Pathways > The Pathways book > Monks' trods
After the Norman conquest there was a massive expansion in the monastic orders across Britain, supported by the new aristocracy. The Cistercians, in particular, spread their tentacles across England and Wales, taking over remote parcels of land and turning them into efficient farmsteads and religious centres. The abbeys they built, with their soaring architecture, dominate remote valleys from Tintern in Wales to Rievaulx in North Yorkshire.
Every abbey sat in the middle of a network of farms (granges) which supported the monks and the lay brethren who worked for them. Sheep farming became the mainstay of their burgeoning wealth, with the wool being traded across Britain and abroad.
Keeping a large monastic order, with hundreds of houses spread across Europe, was a monumental task. Control called for constant communication between the founding abbeys and their daughter institutions. If good roads to the remote locations did not already exist the monks built them. These 'trods' were designed to be ridden on horseback; by taking them the trip could be shortened from several days to a few hours.
The Welsh Monks' Trod walk, featured in the book, is free to download once you have joined as a member of Walkingworld.
Below you can read the full chapter from the book.
The Norman conquest brought a new aristocracy to Britain. On their coat-tails, benefiting from the patronage of the powerful and wealthy, came the monks. In exchange for land and money, the inmates of monastic houses promised to pray for the souls of their benefactors and ease their way to heaven. In time they accumulated enormous wealth of their own. The Cistercian order, in particular, flourished on British soil. Its first British abbey was founded in Waverley, Surrey, in 1128; by 1152 Waverley had created five offshoots and some of these had daughter houses of their own. Before long the Cistercians had established more than 80 abbeys across England, Scotland and Wales.
The Cistercians were an offshoot of the Benedictine order. The new order was founded at Citeaux Abbey near Dijon in 1098, with the aim of following a more austere way of life, based on self-sufficiency, manual labour and prayer. Its members are often known as the White Monks, after the colour of their habit of undyed wool, worn in contrast to the black of the Benedictines. The Cistercian ideal took root rapidly, particularly under the control of Robert of Clairvaux, who joined the then modest order with 35 friends and family members in the early 1100s.
The Cistercians became an economic and political force from the 12th century to the time of the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. Their power was largely built on their extremely efficient and profitable farming of sheep. Fieldwork was an important component of the daily round for a Cistercian monk, so they were well placed to thrive as landowners. With their predilection for taking on unused and unwanted land, and relatively democratic monastic structure, the Cistercians were able to sidestep the normal feudal constraints on agriculture. Without the requirement to open their fields up for communal use by the local population, they were able to practise an early form of what was to become known as enclosure. Large tracts of land could be filled with sheep and cattle and tended by just a few herdsmen.
The Cistercians didn’t invent the market for wool but they shrewdly built themselves a powerful niche within it, helped to an enormous degree by the fact that they didn’t need to pay wages for their labour. Their sheep farmers were lay brothers, whose earthly reward was a roof over their heads, a secure source of food and clothing and a place to live when they grew old. The Cistercians also had the considerable advantage of not having to pay tax on their wool exports, a dispensation granted by the Pope and swallowed for several centuries by British rulers keen to keep God on their side.
From the start the Cistercian order was intensely practical. Robert of Clairvaux was canny in his support for the Knights Templar, a special order for fighting the Christian cause that was also intensely useful for trading the huge surpluses the Cistercian abbeys were able to produce. The Knights Templar had posts across medieval Europe, means of transport and even banks. They became a vital partner to the monks, whose vows prevented them from trading on their own behalf. It was similar to a modern charity setting up a separate commercial arm.
The rapid expansion of the Cistercian order called for efficient lines of communication. In terms of control, the Cistercians fell between the highly centralised rule of some orders and the almost autonomous abbeys of the Benedictines. In Cistercian houses the monks elected their own abbot and their abbey and all its property was their own. But the abbey was subject to the General Chapter, which maintained a vigilant hold over the order. The abbots were required to attend the Chapter once a year in September; failure to turn up without proper cause brought severe penalties.
Throughout the rest of the year the abbeys kept in touch with each other. If a suitable connecting path did not already exist, a “trod” might well be created. Like the Roman roads but in a subtler way, the paths that linked the Cistercian monasteries were all about the maintenance of control and power. There would inevitably be traffic of goods and animals but also of important personages checking up on satellite institutions and making sure that they kept in line on religious matters, and up to date on commercial ones. The fact that the paths took an elevated and deliberately constructed route across the hills granted a measure of security from thieves and robbers, but there was also status to be gained from taking a “high road”.
We can readily imagine monks and abbots journeying to outlying institutions to deliver the medieval equivalent of a PowerPoint presentation (“I have some illuminations here showing how our trade in Flanders is progressing…”). The trod was their channel of communication, their telephone line or internet, as much as it was the physical route for getting from one abbey to another.
The conditions enjoyed by the Cistercians laid the foundation for great power and wealth, and also for innovation. The White Monks had the time to acquire knowledge, not just in the theological sense but also in the fields of agriculture, technology and commerce. Remains found at Laskhill, an outpost of Rievaulx Abbey, suggest that they had developed a blast furnace for making large quantities of iron, several centuries before the technology became common.
But all this wealth inevitably led to strife, especially for a monastic order created specifically to counteract the excesses of the Benedictines. Everywhere the monks kept falling back into fervour for commercial success and the luxuries it could bring, rather than the austerities they had supposedly signed up for. As with an overblown modern-day conglomerate, there were repeated attempts to reform, to get “back to basics”.
