Abbey Cwmhir, Mid Wales

Thought to have been founded originally at a nearby site, the 'abbey of the Long Valley' was refounded in 1176 on this remote and scenic spot beside the Clywedog Brook in Powys. From the sparse and fragmented walls visible today, it is difficult to imagine that a magnificent Cistercian foundation, housing some sixty monks, once stood here and was the largest monastic church in Wales with a nave of fourteen bays stretching along a length of 242ft (73.3m).

The history of Abbey Cwmhir is unclear, except that during the first 200 years it suffered constantly as a result of the Borderlands disputes, and by 1401 it was virtually destroyed. Never recovering from this incident, Abbey Cwnhir fell into further disrepair and was again mercilessly despoiled at the Dissolution in 1536. It was finally reduced to piles of rubbled ruins in 1644, following its latter use as a fortress for the Royalists during the Civil War, and much of the stone was quarried away for use in local buildings.

Although it was quite usual for stricken abbeys to be used as convenient quarries, Abbey Cwmhir's stones were used extensively throughout mid-Wales, appearing in at least seven other churches, three great halls, and other smaller buildings and garden walls. However, the most impressive feature to have been rescued from the Abbey Cwmhir was a splendid five-bay nave arcade which now proudly forms part of St Idloes church in the little town of Llanidloes. Other features thought to have been brought from the Cistercian abbey are the roof timbers, the boldly carved support struts and corbels, a wonderful piece of tracery that appears in the East window, and carved stonework in the south doorway. The reconstructed remains in this church certainly provide a marvellous insight into some of the workmanship that went into the original old abbey.

Our visit to Abbey Cwmhir on a damp, cold and misty day, provided a haunting and evocative atmosphere as we peered at the jagged grey shapes of the ruinous walls reflected in the still waters of the surviving monastic fishpond. The site was not the easiest to find, and parking in the little village was quite difficult with a large vehicle, but it was worth the effort. It seems quite incredible that such an impressive building, which it must have been in its day, has been left to decay into a state that is barely recognisable.

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