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04/21/2010 Archived Entry: "Abergavenny"
Today’s entry comes from South Wales where my wife and I attended the annual conference of the Crime Writers’ Association. Our base was the charming and historic market town of Abergavenny that nestles in a hollow on the western edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park. We were very fortunate and had beautiful sunny weather with gentle breezes. Though there were remnants of snow on the mountains, in the lush valley that surrounds Abergavenny, the hedgerows and trees were in early leaf, spring blossom was at its best and the Welsh daffodils were in colourful abundance.
We took a few extra days to explore the area and immediately made for the famous Brecon Beacons. They are so named because, in times past, their summits were the home of beacons used to warn the local people of invaders or perhaps to announce a celebration of some kind. It was to these hills that the industrial workers of the past came from their mines and factories in the Welsh valleys to enjoy fresh air and open spaces, and so the National Park has been branded as Britain’s breathing spaces. It is a very apt description.
Some facts about the Park reveal that it is the highest ground in Britain south of Snowdonia, it covers 520 square miles (1347 sq. km) and it was the tenth National Park in Britain, being created in 1957. It is the nearest one to London with easy access and there is an information centre in the mountains providing rest and refreshments, activities and advice about the area.
It is rather confusing to see the Black Mountain (in the singular) – Y Myndd Du - to the west and the Black Mountains (plural) – Y Mynyddoedd Duon - to the east of the park but they are quite separate from one another. One soon becomes accustomed to the system of naming but even more interesting are the Welsh names for locations. Among the other mountains here are Bannau Sir Gaer and Fan Brycheinoig along with a legendary lake called Llyn y Fan Fach where a fairy woman made an historic appearance. On local sign posts most locations appear in both Welsh and English, reminding us that we are in Wales.
We drove from Abergavenny to Brecon along the Usk Valley, using winding back lanes through the pretty villages. Much of our route was alongside the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal, surely one of the most beautiful in Britain with its canal paths and ancient packhorse bridges. Once a vital means of transport for the gathering and distribution of industrial materials and products, it is now part of the tourist industry and is very popular with visitors.
Brecon, a small historic market town, is the capital of that region with a strong military history. In fact there is a museum devoted to military matters. There’s also an art gallery and a tiny cathedral that is now the parish church. Its origins are uncertain but may date to the 11th century. One curiosity is that the church tower was not erected for religious reasons – it was for military purposes and one local legend says that Sir Dafydd ap Llewelyn (Davey Gam of Shakespeare’s Henry IV) ran his sword through a man right there outside this church.
Later we drove up onto the hills above Brecon to explore the surrounding mountains. The area is known as Mynydd Illtyd and is one of the largest areas of common land in Wales. Here, farmers have the right to graze their sheep and horses, and to cut bracken. Some leaflets suggest the Welsh ponies running free on this land are wild – they are not. They are domestic animals but roam free on this wide expanse of upland and indeed two of them came to us for a pat and a chat. The terrain, though marshy, is fairly level and walking was easy. We spotted a red kite, a species that is plentiful in this part of Wales, and a raven. Several skylarks were singing in the heavens and a meadow pipit competed with them in its own distinctive manner.
On our return to Abergavenny beneath the famous Sugar Loaf Mountain, we visited St Mary’s Priory founded in 1087 by the Benedictines. There we marvelled at one of the world’s finest pieces of medieval sculpture, the Jesse Tree. This is a 15th century wood carving of Jesse, the biblical father of King David. So called Jesse figures, or Jesse trees, are not uncommon in stone and stained glass but this is possibly the only one carved from a tree. St Mary’s has an abundance of fine monuments and tombs, many of them have been restored and rest in the Herbert Chapel. Three of these are evidence of the Renaissance English School of alabaster carving. After Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, this site was sold and the Priory became Abergavenny’s Parish Church.
Next door to the church is a fascinating 12th century tithe barn. This was built to house the tithes paid by the local community to the monks of St Mary’s Priory. Over the years it has been used for many different purposes, from a travelling theatre in the 17th century to a discotheque in the 20th. In 1999, however, it was rescued by a trust and carefully renovated and now houses a food hall, shop, education and exhibition centre. Not to be missed here is the stunning Abergavenny tapestry. This was painstakingly worked by 60 local volunteers over three years to commemorate the Millennium. Eight metres long, it beautifully illustrates 1000 years of Abergavenny history.
Add to this a castle and museum, a bustling market hall, thriving theatre, together with pavement cafes, tempting delis and shops, and you have a charming little town that demands a return visit. Perhaps we could take in the famous Abergavenny food festival which takes place every year in September.