The Lower Wye Valley is acknowledged to be one of the most scenically attractive landscapes in Britain, and one of the few Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It is also one of the few remaining areas with comparatively large tracts of ancient broadleaved woodlands, whilst the pastures, hay meadows, hedges and copses of the farmed landscape in and around the valley are also rich natural habitats with historical significance.
The man who popularised the Wye Tour, promoted the area for its ‘Picturesque’ beauty, and contributed to its reputation as the birthplace of British Tourism, was the Reverend William Gilpin. The pioneer of the ‘Picturesque’, he saw the landscape as ‘expressive of that peculiar beauty which is agreeable in a picture’.
Gilpin’s writings influenced the remarkable popularity of English landscape painting during the last decade of the 18th Century, and inspired the Romantic poets. The Wye Valley was witnessing the birth of British tourism. By 1850 more than 20 of the more literate ‘tourists’ had published their own accounts of the Wye Tour. Some of the most famous poets, writers and artists of Gilpin’s day made the pilgrimage to the great sights of Goodrich, Tintern and Chepstow – among them Pope, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Thackeray and Turner. The many guidebooks, engravings and paintings ensured a continuing steady stream of visitors.
The arrival of the railway in 1876 made the valley even more accessible. In the early 1900s, crowds of up to 1300 would travel on a special train journey to see Tintern Abbey on the night of the harvest moon. Today, the Wye Gorge between Ross on Wye and Chepstow is one of the best known and most visited landscapes in southern Britain.
Along with its artistic associations, the valley also has a rich archaeological legacy, from the prehistoric to the recent past, reflecting its importance as a communication route, a natural and political boundary, and a centre of religious life and of several early industries.
Closely following the course of the River Wye, high above its eastern flank, is Offa’s Dyke, the 8th century linear earthwork which was of enormous economic and political significance. As an impressive and well-preserved, man-made earthwork, the Dyke now forms an integral part of the natural, as well as the historic environment. Each end of the gorge is dominated by the medieval castle boroughs of Monmouth and Chepstow. Today the river still forms sections of the national boundary between England and Wales.
In addition to being a frontier, the River Wye has contributed to the economic growth of the valley, providing a means of transport, trade and communication. Most goods were transported to and from Monmouth by means of barges until 1815 when roads were made through the district.
The central part of the valley is physically and spiritually dominated by the spectacular remains of Tintern Abbey, one of the most celebrated monastic sites in the British Isles. Founded in 1131, its ruins still tower over the valley floor in its tranquil setting. The complex of monastic features and buildings extending to some 11ha, including the Abbey church, was remodelled and expanded several times in its four centuries of existence, reflecting the disposal of great wealth
The valley has a rich industrial heritage which has influenced the settlement pattern greatly. Archaeological evidence confirms the commercial exploitation of the woodlands in the Wye valley and the neighbouring Forest of Dean. This area with its ready supply of wood for charcoal formed one of the most extensive concentrations of iron smelting sites in Britain, from the Roman period up to the late 19th century. In addition, papermaking, tanning, tin-plate manufacture, stone quarrying and millstone making were other industrial activities in the valley and its tributaries. They contributed to the establishment and growth of many of the villages, which became reliant on the river as an artery for trade and communication.
Source: The Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust Ltd (www.ggat.org.uk)