Madeleine Gray

The Cistercian Way


Un altra pagina "internazionale": la prof. Madeleine Gray, dell'Università di Newport, in Galles, ci parla della Via Cistercense, una serie di antiche vie di pellegrinaggio che percorrono il Galles e che risalgono alMedio Evo. Altre notizie  e links sull'argomento sono a fondo pagina. 

Another international page: prof. Madeleine Gray, of  UK Newport University (Wales), speaks to us of the Cistercian Way in Wales, a medieval pilgrimage way. Other notices and links at found of page


The Cistercian Way is a long-distance footpath between the Cistercian abbeys of Wales, along ancient tracks, medieval pilgrim roads, modern long-distance paths and local rights of way. It was inaugurated as part of the celebrations of the 900th anniversary of the foundation of the Cistercian order in 1998. The route links all 15 of the medieval Cistercian houses in Wales (16 counting the short-lived foundation at Pendar) with their two modern successors at Caldey and Whitland. Much of the route north from Strata Florida follows or shadows the Sustrans Welsh cycleway and other stretches are also suitable for cycling, buggies and wheelchairs. Many of the off-road sections are on bridle paths or green lanes, though these are not always as accessible as they should be for horse-riders. The route runs clockwise round the Cistercian houses and can be begun at any point.

Research on the route began in 1997 and a group walked the whole of a provisional route in the summer of 1998. A group of about 15 walkers set out from Llantarnam on Saturday 23 May as part of the annual pilgrimage of the Society of St David and St Nicholas to Penrhys in the Rhondda. By the third day there were 50 or 60 walkers, with nearly a hundred at the final service at Llanfair in Penrhys. Thereafter, exploratory walking was undertaken by a core group of 19, backed up by a much larger number who offered us hospitality and met us on the way.

The first 150 miles of the route, westward as far as Tenby, was completed by 1 June. The walk then resumed on 16 July with a visit to the modern Cistercian community on Caldey Island, and continued from Tenby north towards Whitland. The walk was completed exactly to timetable, with a group of 10 walkers returning to Llantarnam on 1 September after a journey of about 600 miles. We had experienced the full diversity of the Welsh landscape, from conventional scenic beauty to industrial dereliction, the busy resorts of the northern coast and the desolate splendour of Maelienydd and Ardudwy. Valuable help was received from the ramblers’ groups who planned sections of the route from Tregaron to Conway, and from Judy Cox of the Gwent Ramblers who advised on questions concerning rights of way. Paul Garster of Chester College planned and walked several alternative routes for the difficult journey along the north Wales coast. We were also grateful for the hospitality we were given by clergy and local groups and individuals: without this, the whole enterprise would have been beyond our means. Several of the guest-houses where we stayed were also generous beyond the call of duty when they learned we were pilgrims. CADW gave us valuable publicity and free access to the sites in their care for all those involved in the pilgrimage. We received no commercial sponsorship, apart from the generosity of Cardiff High-Tech Services of Sully, who allowed us to hire a mobile phone at a considerably reduced rental.

The planned route worked well overall, though there are several sections where improvements can be made. Between Margam, Neath and Carmarthen we deliberately cut some way inland to find continuous footpaths and avoid main roads. Ths however had the advantage that it took us through some spectacular and little-walked countryside. Here as elsewhere, we walked past many sacred sites, from prehistoric burial mounds and medieval holy wells to industrial churches and chapels. For Cistercian specialists, there were also several interesting grange sites. Footpaths in south Carmarthenshire were generally reasonably well waymarked, thanks to the initiatives of community councils and LEADER projects, and we were able to find several off-road routes between Ammanford, Carmarthen, St Clears and Tenby.

From Tenby we went north to visit the ancient church at Gumfreston with its remarkable triple well. This involved walking along a busy road but we felt it was worth the sacrifice. The parishioners of Tenby and Gumfreston are keen to establish a permissive way which they can walk between the two churches and have some proposals for a possible route. From Gumfreston we were able to bypass Tenby on green lanes and rejoin the coast path as far as Amroth. South Pembrokeshire Action for Rural Communities (SPARC) has two well-waymarked trails, the Knights’ Trail and the Landsker Borderlands Trail, which took us north past both old and new abbeys at Whitland and on as far as Llanboidy.

