Medieval Margam was dominated by its magnificent Cistercian Abbey, and ruins still survive in the beautiful parkland here today.
This walk is one of 13 separate circular routes which together make up the St Thomas Way.
Place and History
In the Middle Ages, Margam was dominated by its rich and influential Cistercian Abbey.
The Abbey was founded in 1147 by Robert, Earl of Gloucester and Lord of Glamorgan, an illegitimate son of Henry I of England. Today, parts of the Abbey survive in the Abbey Church and in the grounds of Margam Country Park, including ruins of the impressive polygonal Chapter House.
Margam was an important centre of learning in the Middle Ages. It was one of the earliest Cistercian foundations in Britain, and a surviving booklist shows that, by the fourteenth century, the Abbey had over 240 books. The Latin Annales de Margan – a key source for Glamorgan history – were produced here, and the Abbey also has associations with the Welsh Book of Taliesin, which includes religious writing, prophecies and bardic poetry. The Welsh bards Lewys Glyn Cothi and Richard ap Rhys wrote in praise of the Abbey.
The medieval cleric Gerald of Wales tells us that ‘of all the houses belonging to the Cistercian order in Wales this was by far the most renowned for alms and charity’.
Gerald himself enjoyed the Abbey’s hospitality in March 1188, during his journey through Wales. But, even in an Abbey, trouble could sometimes break out. Gerald tells the story of a man who struck another in the refectory (dining hall) of the Abbey guest house. The next morning, the corpse of this wicked man was found stretched out in that same spot in the refectory where he had ‘offered insult to the holy house’. After leaving Margam, Gerald made his way on to Neath, where the Abbey with its library was another great centre of learning. He tells how his horse was nearly lost in the treacherous quicksands of the River Neath, and pulled out ‘not without some damage done to my books and baggage’.
A place of religious faith and learning in the Middle Ages, evidence from Margam shows traditions stretching back much further.
The stone Celtic crosses now housed in the Stones Museum suggest a long devotional history here, and the Iron Age hillfort behind Margam Castle (nineteenth century) was occupied by the Silures tribe who fought against Roman occupiers in the first century AD.
Margam Abbey survived threats to its existence throughout the Middle Ages, including a severe attack by Welsh rebels during the revolt of Owain Glyn Dwr (1412), due to its perceived English allegiances. The Abbey was dissolved under Henry VIII in 1536.
The Hanged Man’s Journey
On their pilgrimage from Swansea to Hereford, William Cragh – the revived hanged man – and Lord and Lady de Briouze probably crossed the River Neath to the west of here, and very likely stayed overnight at Margam Abbey to break their journey.
Margam Abbey’s association with learning and knowledge in the Middle Ages calls our attention to questions of knowledge and medieval attitudes to truth and knowledge in the William Cragh story.
We know the story of William Cragh because, in 1307, about 17 years after his hanging, a team of inquisitors were sent by Pope Clement V to establish whether Thomas of Hereford – whose intercession had supposed caused the miraculous resuscitation of Cragh – really was a saint or not.
The records made by the inquisitors show a forensic approach to establishing the truth of what really happened. Systematically, the same set of questions was asked of each witness.
As well as their own eyewitness testimonies, several of those interviewed refer to ‘common knowledge’ or shared public opinion as evidence for Cragh’s miraculous revival. Lady Mary de Briouze, for example, describes ‘vox communis et communis oppinio gencium et fama publica’ (‘the voice of the community and common opinion of the people and public rumour’).
While this might seem to us like unreliable hearsay, in the Middle Ages it seems that this ‘collective knowledge’ carried legal weight as an indication of a widely-recognised truth.
St Thomas and Medieval Belief
The life of St Thomas of Hereford is bound up in many ways with medieval learning and knowledge.
Before being consecrated Bishop of Hereford, Thomas studied at the universities of Paris, Oxford and Orleans, specialising in canon (church) law. After his studies abroad, he returned to Oxford in around 1255 and was made a Doctor of Law. In 1261 he was elected chancellor of the university. He was by this time an established and respected scholar – but his good relationship with King Henry III was probably also a factor.
Some intriguing details survive of Thomas’s career in academia, offering clues to his character and temperament.
As a student in Oxford, his canonisation dossier attests, he was hospitable and generous and would sustain poor students and beggars at his table. He once had to borrow money himself, however, and was dismissed as a rusticus, or country bumpkin, by a fellow scholar. Later, as chancellor, contemporary records comment on his imposing physical presence when breaking up a fight between students. On more than one occasion, he played a key role in subduing student riots between the ‘northerners’ and the ‘southerners’ – a recurrent feature of Oxford life at this time.
