales’s historical capital is linked to Christianity – holy buildings were some of the grandest and most beautiful structures built in Wales, but they were also highly vulnerable at during times of unrest.
Though many of Wales’s historic religious structures have been lost through deliberate damage and decay over the centuries, what remains today is a collection of ethereal monuments, each teeming with the echoes of our most dramatic stories. These many and varied religious sites continue to appeal to visitors far and wide and are recognised as an important asset to our tourism industry.
Visit Wales have introduced a Faith Tourism Action Plan to raise awareness and improve the experiences of visitors to Wales’s Places of Worship. This includes new content on faith tourism on the Visit Wales website and in their brochures, and funding to support the Peaceful Places trail in North Ceredigion, which links together over 14 places of worship and celebrates their stories.
This summer, Cadw anticipates continued boost to faith tourism in Wales as interest in history’s relationship with religion peaks. This season, 31 of Cadw’s religious monuments – from abbeys and churches to palaces – will be open to explore, many for free.
The Deputy Minister for Culture, Tourism and Sport, Ken Skates, said: “The legacy of Wales’s involvement in some of the world’s most fascinating religious histories is alive in the selection of truly remarkable churches, abbeys, palaces and chapels scattered across the country. “With such a wealth of historic places to discover it’s no surprise that faith tourism is a growing commodity for our nation.
“Through continued care of these precious sites we can draw even more visitors into Wales and really showcase the role we played in shaping Europe’s religious landscape.”
Cadw looks after 31 religious sites across Wales, all of which will remain open over summer. Many sites are free to access.
This article is from Issue 11 of On Religion. If you enjoyed this article, please support us by subscribing for just £4.75 an edition (£19 a year) by clicking below: –