From Llanboidy to Llanddewi-brefi we were walking almost entirely on minor roads. This is an area in which public access to the countryside presents serious problems. North Carmarthenshire and south Cardiganshire have an excellent network of public rights of way on paper, but virtually all are overgrown and impassable through disuse, deliberate obstruction or both. This is a pity, as the area makes attractive walking country, with gentle, rolling scenery, pretty valleys and villages, and wide views. There is scope here for a carefully-planned and targeted programme of footpath reclamation which could considerably improve the tourist potential of an area suffering from the general agricultural depression. We could simply accept that this will be an on-road section of the route. This offers the advantage that it would be accessible to cyclists and to people with prams and wheelchairs. However, it would be preferable to provide off-road alternatives for those who prefer to keep away from tarmac.

After Tregaron we were in more traditional walking country, and near Strata Florida we joined the line of the Cambrian Way. This, with the Sustrans mid-Wales route (a challenging enough route for walkers and an extremely difficult one for cyclists) and the line of Sarn Helen, led us to the Conwy valley. 

Apart from the immediate environs of Devil’s Bridge and the track over Pumlumon, we were amazed at how few walkers we saw, on a route which offered much of interest as well as scenery of outstanding beauty. As well as the monastic sites at Strata Florida and Cymmer, we passed a major Roman fort, several hill forts and innumerable prehistoric standing stones and burial cairns. We walked through several deserted slate quarries, whose tips are now picturesque additions to the mountain scenery. We were also invited to visit the Centre for Alternative Technology, where we discussed with their public relations officer Paul Allan the links between modern concepts of sustainability and the Cistercian lifestyle.

The line of Sarn Helen above Blaenau Ffestiniog

We crossed the Conwy at Llanrwst, leaving the line of the Roman road to visit the final site of Maenan Abbey, then walked down river to Conwy itself. The route across the north Wales coast presented us with another problem. The traditional pilgrimage route from Holywell to Aberdaron is now a busy main road. Parts of the North Wales Coast Path offer a pleasant alternative, but the section from Abergele to Rhyl is a six mile hike past endless caravan parks. Ironically, one of the most attractive sections of the coastal path is one we chose not to use because of time constraints. The walk around the Great and Little Orme is rich in prehistoric and early Christian sites and passes the cave where a secret Catholic printing press produced some of the earliest books in Welsh. However, this route takes a day to get from Conwy to Colwyn Bay. Our timetable forced us to cut across the neck of the peninsula and to walk along main roads to avoid part of a new road-building programme. We then followed the line of the coast path inland with a diversion to the well at Llanelian-yn-Rhos.

Paul Garster suggests that the North Wales section of the route should be accepted as an on-road route for cyclists and pushchair and wheelchair users. The side roads are quiet and often more pleasant to walk than footpaths cutting across farmland, and they provide a link between villages with old churches, holy wells and other places of interest. However, although the footpaths in this area are little walked, many of them have been waymarked, and it seems a pity not to make some use of this. We may be able to suggest a range of alternatives here: a footpath shadowing the coast, an inland route on side roads and a more challenging route cutting well inland to the hills.

After half a day’s walk inland from Basingwerk, the Offa’s Dyke Path leads past Valle Crucis to Strata Marcella. This is unfortunately one of the most heavily-walked parts of the Path, and much of it runs along the actual monument. The Offa’s Dyke Association is aware of the problem and is actively working on a re-alignment of the Path to take it off the monument while remaining as close to it as possible. We joined the Path where it runs along the southern part of the Clwydian range. This is a challenging switchback walk with magnificent views of the coastal plain, the Vale of Clwyd and the hills towards Snowdonia. Unfortunately, it is close to the population centres of the North Midlands and is suffering heavily from erosion. We have grave doubts about whether a walk built around ideas of sustainability and environmental awareness should be contributing to these problems. We are therefore considering an alternative low-level route on side roads and footpaths linking some of the spectacularly beautiful churches of the Vale of Clwyd.

