Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 102

Leave Swansea — The Pandemonium — Neath Abbey — Varied Scenery.

IT was about two o’clock of a dull and gloomy afternoon when I started from Abertawy or Swansea, intending to stop at Neath, some eight miles distant. As I passed again through the suburbs I was struck with their length and the evidences of enterprise which they exhibited — enterprise, however, evidently chiefly connected with iron and coal, for almost every object looked awfully grimy. Crossing a bridge I proceeded to the east up a broad and spacious valley, the eastern side of which was formed by russet-coloured hills, through a vista of which I could descry a range of tall blue mountains. As I proceeded I sometimes passed pleasant groves and hedgerows, sometimes huge works; in this valley there was a singular mixture of nature and art, of the voices of birds and the clanking of chains, of the mists of heaven and the smoke of furnaces.

I reached Llan — a small village half-way between Swansea and Neath, and without stopping continued my course, walking very fast. I had surmounted a hill, and had nearly descended that side of it which looked towards the east, having on my left, that is to the north, a wooded height, when an extraordinary scene presented itself to my eyes. Somewhat to the south rose immense stacks of chimneys surrounded by grimy diabolical-looking buildings, in the neighbourhood of which were huge heaps of cinders and black rubbish. From the chimneys, notwithstanding it was Sunday, smoke was proceeding in volumes, choking the atmosphere all around. From this pandemonium, at the distance of about a quarter of a mile to the south-west, upon a green meadow, stood, looking darkly grey, a ruin of vast size with window holes, towers, spires, and arches. Between it and the accursed pandemonium, lay a horrid filthy place, part of which was swamp and part pool: the pool black as soot, and the swamp of a disgusting leaden colour. Across this place of filth stretched a tramway leading seemingly from the abominable mansions to the ruin. So strange a scene I had never beheld in nature. Had it been on canvas, with the addition of a number of Diabolical figures, proceeding along the tramway, it might have stood for Sabbath in Hell — devils proceeding to afternoon worship, and would have formed a picture worthy of the powerful but insane painter, Jerome Bos.

After standing for a considerable time staring at the strange spectacle I proceeded. Presently meeting a lad, I asked him what was the name of the ruin.

“The Abbey,” he replied.

“Neath Abbey?” said I.


Having often heard of this abbey, which in its day was one of the most famous in Wales, I determined to go and inspect it. It was with some difficulty that I found my way to it. It stood, as I have already observed, in a meadow, and was on almost every side surrounded by majestic hills. To give any clear description of this ruined pile would be impossible, the dilapidation is so great, dilapidation evidently less the effect of time than of awful violence, perhaps that of gunpowder. The southern is by far the most perfect portion of the building; there you see not only walls but roofs. Fronting you full south, is a mass of masonry with two immense arches, other arches behind them: entering, you find yourself beneath a vaulted roof, and passing on you come to an oblong square which may have been a church; an iron-barred window on your right enables you to look into a mighty vault, the roof of which is supported by beautiful pillars. Then — but I forbear to say more respecting these remains, for fear of stating what is incorrect, my stay amongst them having been exceedingly short.

The Abbey of Glen Neath was founded in the twelfth century by Richard Grenfield, one of the followers of Robert Fitzhamon, who subjugated Glamorgan. Neath Abbey was a very wealthy one, the founder having endowed it with extensive tracts of fertile land along the banks of the rivers Neath and Tawy. In it the unfortunate Edward of Carnarvon sought a refuge for a few days from the rage of his revolted barons, whilst his favourite, the equally unfortunate Spencer, endeavoured to find a covert amidst the thickets of the wood-covered hill to the north. When Richmond landed at Milford Haven to dispute the crown with Richard the Second, the then Abbot of Neath repaired to him and gave him his benediction, in requital for which the adventurer gave him his promise that in the event of his obtaining the crown, he would found a college in Glen Neath, which promise, however, after he had won the crown, he forgot to perform. 20 The wily abbot, when he hastened to pay worship to what he justly conceived to be the rising sun, little dreamt that he was about to bless the future father of the terrible man doomed by Providence to plant the abomination of desolation in Neath Abbey and in all the other nests of monkery throughout the land.

Leaving the ruins I proceeded towards Neath. The scenery soon became very beautiful; not that I had left machinery altogether behind, for I presently came to a place where huge wheels were turning, and there was smoke and blast, but there was much that was rural and beautiful to be seen, something like park scenery, and then there were the mountains near and in the distance. I reached Neath at about half-past four, and took up my quarters at an inn which had been recommended to me by my friend the boots at Swansea.

20 Y Greal, p. 279.


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