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An old barn, some parch marks and a possible Medieval quay.

July 13, 2011

Greece was nice. For some reason it was empty, everything was cheap and I overdosed for my sun addiction. Tenerife is next up in September. It is a hard life that I lead at the moment but I shan’t complain.

Before I went away I mentioned that I had taken two of my tutors around Llantarnam abbey. This was because I wanted to point out most of the things I had discovered down there. While waiting for them to turn up I suddenly remembered a conversation I had with a person employed by CADW. It was about Llantarnam’s so called ‘tithe barn’. It isn’t thought to be that now, it is probably post medieval but, it is one of only two things that have been granted listed building protection within the grounds. It’s a big old thing mind you. Here it is nestled behind some rather nice corrugated iron buildings.

Llantarnam's Tithe barn.

Some of you may not know who CADW are. Let them explain who they are in their own words. From their website:

Cadw is the historic environment service of the Welsh Assembly Government. ‘Cadw’ (pronounced cad-oo) is a Welsh word meaning ‘to keep’….We aim to protect the historic environment of Wales by working with partners and private owners. We want people to enjoy it, to learn from it, to preserve it for our descendants, and to share it with others.

So there you go, it seems to me that is reasonably simple. Cad-oo look after old buildings that are listed and as such they have adopted the Welsh word that means to keep.


You see I have been based at the abbey for nearly two years now. I look at stuff that I have looked at a thousand times before. You may ask why? The simple answer is that firstly, you may see things that you hadn’t spotted before, and secondly, with standing buildings, you can see any dilapidation develop. The barn is in a state of continuing dilapidation. Last summer I was horrified to see that a large crack had opened up along the top of the ventilation slits at the top of one of the gable ends. The situation is worsened as a large tree is growing against it. I took the chance of raising this issue at a lecture delivered (if that is what you could call it) by the person from CADW.

The conversation went like this.

“Llantarnam’s tithe barn is on the point of collapse, something has to be done before it is to late.”

“Of course it is about to fall down, it is old.”

That was the end of the conversation. How dare a member of the great unwashed even approach such a person from an esteemed establishment!

"Of course it is going to fall down, its old." - CADW Spokesman

This raises the issue of what CADW actually means. I know they have said that it means ‘to keep’ but in what way? ‘To keep’ a diligent eye on the buildings they are supposed to protect and acting when informed of any dangerous developments? Or ‘to keep’ doing nothing until the ‘protected buildings’ fall down? The latter seems to be more apt. Well done Cad-oo. The buildings need protecting allright, probably from the care of Cad-oo themselves.

After I had taken the photos above I walked around to the front of the abbey for no other reason than to have another look at the grand old place.

Its a wonderful setting, you become relaxed in the tranquillity of the place. Just to look at  the current building is a wonder in itself. The interior is even more elegant with grand remains of the Tudor reconstruction scattered throughout. One thing that caught my eye were some parch marks on the front lawn that I had not noticed before. Parch marks occur when the roots of the grass are depraved of moisture. This normally happens during sustained periods of dry weather and normally indicates that there is something under the subsoil preventing the roots from delving deeper to find some moisture. Get a long regular line of parched grass and you could reasonably argue that there is a stone wall or structure just lying below the surface.

Parched grass - I wonder what lies beneath the sub soil?

According to one excavator, this area of the abbey grounds contains the southern end of the Cistercian nave. It is such a shame he never published his work otherwise people may have listened to him. I am not saying he is wrong but this is the next area I have targeted for  geophysical survey. More about that if or when it happens.

While on holiday, much to the delight of my long standing and suffering wife (aww), I studied every day. Not all day I might add but nevertheless I read while taking notes for the best part of five hours on a daily basis. My word didn’t I learn a lot!

The book I decided to take away with me was titled Waterways and Canal-Building in Medieval England, Edited by John Blair. It promised a lot of potential for me in regards to the water management at the abbey.

  • The first study of canals and waterways in medieval England
  • Essays from a wide range of specialists, from geographers and geomorphologists, to place-name scholars
  • A new perspective broadening our understanding of medieval economy, landscape, and settlement in England

And it delivered. My eyes have been well and truly opened. It made me realised that I may have misinterpreted a standing structure in the Dowlais brook; it is situated within the abbeys precinct. As I had no idea what it could have been I described this structure to somebody before as ‘a long wall along The Dowlais’ bank that had a small semi-circular section cut into the bank’. They had suggested that it could be a possible baptism place as the cut into the bank would have kept the person getting wet out of the main flow of the brook. I have to say that, perhaps unfortunately, I accepted that explanation without much further thought. I did realise at the time that it would require quite a bit of further investigation.

One of my tutors was extremely sceptical on my suggestion above so I just left it up in the air until I had time for more research. As you can probably guess the probabilities came to light while I was away. I am wondering if it may have been a medieval quay. There is no doubt whatsoever that the Dowlais has been canalised, the long straight sections of it indicate that. I had always taken it as a given that this was done to enlarge the area for the inner and outer precinct of the abbey.

Straightening the Dowlais Brook enabled many things, including easier navigation (maybe).

Reading the collection of academic papers while I was away has shed new light on the possibilities of why that was actually done by the monks. Water transport of goods, cattle and construction material was the done thing in the early middle ages period. For sure there is no doubt in my mind that the precincts were opened up and enlarged by this act of engineering but the possibilities of transporting goods down (or up or probably both) this canal is, quite literally, staring me (or us) in the face.

I suppose now would be a good time to post a photo of this feature, the possible quay. It is unfortunate that I do not possess one of quality. So here is a taster, a glimpse of what is there to give you an idea of what I have described.

The semi circular feature is on the left of the picture as you look at it.

Ok, I admit that is a poor photo but!, my next quest is to get down there, clean the whole thing up and post some pictures in my one of my next blogs. Just don’t moan that I have teased, the probability is there.

An update on my last blog is that I have a meeting with Torfaen’s heritage officer tomorrow, watch this space.



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  1. Mary Mahabir permalink

    Interesting Dave. Want to know more. MM

  2. An interesting blog. Have you ever made a model of the abbey and the surrounding area to see how it looked in its time? You could add in the quay and see if it fits for that location and is there a roadway between it and the abbey.
    I must get that book on medieval canals. Is it still available in shops?

    • Niall, the book is freely available on the internet!

      I have no need for a model of the abbey yet, maybe in time but not yet.

  3. Nish permalink

    Dave – I know you will have thought of this, but the semi circular feature could be a turning point (where the boat is nosed in and the boat swings round) if it has been canalised. You might want to look at for example the canal that runs through Tavistock – called the manure canal It’s a shallow local waterway that resembles this one. But there are other examples of course.

    • I have lots of study to do Nish, there are many features that have to be looked at. Thanks for the heads up, I will certainly explore the canal through Tavistock.

  4. Welshblood permalink

    Yes, a winding hole is what it does look like, as Nish says!

  5. Sue Smith permalink

    I never realised there was so much history on my own doorstep. Your site is fascinating – thank you so much.

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