From Valle Crucis the towpath of the Llangollen Canal offers an alternative way to Llangollen and from Llanymynech to Welshpool. This of course has its own problems. For most of its length, the towpath is only a permissive right of way (old signs indicate that pedestrians are allowed ‘on sufferance’) and parts are heavily overgrown. There are stiles and gates for access, and the extent to which mileposts, locks and bridges have been restored suggests that public access is not a problem. Schemes are being considered to improve the navigability of the canal between Arddleen and Llanymynech, and this would presumably involve clearing the towpath. The canal has however become a valuable nature reserve, and the needs of environmental conservation have to be balanced against the need for revenue which could be generated by the canal. To maintain its environmental value the actual waterway needs to be kept clear, but modern diesel-powered barges will cause turbulence and disturb wild life. One alternative which is being suggested is that sections of the canal should be restricted to horse-drawn barges. This would also keep the towpath clear and, combined with some development around the locks, seems an ideal solution.

One proposal when we were planning the route was that we should try to use as many different forms of sustainable transport as possible. In the event we were forced to discard this, as our resources did not allow for hiring horses and coracles and we were unable to arrange a horse-drawn barge along the canal. However, we did use the Welshpool to Llanfair steam train to get to Llanfair Caereinion before walking over the hills to Llanllugan. Roger Hughes of Llanwnnog suggested a re-routing of the way to Caersws, taking us away from farmland and over Mynydd Clogau to Llanwnnog, where the church has a fine rood screen. This alternative unfortunately bypasses several grange sites and the great ditch which surrounded Strata Florida’s Celynog grange, but it makes for a more straightforward walk with excellent views. The Montgomeryshire footpaths officer has however been working hard to waymark the lower-level route and to provide diversions where footpaths run through farmyards.

From Caersws a series of ridge routes run past Cwm-hir to Llanfihangel Rhydieithon, Llanfihangel Nant Melan and Hay. There is an unfortunate discontinuity in the footpaths on the Montgomeryshire-Radnorshire border: we need to do more research on definitive maps here. The bridleway through the forest around Garn Fach has been badly obstructed by felling and will need attention. Thereafter a clear track leads to the Glyndwr Way past Abbey Cwm-hir. We were glad to be able to include some of this long-distance trail because of the support the Cistercians gave to Glyndwr’s campaign for Welsh independence.

Good work has been done on waymarking and even clearing some of the paths south and east of Cwm-hir. We rejoined the Offa’s Dyke path just north of Hay. The path is not over-walked in this area and provides a well-waymarked route south from Hay. However, the path along the Hatterall ridge involves a long and hard day’s walking, while the old road over the Gospel Pass is busy, particularly in the summer. We therefore chose to contour around to the west and over the pass between Twmpa and Rhiw Fan, and to walk past Father Ignatius’s monastery at Capel-y-ffin. We then took the old road past Vision Farm to Llanthony and on down the east side of the Hoddni valley to Llanfihangel Crucornau. According to local tradition this was the old pilgrimage route, marked by the thirteenth-century cross which is now in Cwm-iou church. The route is now used for an annual pilgrimage up the Hoddni valley to the meadow near Capel-y-ffin where a group of local children saw visions of the Virgin Mary in the late nineteenth century.

From Llanfihangel Crucornau there is again a choice of routes. The Offa’s Dyke path is easy walking - well waymarked, stiles and footbridges all in good order, easy to follow without being over-walked. On the other hand, there is a danger that the Offa’s Dyke path will become the only walking route across north Monmouthshire, and we would like to consider the alternatives. Our initial plan was to go over the Skirrid with its legendary associations and ruined chapel of St Michael, then to cut across the well-waymarked footpaths towards Grace Dieu. However, in spite of the difficulty of the climb, the route up the Skirrid is heavily-walked and beginning to suffer from erosion. We are therefore working on an alternative route based on the grange sites of Campston and Llanfair Cilgwyn with its chapel of ease. Route planning in this area is made much easier by the excellent standards of waymarking and stile provision initiated by the Gwent County Council, and we were delighted to see this policy being continued by the new county of Monmouthshire.

