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Abergavenny, Monmouthshire, is proud of its title, the Gateway to Wales, and has an incomparable setting. Here the Usk emerges from the mountains and swings southwards on its new course towards the distant sea. Four noble hills stand sentinel round the town. To the North is the graceful cone of the Sugar Loaf, just under 2,000 ft and an outlier from the main mass of the Black Mountains of Monmouthshire. Some 2,130 acres of the Sugar Loaf were given to the National Trust as a memorial to Lord Rhondda. Across the Usk rises the massive Blorenge, 1,834 ft. a mountain of Old Red Sandstone capped with limestone cliffs. To the North East is Ysgyryd Fawr (the Skirrid, 1,596 ft), where another 205 acres belong to the National Trust. Ysgyryd Fach (the Little Skirrid. 886 ft) completes the ring of hills to the East. Abergavenny lies in the lush green bowl in the centre of this ring. Not even the new line of tall pylons, ruled across the landscape from the mouth of the wooded valley of the Usk, can mar this fine composition of mountain and river scenery. The town itself may not be remarkable architecturally, but it has the life and bustle of a country market centre and contains some ancient monuments that make it worthy of its setting.

As can be expected from its position at the point where the Usk leaves the mountains, Abergavenny has always been a strong base for anyone trying to invade South Wales. The Romans seem to have had a fort here, Gobannium, but the town enters fully into history with the arrival of the Normans. Rufus gave it to Hamelin de Balun. Later it became the stronghold of the famous Marcher family of De Braose. It was a William de Braose, one of the most notable of the clan, who made Abergavenny a place hateful for 200 years in the eyes of the Welsh. This powerful baron, who combined unctuous piety with ruthlessness in a way peculiar to the Normans, succeeded to the inheritance in 1177. He signalled his entrance into history by inviting Seissyll, the most important of the neighbouring Welsh rulers, together with numerous other prominent Welshmen from Gwent, to a banquet in the castle. He had them mercilessly put to death as they feasted. Not content with this, he sent his retainers post-haste to Seisylls castle. Here they seized his wife and killed his young son, Cadwaladr, in his mother's arms. The Welsh took revenge by capturing Abergavenny Castle, but William de Braose, in the way of the wicked, flourished for thirty years, until he met his match in wicked King John. John stripped him of his lands and left him to die a beggar. Abergavenny Castle, with its memories of blood and border tragedy, is now a ruin, set on the wooded hill that dominates the town. The gatehouse, some walls, the motte, and the foundations of the keep are all that is visible. The town museum is in the park. The Castle came into the possession of the Neville family in the 15th century. The barony of Abergavenny is not created, but is attached to the possession of the Castle, in the same way as Arundel Castle carries with it the enjoyment of the earldom of Arundel. The townsfolk now pronounce the name of their town with the accent on the penultimate syllable. The Marquess of Abergavenny prefers to retain an older pronunciation and calls himself to the confusion of foreigners and most Welshmen “Aberghenny”. Whichever way you pronounce the name, the view from Abergavenny Castle westwards is magnificent. The wooded domain is now a public park.

The main street of Abergavenny is an epitome of its history. It has collected buildings from the Tudor period onwards, and they all seem to fit in, including the fine early 19th century Angel Hotel. The level of the road has risen continuously through the centuries, so that, by searching at ground level, you can spot the occasional Tudor archways and windows that survive. The old tower, with its battlements, belonged to the former Parish Church of St John. Beside it is the Masonic Hall, built on the site of the old grammar school. Among the churches of the town is the Roman Catholic one, built opposite the new grammar school at Pen-y-Pound. It contains a painting of St George slaying the dragon, interesting as the work of Sir Kenelm Digby, who was killed in 1648, during the Second Civil War. The Town Hall is a 19th century Gothic triumph of red stone with a green-topped tower and a large clock presented by the ironmaster Crawshay Bailey.

Abergavenny today is hardly a stronghold of Welsh-speakers, but in the 19th century the efforts of Sir Benjamin Hall and his wife, later Lord and Lady Llanover, made the town an important centre in the movement to revive Welsh culture. At the little Sun Inn, in the main street, the literary society of Cymreigyddion y Fenni was inaugurated, and for nearly thirty years the annual Eisteddfodau drew all that was best in the literary world of Wales to Abergavenny. Here, in 1848, Thomas Stephens won the prize for his essay on the literature of the Cymru, which became the authoritative textbook on the subject throughout Europe. The impetus behind the Eisteddfod died with the passing of Lord Llanover. Abergavenny returned to its natural vocation as a pleasant, busy market town. The River Usk flows under the old bridge, with its fifteen arches, undisturbed by the music and poetry of the bards.

