The abbey ruins lay forgotten until the 18th century. Then something wild and romantic began to stir in British hearts.
Tintern was about to experience a second heyday – this time as a major tourist destination. A popular engraving by the Buck brothers, published in 1732, started the ball rolling. It was followed by the Reverend William Gilpin’s bestselling account of his Wye River voyage in 1770.
He described Tintern as ‘the most beautiful’ scene of all – although he felt there was room for improvement. ‘A number of gable-ends hurt the eye with their regularity and disgust it by the vulgarity of their shape,’ he wrote, suggesting a mallet might come in handy.
Nevertheless the ivy-covered ruins of Tintern were caught up in a surge of romantic interest in the ‘Sublime’ and the ‘Picturesque’. Travellers kept out of Europe by the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars were roaming the wild landscapes of Britain instead.
They flocked to the Wye Valley, arriving on small boats laden with picnic hampers. In 1792 they were joined by none other than JMW Turner – barely 17 years of age and full of expectation on his first proper trip to Wales.
The pencil sketches he made at Tintern provided the raw material for the magnificent watercolours exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1794-95.
By then the poet William Wordsworth – young, troubled and alone – had already seen Tintern for himself. In July 1798 he returned in happier times with his sister Dorothy and wrote his famous poem ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’.
By now the abbey, beneath Wordsworth’s ‘steep and lofty cliffs’ on the banks of his ‘sylvan Wye’, wasn’t only a romantic vision. It was a bustling tourist attraction surrounded by beggars and would-be guides loudly touting for business.
Things are quieter now. But the great walls and arches in their setting of wild natural beauty haven’t lost their magic. They remain a vision of the sublime.