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The pleasures of southern Wales


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Today, it still offers an opportunity for reflection, meditation or soul-searching. In "Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey," Wordsworth describes "the quiet of the sky" and "pastoral farms/Green to the very door."

Aside from the tourist information office and more manicured landscaping, the scene now isn’t all that different from Wordsworth’s day. Ferns grow out of the old stone walls and — I’m not making this up — doves flutter around the old Gothic arches. In the pane-less windows, the sky is so blue it looks surreal, like something from a Magritte painting. Without a roof, the wind-weathered pillars soar not toward a simulated celestial scene as in other churches, but to the heavens themselves.

At a glance

If you go

How to get there » Trains leave London’s Paddington Station hourly most days. Ask for help at any information kiosk. Reaching Chepstow typically requires a transfer at Newport. Free maps in Chepstow indicate the path to Tintern Abbey.

Where to stay » Visit www.chepstow.comuf.com to stay with Glyn and Jan, or simply knock at any of the towns other charming B&Bs and taverns.

Where to eat » The Boat, a locally run pub near the river.

More info » Get maps, advice and local news at the tourist information center, just across the street from the Chepstow castle.

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Getting back » The easiest way to see Tintern and the surrounding countryside is to simply do the loop as a long, one-day hike from Chepstow. Tintern also has a handful of B&Bs just down the road from the abbey, so slower or more contemplative hikers willing to carry their backpacks could do it as a two-day trip. But either way, trains leave regularly from London, making it surprisingly accessible.

When faced with the choice myself, I continued northward by foot and it’s worth plugging that option as well; if you’re like me, your thirst for more of the area won’t be sated after a single day.

Moreover, while hiking and improvising transportation isn’t for everyone, winging it and heading north proved to be among the most rewarding parts of the journey.

First, following the Wye and crossing back into England, my companions and I hiked through endless fields of wildflowers, over streams that sang to ancient poets, and into villages where the houses have names but no numbers.

Finally, when our feet were weary and shoulders sore from our packs, we met Claire, who whisked us off to St. Briavels Youth Hostel, which is in an ancient Norman castle 5 or 6 miles — the distance depends on the route — from Tintern. Once we arrived at the hostel, we had the entire floor of an old stone tower all to ourselves.

There are few actual sites in St. Briavels other than the mossy trees and quaint lanes, but after checking into the hostel, we spent time in a drafty old country church, half of which predates the invention of the Gothic arch.

The next morning we hiked several more miles through the countryside and asked almost everyone we saw for directions to the nearest town with a train station. Finally, with about two miles left to go, we hitched a ride with elderly Norm and Betty, who dropped us off at the station — but not before letting us know we had a place to stop in for tea the next time we visited.


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