A place of borders and crossing-places, where historic paths and old ways wind across the landscape.
This walk is one of 13 separate circular routes which together make up the St Thomas Way.
Place and History
Ewenny, a rural village in the Vale of Glamorgan, is a true Marcher location: a place of borders and crossing-places, where historic paths and old ways wind across the landscape.
Ewenny was shaped by its Benedictine Priory in the Middle Ages, founded in the early twelfth century (probably) by William de Londres, who also built the first motte and bailey castle at neighbouring Ogmore. Much of the medieval Priory is still visible today, at Ewenny Priory Church, renowned as the most complete Norman church in south Wales. Highlights include the Romanesque arches supported by round pillars with scalloped capitals (in the church nave), fourteenth-century geometric patterned tiles in the crossing, and impressive stonework in the south transept, such as tombs of founders and priors, a twelfth-century carving of the Entry of Christ into Jerusalem, and ancient Celtic Christian stones, pre-dating the Priory. The presbytery (chancel) has stunning twelfth-century barrel- and crossed-rib-vaulting.
The term ‘March’, as in ‘The March of Wales’ or ‘Welsh Marches’, comes from the Anglo-Saxon word mearc, meaning ‘border’.
In its Marcher location, Ewenny was a fortified Priory, and some of these defences still survive (see the impressive wall and north gate house). Such measures were necessary – in the fifteenth century the Priory was attacked by Owain Glyn Dwr’s forces, perhaps because the Prior had helped to co-ordinate resistance to the Welsh.
Historic routes and boundaries are traced across the landscape here: in the Ewenny River, which today, for most of its length, forms the border between the counties of the Vale of Glamorgan and Bridgend, and which joins the River Ogmore near the coast, where it is still crossed with its medieval stepping stones. It is likely that William Cragh and the de Briouzes themselves stepped across these on their pilgrimage from Swansea to Hereford. And the great Roman road, the Via Julia Maritima from Gloucester to St Davids, runs nearby, with a Roman bridge close to the Coed-y-Bwl nature reserve.
The Hanged Man’s Journey
Looking from a boundary, it’s often possible to see things in (at least) two different ways. William Cragh, the miraculously-revived hanged man of Swansea, who carefully crossed the nearby stepping stones at Ogmore in 1290, was certainly regarded in very different ways by people with different political allegiances in this Marcher landscape.
Criminal, outlaw or freedom fighter?
John of Baggeham, steward of the Anglo-Norman lord William de Briouze, who ordered Cragh’s execution, describes Cragh as ‘a bad man’, and Lady Mary de Briouze calls him a ‘famous brigand’. Even John ap Hywel, a Welsh labourer, reports that local people were ‘rejoicing greatly’ at Cragh’s hanging, because of the trouble he had caused. Cragh had, after all, burned Oystermouth Castle and killed at least thirteen men.
But there’s more than one side to the story.
William de Briouze junior tells the inquisitors that, at the time of Cragh’s execution, ‘there was a war between the Welsh and Lord Edward (who is now King of the English)’. He describes Cragh as a ‘rebel’ – something with political implications, rather than just a common criminal.
Cragh, like the Welsh nobleman Trahaearn ap Hywel, hanged alongside him, was most likely fighting against Anglo-Norman rule, probably as part of the rebellion led by Rhys ap Maredudd, a descendant of the royal line of the Welsh kingdom of Deheubarth, in 1287. No testimonies survive from his fellow Welsh rebels, but it’s likely that they would have viewed him as a hero of the Welsh resistance.
How would you describe him?
St Thomas and Medieval Belief
Several of the miracles of St Thomas of Hereford, recorded after his death, relate to monastic or religious communities. They offer glimpses into the life of religious houses, like Ewenny Priory, in the Middle Ages – and some surprises!
Not all the recipients of Thomas’s miracles were people – animals were healed by the saint, too. In one case, a much-loved horse owned by the abbot of Gloucester suddenly fell ill at St Guthlac’s Priory, Hereford, and lay ‘as if dead’ for several hours. When prayers were made to St Thomas for its recovery, it got up, alive and well, to the astonishment of all who stood by.
Stranger still is the case of the 21 pigs at Wootton Wawen Priory (Warwickshire).
The pigs were found in their sty one morning, all suddenly dead from no apparent cause. The monks were shocked and puzzled, but took all the pigs and placed them in a heap together in an outer room of the monastery, praying to St Thomas for their recovery. They promised one of the pigs as an offering to St Thomas, cutting off its ear as a sign of their promise. To their amazement, the pigs were restored to life!
If these stories seem strange to us, they are a useful reminder of the practicalities of daily life in a medieval monastery, and the significance of animals to medieval individuals and communities.
A place that takes us out of ourselves
A large weather-beaten house stands on one side, with the priory’s fortified walls enclosing its grounds. A farmyard abuts the eastern side of the churchyard, while the Ewenny river flows alongside the whole site, close to the road. This is a peaceful place, and it has a power and a presence that can impress itself upon us.
