Neath Abbey was established in 1130AD as a Savigniac religious house, on land donated by Richard de Granville. The first abbot - abbot Richard - arrived from Normandy in October of that year, with a retinue of twelve monks. In 1147AD, the Savigniacs, along with Neath, were absorbed into the Cistercian order.
The monks initially struggled with the management of their estates, which were scattered across a wide area. In the 1190s, this led to a plan to relocate the abbey to a site in Somerset. However, this never came to pass, due to the foundation of Cleeve abbey near the site earmarked by the monks of Neath. As a result, they consolidated their holdings in Wales, and the abbey eventually flourished. By the end of the 13th Century, Neath was one of the wealthiest religious houses in Wales.
The abbey's first century wasn't without its problems though. In 1224AD, during the Welsh uprisings, the church was put to the torch by Morgan ap Owen. Records show that following this disaster, 24 monks and 40-50 lay brothers were involved in the rebuilding work, showing that numbers had increased significantly since the abbey's foundation.
Between 1280-1320AD, a massive building project was undertaken. An elaborate Gothic church was erected to replace its predecessor.
Neath's fortunes declined again during the 15th Century, but by the early 16th Century, further building work would seem to indicate that the abbey was recovering. However, this was short lived, as Henry VIII's commissioners arrived to dissolve the abbey in 1539AD. The last abbott, Abbott Leyshon, was pensioned off along with the remaining seven monks.
Three years following the dissolution, the abbey's estates passed into the hands of Sir Richard Williams. He transformed some of the monastic buildings into a Tudor mansion. It remained in use as a residential property into the 17th Century. It was finally abandoned in the 18th Century and fell into ruin, with some of the site being used for copper smelting and casting. In the early 20th Century, the site's archaeological importance was recognised, and work was undertaken to clear the area and conduct excavations. In 1949AD, the abbey passed into the care of the state, and is now maintained by CADW.
Today, Neath Abbey is surrounded by the remnants of Britain's industrial past. Once described by John Leland, writing in the 16th century, as 'the fairest [abbey] in all Wales', Neath now lies sadly discarded in the most unlikely of settings. Trade centres, works yards and car dealerships flank it on three sides, making the approach to the site a uniquely bleak experience.
Remarkably however, Neath manages to retain a degree of isolation and tranquillity. Its southern border is protected by a canal that provides a buffer of trees and water - along with some stunning views of the abbey. To the east, a small wood marks the last undeveloped area of land around the site. To the north and east, the abbey is bordered by trees, reducing the impact of the industrialised area behind them. Finally, the large grounds provide some space in which the ruins can breathe, creating an oasis of calm amidst the surrounding chaos.
A visit to Neath is therefore an odd experience. Pulling off the busy dual carriageway, driving up through the industrial estate, expectations are as low as they could possibly be. However, against all odds, when the ruins of the abbey emerge into view, the feeling is transformed into one of wonder.
This is an amazing site. I was totally unprepared for the scale of the ruins that survive. There is an incredible amount to see here, and I was surprised at every turn. Enough of the church remains standing to give a good impression of its scale, and the skeleton of the Tudor mansion is very much evident. The east and west ranges of monastic buildings also survive in good condition.
It's worth reiterating that despite the location, the abbey exists in an isolated world of its own, protected on all sides from the incursion of the modern world. My experience at this site was never disturbed by its surroundings. Neath Abbey is an unexpected gem, well hidden and undervalued, and I can not recommend it highly enough.