Tintern Abbey is amongst the most famous ancient religious ruins in the UK, noted for its large scale, the relatively good state of preservation, the dark, aged masonry and the beautiful, isolated setting, on the floor of the steep-sided Wye Valley in Monmouthshire. The abbey, a Cistercian foundation, was established in 1131, and was the second oldest British centre for this Benedictine order following Waverley Abbey in Surrey (1128). Like nearly all others, its occupation came to an abrupt end following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, instigated by Henry VIII in 1536. Today, the church and its extensive outbuildings are managed by Cadw, the Welsh heritage organisation, and the site is one of the top historic attractions in the country.
The main abbey church lacks a roof, window glass and most interior structures, but is otherwise fairly complete. It is linked on the north side to various courtyards and other buildings, some also mostly intact but the majority reduced to foundations or wall fragments. To the west, separated from the abbey by the entrance road, are the lesser remains of the inner court, partly buried beneath the main road (A466) to the south. Modern buildings in the vicinity are a pub, tea room and visitor centre, while the River Wye flows serenely past just to the north. A narrow bridge (once supporting a railway branch line) links with footpaths up and down the valley, and other places within a short distance include a hotel, studio and a mill with water wheel, so there is plenty to see and do in the vicinity, besides just touring the abbey. The outside of the main church can be viewed without payment since the building is enclosed only by a low fence, though it is well worth paying the £6 entry fee to inspect the interior close up.
The abbey and the small adjacent village of Tintern are five miles north of Chepstow along the A366, adjoining the River Wye, which defines the border between Wales and England. A little side road leads to two parking areas, one in front of the abbey, next to the inner court ruins, the other at the visitor centre, where the interior of the site is accessed. The path from here starts at a gate through the north wall of the complex, which is lined by small pieces of decorative masonry, unearthed during excavations. Directly ahead is the most substantial group of outbuildings, with the north transept of the abbey rising above. To the left (east) are the walls of the monk's day room, the oldest surviving part of the complex (late 12 century), while to the right is the monk's refectory (dining hall), linked by the smaller but thick-walled warming house, the only enclosure that contained a fireplace. Further west are other food-related rooms including a kitchen, cellar, parlour and a smaller refectory, then to the east are more extensive relics, generally with lower walls - the 14th century abbot's hall, several apartments, a chapel, and the infirmary buildings where ill monks were cared for; these comprise a kitchen, a large hall and a cloister. South of the monks refectory is the main cloister, which adjoins the north side of the abbey nave, while two other rooms of note are the chapter house, where day-to-day management of the abbey was conducted, and the book room/sacristy, which linked directly to the north transept of the abbey.
The Gothic-style church has the standard cruciform layout used by most cathedrals and abbeys of the time - from west to east it contains the nave, choir and presbytery (site of the altar), with the north and south transepts at either side. The nave and presbytery are lined by aisles, originally separated from the main area by walls. Each of the four extremities of the building features a large, traceried window, most spectacularly the recently restored great west window above the main entrance, which is closed by a pair of replica wooden doors. Tiny fragments of medieval stained glass cling to some of the window frames. An ornate partition, the pulpitum, once separated the nave from the choir, and a few segments are still visible on the nave floor. In the north transept are a flight of steps, the night stairs, that provided a route for monks to reach their first floor dormitory after performing late night services, and now leads to an elevated viewpoint overlooking the various buildings to the north. All of the floor of the abbey is covered by lush green grass, contrasting with the dark, austere masonry.
The abbey at Tintern was established by Walter de Clare (or Walter fitz Richard), Lord of Chepstow, and was run by a group of monks originally from Chartres in France. Construction began in 1136, but the earliest surviving section (part of the wall of the monk's day room) is from the late 12th century. The majority of the other outbuildings, including the chapter house, refectory and warming house were built in the mid 13th century, while the abbey itself was erected between 1269 and 1330, with financial support from Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk. Like other religious and fortified buildings of the time in this region it was constructed out of the local Old Red Sandstone, which is mostly grey in colour but often tinted with purple or green. The decline of the site began soon after the dissolution, when lead from the roofs was removed for sale, and some of the buildings were used for residential purposes. Not until the late 18th century did Tintern become a popular tourist destination, partly due to depictions in painting, literature and poetry, by such luminaries as William Wordsworth and Thomas Gainsborough.