Inside the church the character of the stonework and the whitewashed simplicity of the walls take us away from rural Wales and into a wider European setting. Are we in France? Are we in Northern Spain? Where are we? Try singing a note or two in the Choir; the wonderful resonance of the building takes our voices and transforms them into something rich and wonderful. Whose voice is this? Can this be me?
We are part of a bigger world than we see; we are more wonderful creatures than we understand. This place can help us experience that.
Lord, I thank you for this holy building. It truly is a house of God and gate of heaven. Help me to feel and know that I am a welcome citizen of realms beyond my normal experience, and that you have created me to be someone beautiful here and hereafter.
Today in Ewenny, we find the remains of a fortified Benedictine priory.
During the Middle Ages, almost every such monastic institution in Europe contained a brewery. The Benedictines of Northern Europe, such as those at Ewenny, were especially renowned for their ales and beers, and the local natural environment played a key role in their production.
The Rule of St Benedict stated that monks and nuns should live by the labour of their own hands.
The monks and nuns would brew beer and ales for their own consumption, to distribute to pilgrims, and to raise funds by selling beer to the inhabitants of the surrounding villages.
Ewenny priory would have been perfectly situated for the brewing of ale.
With the river in close proximity to provide the vast quantities of water required for the brewing process, and the surrounding arable fields cultivated by the monks to produce grains to malt. Medieval English brewers tended to use native bittering agents to flavour their ales, choosing herbs such as yarrow, rosemary and lavender as opposed to hops, which we generally find in modern beers.
Specially-chosen music for this location from Hereford Cathedral, and a medieval ecclesiastical soundscape.
Distance: Approx. 8.5 miles
Time: Approx. 4.5 hours
Access: Moderate-hard difficulty; country footpaths, some steep inclines, river crossings over steppingstones or footbridge; not suitable for wheelchairs and buggies; walking boots or other suitable footwear required.
- Start your walk at Ewenny Priory. Ewenny Priory was a monastery of the Benedictine Order, founded in the twelfth century. With the Priory to the right and the Ewenny river to the left, follow the road to the end, turning right into the field through a kissing gate following the Valeways Millennium Trial (VMT). The VMT will take you to the bottom of the field, over a stone stile and along a paved footpath towards Corntown. Go over a second stone stile and carefully cross the road, and climb over a third stile.
- Cross over the residential road and continue onto the path opposite, uphill leading to a path surrounded by open fields. At the top of the hill, the path bends to the left. Passing through another gate, the path becomes a stone track.
- Pass through the kissing gate and carefully cross the road, turning slightly to the right to re-join the footpath on the opposite side. Follow the yellow footpath arrows into the field past some farm buildings. Exit this field, turn left and follow Wick Road downhill, passing a five-bar-gate on the left, then take the next road on the right, turning right at the road with a stone garage and green house on the corner.
- Follow this road to the ford and take the stepping stones over the River Alun. Take the gate on the right and follow the path that leads under the railway bridge. The path bends to the left and pass through the gate, taking the steep narrow path on the left following the yellow footpath arrows, taking the right hand route when you come out into the open field. Follow the path uphill, as it gradually bends round to the left, until a dry-stone wall appears on the left.
- Follow the path down hill until St Brides Major, turning right onto Blackhall Road, turning left onto the B4265 and carefully cross the road. Take the path on the right that leads to the twelfth century church of St Bridget. From the church, take the path to the right, joining the Bridgend Circular Walk, passing Pant Quarry to the right and Ogmore Golf Course on the left. Take the left path at the fork and continue onto Ogmore Road (B4524), turning left at the road.
- The Pelican in Her Piety public house is situated on the main road, with the remains of Ogmore Castle downhill. Ogmore Castle was built by the Normans in the twelfth century and was the residence of the de Londres family, who also paid for the building of Ewenny Priory. At the castle, either cross the Ewenny river at the stepping stones, or take the path on the far side of the castle and walk upriver to the footbridge. The stepping stones are a registered ancient monument and would have been the main river crossing in the Middle Ages.On the other side, follow the path that runs parallel to the river. Cross the stream at the footbridge and then turn left onto the road towards Merthyr Mawr.
- After the church, follow the road, climbing over the stone stile that appears on your right. Follow this path until you come to Home Farm and then turn left. Follow the road as it turns right, then cross the stile to join the footpath immediately ahead.
- Cross another stile and join the road at Coed-tyle, turning right towards the river. Cross the bridge (looking out for traffic as this is very narrow), and then take the footpath to your left. Keeping the river to your left, follow the path, going through another kissing gate and under a low (6ft) underpass, until you reach a residential area.
- Follow the houses to your right and then turn left and right again onto the B4265. Then turn left and immediately right onto another road, which eventually passes under the railway line, and across a busy road.
- Join the footpath that leads to Hernston Hall Farm, turn left until you see a footpath on your right – take this path crossing the river at the bridge and finish your walk back at Ewenny Priory.