It’s also possible – though not certain – that he may have been present at a tense gathering in Oxford in 1270, when a bold new master, thought to be a young John Peckham, was humiliated in a fierce intellectual argument with Thomas Aquinas. Years later, Peckham was to become Archbishop of Canterbury, and was embroiled in a series of disputes with Thomas, ultimately ordering his excommunication. Thomas was on his way to Rome to challenge this excommunication when he died.
Beauty and ugliness side by side
As we climb towards the higher ground away from the abbey ruins we realise how close the industrial infrastructure of Port Talbot is, with its brutally utilitarian structures and polluting emissions, while the roar of the nearby M4 is relentless. Hard to think of this as the once away-from-it-all site of Wales’s largest Cistercian abbey.
Yet there is beauty and mystery still in tangled tree limbs, a cool lake, open space, ruined buildings, ancient stone crosses, and the sense of what once was. Try as it might, the new has not obliterated the old, while the old yet bides its time.
Lord, my life is a mixture of beauty and ugliness; you have created me in your image, but so often I spoil that image in me. Make me open to your love so that you can increase my beauty and redeem my ugliness; help me to accept that you really delight in me.
Margam demonstrates the influence humans have had over the landscape throughout history.
Today, the varied lush and leafy natural landscape of Margam Country Park provides a striking contrast with the highly industrial Port Talbot. During the Middle Ages, the fashion for parks designed for the purpose of recreation and hunting radically transformed the landscape of England and Wales. By 1300, over 3,000 parks, such as Margam, were known to have existed, covering approximately 2% of the English and Welsh countryside.
Although game was always considered as a source of food, hunting for recreation was a pastime thoroughly enjoyed by the noble classes throughout Western Europe.
Deer were considered to be the most prestigious quarry of the hunt. Mounted parties of noblemen and women would use hounds to chase and exhaust the deer, before using spears, swords or arrows to kill the animal.
Fallow deer (Lat. Dama dama) are an ornamental species, first introduced to the British Isles by the Normans.
Margam’s herd of fallow deer, which today numbers around 300, dates back to the eleventh century, although Red deer were known to occupy this region back to Romans times. The introduction of fallow deer for recreational and ornamental purposes transformed the cultural landscape of England and Wales.
Look out for the fallow deer in Margam Country Park, as well as the herd of over 60 Red deer (reintroduced to the area in the early 2000s) and the rare, endangered Pere David deer, native to China introduced to the park in the twenty-first century.
Specially-chosen music for this location from Hereford Cathedral, and a medieval ecclesiastical soundscape.
Distance: Approx. 4.5 miles
Time: Approx. 2.5 hours
Access: Moderate difficulty; mostly gravel tracks and footpaths with some steeper inclines up into deer park; not suitable for wheelchairs and buggies; walking boots or sturdy shoes recommended.
- Start at the Abbey ruins in Margam Park, by the Orangery. Walk uphill, via steps in places, towards the modern castle. Margam Abbey was a Cistercian monastery, founded by Robert, earl of Gloucester, in 1147.
- Pass to the left of the castle onto a track (be aware of occasional slow moving vehicles on this track), which goes gently uphill towards a kissing gate. Pass through the gate and follow the Coed Morgannwg Way signs, taking the path on the left of the fork.
- To your left you will see the remains of an Iron Age hill fort. Follow the path gently uphill. Keep ahead at a junction of tracks towards a fork up ahead. At this fork, take the right-hand track.
- The track continues gently uphill and bears right, following the contours of the hillside. Continue until you reach a large stile and gate, which leads into the forest.
- Pass by, keeping the gate on your left and take the path on your right. Follow this path up a steep hill until you see the dry-stone wall on your left.
- Walk up hill towards a tall gate. Pass through the gate into the Deer Park and walk gently down hill, keeping the wall and later fence to your left. Margam Park was one of around 3,000 parks created by the aristocracy in the Middle Ages for the purposes of recreational hunting. Today, the park is home to Fallow, Red, and Pere David Deer.
- When you see the ladder-stile to the left, follow the contour of the field along grass path. At this point you will see fantastic views of Swansea Bay. The path eventually joins on to St. Illtyd’s Walk.
- Turn left at the end of the path, rejoining the track originally taken alongside the Iron Age hill fort.
- As you approach the modern castle, take the path to the left, keeping the castle on your right.
- Follow the track down hill (be aware of slow-moving vehicles as you walk this track), through a kissing gate next to a cattle grid.
- Finish your walk at the Margam Park carpark.