IT'S THE WEEKEND: The Great Outdoors - Visits Gwent's sacred sites this Christmas

South Wales Argus: Great outdoors atTintern Abbey (3052364) Great outdoors atTintern Abbey (3052364)

MMAKE the Christmas holiday a real holy day by visiting Gwent's sacred sites. Let PAUL CAREY be your guide.

FOR many people, Christmas is a holy and special time of year.

So what better way to mark it than by venturing outside and walking off the abundance of Christmas treats in God's own countryside at Gwent's sacred sites?

There are beautiful churches and abbeys throughout Gwent which you can visit for spectacular views, walks and amazing architecture.

The grounds are beautiful and offer a lot to families that wish to visit somewhere new this Christmas – surprising many people as to what has been on their doorstep all along.

One of the main attractions is Tintern Abbey. It is situated in the village of Tintern, Monmouthshire, on the bank of the River Wye.

It was only the second Cistercian foundation in Britain, and the first in Wales. The present-day remains are a mixture of building works covering a 400-year period between 1131 and 1536.

“It is an absolute must stop if you are looking to visit one,” said Pascal Bidois, 45, Head Custodian at the Abbey. “It’s a very big and there’s a lot of history around it.

“It’s a very romantic place with lots of places to walk round and an awful lot for people to do.

“There are spectacular views here. The abbey is beautiful and a lot of great vantage points.

“A lot of famous artists and poets such as Wordsworth would come here due to how beautiful and peaceful it is.”

To visit the abbey, it costs just £4.50 per adult and £3.40 per students and children. A family ticket – which is two adults and unlimited children – costs just £13.50.

It’s a bargain for grounds that stretch far and wide and offer a lot of different walking paths where you can take your dog.

As well as the paths there is a load of history so there is sure to be something of interest for everyone.

“The church is as big as a little castle,” added Mr Bidois. “The grounds stretch to the size of three or four football pitches and there are loads of places for people to walk whilst taking in great history.

“It’s quiet, religious and a very spiritual place. You can come to places like this and appreciate the life of the monks.

“It is very sacred and there is a sense of quietness that you don’t get elsewhere.

“People come here to walk all the time as it’s far away and so removed from people’s busy lives.

“A lot of people visit here to learn about the history of the place but a lot of people come just to enjoy the woodlands, the walks and the fresh air.

“A lot of children are fascinated by the history whilst adults enjoy the quiet so there really is something for everyone.

“It’s a great day out and we offer advice when people arrive so that they can get the most out of their visit as everyone wants something different.”

But despite the scenic Tintern Abbey being one of the most beautiful sights in Gwent, there’s no need to worry if it’s a bit far from you, there are plenty of other offerings across the district.

Whether it’s Llanthony Priory or Runston Chapel, you will find similar striking views, footpaths, history and architecture all over.

One place that is spectacular and more than worth a day of your time this Christmas, is Priory Church of St Mary, Abergavenny.

Often referred to as the ‘Westminster Abbey of Wales’ because of its large size, number of monument tombs and the rare medieval effigies surviving within it; the church is also a grade I listed building.

Mark Soady, Vicar of the church, believes it’s a wonderful place that people should take time out from their schedules to visit.

“It’s a beautiful and comprehensive site,” he said. “It is well worth a visit here for anyone.

“There’s a lot to do such as visiting the Abbot Garden which has over 70 plants and trees.

“On a nice, dry day it is wonderful to just visit and have a look at what’s growing in the garden as there’s always a great variety.

“Our medieval tombs have been described as the best outside of Westminster Abbey.

“We have a lot stuff that is lovely to look at but has a story behind it. We’ve a set of hanging drapes that are made by a woman who fled Zimbabwe during the Mugabe regime.

“Her way of thanking God was to make these. They’re lovely to look at but the poignant story behind them is even better.

“There really is something here for everyone. The outdoors are a lovely quiet place to relax.

“It’s an oasis from the busy lives that everyone lives and is very accessible for anyone who wants to come here and take in the wonderful building and its views.

“It normally takes adults and children a while to soak it all up.”

But away from Abergavenny, there a range of other beautiful churchyards to visit around Gwent.

Often a spectacular backdrop to a beautiful church, they offer views, vantage points and history that it is hard to find elsewhere.

Reverend David McGladdery believes a walk from one ancient churchyard in Monmouth to another would be a fantastic way to spend a relaxing day over Christmas.

St Michael’s and St Wonnow’s churches in Monmouth are just a short distance from each other and are both wrapped in ancient history.

“They are both two very open churchyards that you can walk between over a small bridge,” said Rev McGladdery. “They are both full of great circuit trees and the walk between them is an interesting pilgrim walk.

“St Wonnow’s is a tiny churchyard and has a very distinctive small tower. St Michael’s is also quite small but that is part of the charm.

“The most enjoyable thing about St Wonnow’s is that you can admire the views of the rolling countryside all the way to the magnificent black mountains.

“You get a real sense of power and creation. Not many people know about it but I’d say the views from these two churchyards are some of the most spectacular in Wales.”

Away from churchyards, a highly recommended place to visit that offers you scenic views; an abundance of history and fantastic walk paths is Llanthony Priory.

It is a partly ruined former Augustinian priory in the secluded Vale of Ewyas, a steep sided once valley within the Black Mountains area of Monmouthshire.

Entry is free and would provide a perfect, affordable day out for the whole family over Christmas as there is plenty of walking space.

The ruins have attracted plenty of artists over the years, including JMW Turner who painted them from the opposite hillside.

Jackie Arrowsmith, Regional Manager of Cadw, which looks after the Priory, says: “The ruins we see today are a result of significant building works at the end of the 12th and the beginning of the 13th centuries, when the priory was at its height.

“Visitors can wander around beautiful ruins set in the stunning countryside of Monmouthshire.”

With an array of other places to offer such Llantilio Priory Church and Rhunel Chapel, there really is no shortage of options to get you out of the house this Christmas.

With the majority offering huge, roaming grounds to explore against the backdrop of stunning views, it will be the most fun you’ve had working off the excess Christmas turkey in many years.

These monuments, churchyards and castles are all similar but so very different at the same time. So put down the Toblerone, put on your walking boots and get out there, you'll love it.

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