The Llanthony Valley is a place of magical beauty, history and religion, in the Black Mountains to the north of Abergavenny.
Its 'U' shaped section was created by glacial action many thousands of years ago. The river Honddu rises at the Gospel Pass and flows from Capel-y-ffin down to Llanvihangel Crucorney where a glacial moraine deflects it north-eastwards to join the Monnow at Alltyrynys. Offa's Dyke Path, near the old Anglo-Saxon boundary between Wales and England, runs along the eastern ridge, between the Llanthony and Olchon valleys. In Medieval times, when the churches and priory were built, it was difficult to enter the valley at the southern end as it was thickly wooded and boggy. The early religious settlers and farmers entered the valley from the north, over the Gospel Pass from Hay, or walked across the mountains from Grwyne Fawr or Longtown.
The roads in the valley are narrow and winding. Please drive carefully and park considerately, making sure you do not block access.
After the Norman invasion, William de Lacy came from the royal court of Henry I and sent his chaplain Erinisius to Llanthony. By 1108 a small church had been built and a community of monks established. Encouraged by Archbishop Anselm, they became Canons Regular of St Augustine and under Ernisius the priory flourished, and was given many lands and gifts. One was the right to take fish from Llangorse Lake and because of this the way known as Rhiw Pyscod developed. Fish, still alive and wrapped in wet rushes, were brought from Llangorse over the mountains to the fishponds at the monastery. Another path, Rhiw Cwrw, developed to bring the monks' beer from Abbeydore. There is a touching story about Robert de Bethune, the second Prior of Llanthony, coming from Hereford to Llanthony in the snow. The mountains were so slippery he took off his leather shoes and walked barefoot; the ice cut his feet leaving a bloodstained track where he had crossed.
After, Robert's days the priory fell upon troubled times. By 1160 a second Augustinian house had been built in Gloucester and all valuables from Llanthony were removed there.
Hugh de Lacy encouraged a second period of growth: a magnificent church and extensive buildings were constructed between 1175 and 1230. But by the end of the 13th century the monks were again involved in skirmishes and, with the revolt of Owain Glyndwr, Llanthony lay within the area occupied by the rebels. With the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538 the Prior and his four canons were granted a pension of £8 by Henry VIII. The priory lands and possessions, including St Martin's Church at Cwmyoy, were sold by the King to Nicholas Arnolde, Chief of Justice of Ireland.
In 1807 the land was acquired by the poet Walter Savage Landor. He had ideas of creating a grand estate for himself at Llanthony. He planted a large number of beech, chestnut and larch trees, some of which still stand today. He attempted to build 'the Sharples' but had so much local opposition he eventually gave up the project and went to Spain. The estate was bought from his family by tenant farmers earlier this century.
St David's has links with the sixth century and the days of the Celtic saints. After the departure of the Romans, the Celts held on to their Christianity when the Saxon invaders, who were pagan, pushed them back into Wales and to the north. The early saints were often hermits who lived solitary lives of prayer and contemplation. It is said that St David lived here in a cell. Such a saint usually attracted followers, and a type of monastic community was often formed, consisting of stone or timber cells clustered round a church, enclosed within a 'llan'.
The Reverend Joseph Leycester Lyne, known as Father Ignatius, tried to buy Llanthony Priory from the Landor family but failed, so on St Patrick's Day 1870 Father Ignatius laid the foundation stone of Llanthony Monastery of Our Ladye and St Dunstan, Llanthony Tertia, at Capel-y-ffin. He wanted to revive the Benedictine movement in Wales as it is said that he saw a vision of the Virgin Mary in a burning bush here. Francis Kilvert, in his diary, tells of the dissatisfied tenants at Llanthony on rent day and he also watched the monks building their church. Father Ignatius eventually died and was buried in his church, but the building soon became neglected, and today is open to the skies. There is a pilgrimage held annually in August (usually on the Saturday of the August Bank Holiday weekend) from Llanthony to Capel-y-ffin. Part of the monastery is now a private residence and it is here that Eric Gill, the sculptor and type-face designer, lived with his family. It is possible to visit the remains of the church and a small chapel made in the domestic buildings in Gill's time.
The church was built in 1762 on an earlier site. It is surrounded by seven ancient yew trees and in the churchyard is the base of an old stone cross and two small headstones carved by Eric Gill. Behind the church on over the Honddu is a Baptist chapel. Notice the shed for the minister's pony and the mounting block. At the north end of the valley is the Gospel Pass; St David may have passed this way and certainly Francis Kilvert came up from Llanigon to visit the monastery. From the highest point on the pass is it possible to walk up on to the Hatterrall Ridge and Offa's Dyke National Trail.
This inn at Llanvihangel Crucorney is said to be Wales' oldest inn. Skirrid is derived from the Welsh word 'ysgyryd', a shiver. Legend says that in the hour of darkness after the Crucifixion the mountain shuddered and shivered and was rent in twain; hence Ysgyryd Fawr with its dramatically 'slipped' profile (and the nearby Ysgyryd Fach). It is recorded that in 1110 two brothers, James and John Crowther, were tried at the inn. James was sentenced to nine months for robberies with violence, and John was hung from a beam in the inn for sheep stealing. The soldiers of Owain Glyndwr 1359-1416 rallied in the inn's cobbled yard before marching on Pontrilas.
The present building is Elizabethan. There is a court room on the first floor and prisoners were kept in a cell halfway up the stairs. (Scorch and drag marks said to have been left by the many hangings can still be seen.) Local stories tell us that Bloody Judge Jeffries (1644-89) presided in the courtroom during the religious persecutions.
In remote countryside, with the stream Nant Mair flowing below, is the pretty little church of Patricio (or Partrishow) named after St Issui, an early Celtic saint. Below the church is a well, and St Issui probably built a cell here. This became a place of pilgrimage after he was murdered.
It is also said that in 1188 Giraldus Cambrensis preached the Third Crusade from the cross in the churchyard. Inside, some very interesting early wall paintings may be seen; and the carved wooden rood screen is one of the finest examples to be found in Wales.
The hillside on which this hamlet and church is situated has slipped into the shape of an oxen's yoke - Cwm Iau. The church of St Martin is unique, no part of it being square or at right angles with any other part. This is the result of being built on ground where subsidence has occurred in debris left by glaciation of the valley. The church dates back to the Middle Ages and contains a Medieval cross, thought to have been one of the crosses of the Pilgrims' Way to St David's.