Monk Street leads out of the main street to the great glory of Abergavenny, St Mary's Church. This was originally the church of the Benedictine priory founded by Hamelin de Balun. The Benedictines were the favoured monks of the Norman Marcher barons, as the Carthusians were of the Welsh. The priory grew under the protective shadow of the Castle. It was naturally sacked by Owain Glyndwr's men, when they set fire to the town during the wild Glyndwr Revolt. Little remains of the priory buildings. Some of the walls run alongside the little River Gavenny, from which the town gets its name. Two noble trees, a chestnut and a sycamore, give shade to the site. The great tithe barn of the priory still stands, and the prior's house adjoins the South transept. It was rebuilt in the 17th century. Henry VIII dissolved the priory in 1543 and used the income to found the grammar school. He converted the priory church into the Town Church of St Mary.

From the car park that now lies inside the wall immediately to the right of the West end of the church, you can see something of the massive strength of the walls and the l4th century tower, which made these great churches of the borderland as much fortresses as houses of prayer. The present West front is new and was rebuilt in 1882, as well as the five arches within the church that now separate the nave from the North aisle. The church, however, still contains a remarkable collection of ancient treasures. The two outstanding features are the choir-stalls and the tombs in the Lewis and Herbert chapels. There are twenty-four choir-stalls dating from about 1380. In view of the many Welsh sackings, Puritan cleansings, and Victorian rebuildings to which this church has been subjected, their survival is a small miracle. Yet here they are to gladden the eye, with the stalls of the prior and sub-prior under tall, pointed canopies, rich in elaborate tracery, at the end of each row.

The Lewis Chapel flanks the sanctuary to the North. At the base of the East wall of this chapel has been placed one of the most impressive monuments in St Mary's, a huge wooden figure of the patriarch Jesse. The nobly bearded patriarch lies asleep, clasping the tree branch growing from his body. The figure may have been the base of a huge Jesse tree that formed the reredos of the old high altar. Near at hand is the tomb of Dr David Lewis, who became the first Principal of Jesus College, the Welsh college at Oxford. He was also one of Queen Elizabeth I's Commissioners of Admiralty. A wide arch separates the Lewis Chapel from the chancel. Under it are the two earliest tombs in the church, one of Eva de Braose (1246), the other of Christian Herbert (1307).

The rest of the Herberts lie in the Herbert Chapel itself. The family possessed the great estate of Coldbrook on the Usk road. In the chapel to the left of the sanctuary the Herberts are numerous indeed. The altar tomb at the back of the stalls is that of Laurence de Hastings (1348). His half-brother Sir William Hastings (1349) lies on the beautifully carved tomb below the three-light window. In the centre of the chapel is the proud last resting-place of Sir William ap Thomas of Herbert (1446), with his wife Gladys beside him. She was the daughter of the famous soldier Sir David Gam, who died at Agincourt. The fine alabaster tomb of Sir William's son, Sir Richard, is nearly under the great arch. He was a Yorkist, executed after the Battle of Banbury in 1469. So many border notables followed him into defeat that the battle was looked upon by the Welsh as a national disaster. His wife Margaret rests beside him. A final Herbert, Sir Richard Herbert of Ewyas, lies under a crocketed arch under the window. So the Herberts lie in the dignity of death on their elaborately carved splendours of stone and alabaster. There is one effigy in the church that seems to make more impression than even the Herbert glories. This is the wooden effigy of a young nobleman, placed on a simple trestle. There are only about 100 similar figures in the churches of Britain. The Abergavenny figure is regarded as one of the finest. It represents a young warrior clad in mail, noble and dignified. There is no certainty about who he was. He may have been George de Cantelupe, who died in 1273 at the age of twenty. There are other tombs and monuments in the church, but none to rival this simple image.

Nearby cities: Hereford

Nearby towns: Abersychan, Blaenavon, Brecon, Brynmawr, Merthyr Tydfil, Monmouth, Pontypool, Talgarth, Usk

Nearby villages: Abertillery, Blackrock, Blaina, Bryngwyn, Crickhowell, Cwm, Cwmavon, Cwmdu, Cwmyoy, Gilwern, Govilon, Grosmont, Hardwick, Hardwick, Hardwick, Kemeys Commander, Little Mill, Llanarth, Llanbedr, Llanbedr, Llancillo, Llanddewi Rhydderch, Llandenny, Llanellen, Llangattock, Llangattock Lingoed, Llangenny, Llangorse, Llanover, Llanthony, Llantilio Pertholey, Llanvetherine, Llanvihangel Crucorney, Llanwenarth, Mamhilad, Monkswood, Nantyglo, New Castle, Oldcastle, Pandy, Partrishow, Penpergwm, Penrhos, Raglan, Tretower, Usk, Varteg

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