The Offa’s Dyke Path is the only logical route from Grace Dieu to Monmouth. Thereafter we headed for the old church of St James at Penallt, which may be on the line of a pilgrimage route to Compostela. There are several alternative routes down the Wye Valley to Tintern. We took the simplest and followed the river bank, which includes a track known locally as ‘The Monks’ Way’. The Wye Valley Walk and the Offa’s Dyke Path provide higher-level routes on either side of the valley. We would like to do more work on the original overland pilgrimage route, though much of it probably lies under the Trelech road. From Tintern we walked mainly along footpaths and green lanes to Usk and back down to Llantarnam. This section again was made much easier by good waymarking and provision of stiles and footbridges.

One of the great pleasures of the walk was the local events arranged to celebrate the pilgrimage. Commemorative services were held at all the Cistercian sites. These ranged from a 1662 eucharist at Conwy and sung Compline in the ruins of Basingwerk Abbey to silent prayer during a thunderstorm at Neath. We met the Whitland Abbey Heritage Trust at Whitland and the Abbey Cwm-hir Trust at Cwm-hir. Brother Gildas of the Caldey Island community met us for a Cistercian service at Strata Florida; Brother Nathaniel of the Anglican Franciscans arranged a service at Cymmer Abbey and walked with us for part of the next day; David Williams, the distinguished Cistercian historian, read the mid-day office with us at Grace Dieu, a site he was the first to identify and explore. CADW organised events at Valle Crucis and Tintern, and John Richards of the Greenfield Valley Heritage Trust built a medieval re-enactment day around our arrival at Basingwerk.

We were also able to take part in services in several churches along the way. The Rev. David Jenkins of Tenby set us on our way with a communion service; the Rev. Euryl Howells of Llangeler held a service in the former grange chapel at Capel Mair, now one of his chapels of ease; morning and evening prayers were arranged at Trawsfynydd and Llanbedr Dyffryn Clwyd. Elsewhere, local congregations and the Cistercian sisters of Holy Cross Abbey in Whitland welcomed us to share their regular services. The children of Ysgol Gynradd Penboyr in Drefach-Felindre held a special assembly to mark the pilgrimage and walked with us for part of the way.

The walkers were a mixed bunch: Christians of all denominations, people from other faiths, spiritual seekers, even a couple of resolute atheists. But we all found something on our journey. For some, it was spiritual enrichment through physical struggle and endurance; for others, an opportunity to explore the traditions of religious houses, holy wells, shrines and even older places of worship; for others again, a celebration of the diversity of Welsh history, landscape and cultural life. We all had to learn a little of the tolerance and forbearance necessary for group life. Above all, the pilgrimage made for each of us something of the sacred space and silence at the heart of Cistercian life, and in that space and that silence we found our meaning.

We still have some more research and fine tuning to do to finalise the route, particularly in those areas where the network of public rights of way is in poor condition. The late Robin Reeves, the well-known Welsh author and journalist, was one of the original group of walkers. His premature death last autumn saddened us all greatly. It is our aim to complete the work and inaugurate the Cistercian Way, Wales’s longest footpath, as a memorial to him. These pages are still under construction but you can use them to read samples of the route and to link to other relevant material. Later we hope to have more illustrations and maps. We welcome ideas, suggestions on the route and offers of help with research and walking.

For more information contact Maddy Gray at

Click here for Maddy Gray's article on the reconstruction of the route from Llantarnam to Penrhys

Click here for a sample of the route from Margam to Neath

Click here for a sample of the route from Strata Florida to Cymmer.

Click here to look at work in progress on the route from Conwy to Basingwerk

Click here for a sample of the route from Llanllugan to Cwm-hir.

Click here for an interview with some of the pilgrims (on the Sacred Land web site)

Return to Maddy Gray’s home page

Return to UWCN home page

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