Valle Crucis Abbey, North Wales

Situated less than two miles from Llangollen, this idyllic and once isolated spot in the 'valley of the cross' was perfect for the needs of a Cistercian house. So in 1201 Madog founded Valle Crucis Abbey with a group of monks from the mother house of Strata Marcella near Welshpool, and building on the new monastery began immediately. During the first 50 years, however, the monks had already encountered a setback when a disastrous fire caused much damage to the abbey church.

Barely recovering from this event, the monastery was further destroyed during Edward I's Welsh campaigns. In the early 14th century the monks at Valle Crucis Abbey were allowed to settle into a relatively peaceful period, and a major programme of repairs and new building was undertaken to complete the abbey. The peace did not last long and, before the end of the century, yet more fire damage was sustained as a result of the Welsh uprising. Finally able to enjoy something of a revival during the last 100 years of its life as a monastery, Valle Crucis Abbey earned a reputation for its appreciation of the literary arts. In 1535, despite documents recording the abbey to be in a very poor state of decay, it was ranked as one of the richest Cistercian monasteries in Wales, second only to Tintern Abbey. This prolonged the inevitable fate of the abbey's Dissolution until January 1537.

Looking at Valle Crucis Abbey today there is a definite feel of 'completeness', but sadly this is only superficial. Although the East Range buildings look remarkably habitable, they are little more than just roofed shells, and the appearance of the beautifully restored west front of the abbey church may mislead you into believing there are extensive internal remains. Unfortunately this is not the case, although there are some well preserved sections of the south aisle and south transept chapels to be seen in this compact abbey church. It is interesting to note how architectural styles changed during the various periods of building, from the traditionally plain but bold lines of the early Cistercian masons, to the later finer stonework enhanced by exquisite carving.

A good place to identify the contrasting styles is on the west front where the original, quite austere wall was given a beautifully moulded central doorway and an ornately traceried rose window after the first fire. The sacristy, book cupboard, and the square, rib-vaulted chapter house are fine survivals from the 14th century, as is the monks' dormitory above these buildings. During the late 15th century part of the dormitory was converted for use as the Abbot's Hall, and a large fireplace from this period can still be seen. It has since been returned to the original plan of one long room, and provides a rare and fascinating insight into the monks' sleeping arrangements. Also displayed in this area are a number of medieval, sculptured grave slabs that have been discovered in and around the abbey.

Little apart from foundation walls have survived of the other claustral ranges, and nothing is now visible of the many monastic outbuildings that would once have existed. A wonderful feature that has survived at Valle Crucis Abbey is the monastic fish pond, the only one to be seen in Wales. Looking into the pond to see the watery reflection gives a truly evocative image of the 800 year old abbey in its hilly, natural environment.


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