In Britain the job was eventually done by Henry VIII, who took the monasteries’ land and other property for his depleted coffers. If the Cistercians were on the verge of building blast furnaces across Britain, kicking off an early industrial revolution, they never got the chance.
The Mid Wales trod
When Wales opened up to new Christian influences after the Norman invasion of 1066, its remoteness appealed to the solitude-seeking Cistercians. Thirteen monasteries had been founded there by 1226, the first being Tintern Abbey, nestled in a deep cut of the Wye valley. Strata Florida, Abbey Cwmhir and Strata Marcella were all daughter colonies of Whitland Abbey in south-west Carmathenshire, set up in the late 12th century.
The Monks’ Trod in Mid Wales traces a lonely way across 24 miles of hills and moors, joining Strata Florida to Abbey Cwmhir to its east. A branch may have connected these two to Strata Marcella – travellers would have left the route at the Elan valley and struck off north. Like the earlier ridgeways and the Anglo-Saxon dykes, the trod hugs higher ground, though not necessarily on the very ridge.
This monks’ trod is unusual in that it has not been overlain with a more recent track or road; it simply fell out of use after the dissolution of the monasteries. A typical section of it cuts across a slope heading towards a broad shoulder at Carn Ricet, around halfway between the two abbeys. It is clear that considerable work was done to cut the pathway into the slope; it wasn’t just worn by many feet. All along the trod the builders used a cut-and-fill technique, piling the cut-away earth and rubble onto the downhill side to create a flat track. In places it looks like a rather narrow railway trackbed.
Elsewhere on the trod there is further evidence that the path was carefully constructed; in places it is metalled, and at one stream crossing (Nant y Sarn, visited during our walk) there appear to be the stone pedestals for a bridge, though it would be difficult to prove that these date from medieval times.
The obvious conclusion is that this path was not simply for walking, though this section at least was nowhere near wide enough to drive flocks of sheep or herds of cattle along. It was designed to be ridden by horse, and fast. Everything about it is fashioned to make the ride easy. And indeed accounts from the 12th century say that the journey from Strata Florida to Abbey Cwmhir could be undertaken in a single day.
David and Chris Stewart follow an ancient path that is almost completely deserted, even today.
We have been drawn to the Monks’ Trod in Mid Wales by an article in British Archaeology. The magazine has a rough map of the trod, and from it we can see that there is a potentially interesting circuit in the vicinity of Rhayader. In the hope that we can experience two branches of this medieval track in one go, we drive down to Rhayader from our overnight stay near Oswestry, where we have been investigating Offa’s Dyke.
We arrive in Rhayader in the afternoon, which gives us an opportunity to walk a section of the trod above Craig Goch Reservoir before the sun sets. Heading west away from the single-track road, the path immediately takes us into wide open grass and moorland. It is extraordinarily remote and beautiful, and almost completely treeless. We are accompanied only by a few birds drifting in as the shadows lengthen, a handful of sheep and cattle and a sole Tornado jet, which blasts across the big sky.
As we return from our short foray onto the trod and it begins to get dark, we become even more aware of how isolated this place is. A few pairs of headlights wind along the narrow roads but otherwise there is no sign of human life. For a monk and his companions walking this way it must have seemed even more distant from civilisation, and a bleak, desperate spot in bad weather. It may not have been quite as treeless then but that may have been seen as a disadvantage. In medieval times members of the ruling classes often ordered the cutting-down of woodland near their thoroughfares, to take away potential hiding places for robbers.
We head back to Rhayader and find ourselves a spot on the campsite beside the Wye. It’s the very end of the season, so we are more or less on our own; the warden seems rather surprised to see anyone turning up. Wandering into town, we find the cattle market still in full swing, with the auctioneer singing through the numbers in a language that is totally incomprehensible to us (and not, as far as we can tell, because it is Welsh: it is just too fast to pick out the syllables). Opposite the market is a long queue at the fish and chip shop. We join the line.
The uniform of the sheep farmer must be the same across Britain: a collection of beige, moss green and brown, tweeds and waxed jackets and, more often than not, a flat cap. Perhaps it helps to merge into the landscape, or perhaps it’s as well to be understated in one’s dress, to blend in with the crowd. We’ve learned not to ask a farmer how well things are going – whether it’s good or bad you’ll get a pretty non-committal answer. The range goes from “It’s not great right now” to “It could be worse, I suppose”. Maybe the monks were as circumspect, keeping their business dealings under their hoods. These folk have good taste in fish and chips, though. These are some of the best we have had in years.
The next morning we park at Pont Marteg. Cwm Marteg is a nature reserve, with various circular routes along the disused railway track and along the continuation of the Monks’ Trod to the east. We can see the path clearly as it rises diagonally up the opposite valley side, cut into the slope in its characteristic way. In the valley bottom at Gilfach lies a well-preserved 16th-century longhouse, now the education centre for the reserve.
Our seven-mile route, however, follows the trod to the west. We cross the busy main road and then the River Wye by a footbridge. The path leads up to a cluster of buildings at Nannerth. From here the public footpath zigzags up the western ridge of Moelfryn, the 500 metre-high hill that the Monks’ Trod traverses, though it avoids the summit by passing through a narrow shoulder above some rocky outcrops. The zigzag path we take is not the original line of the trod, which dropped down half a mile further west to reach the former monastic grange at Nannerth Ganol. There is still a medieval longhouse there, dating from the mid-16th century. The path down to the grange descends in a series of hairpin bends, the only place along the whole trod that it does so.
Just beyond Moelfryn and as we start to cross the moorland, we reach an isolated and ruined farmstead, with a single field bounded by upended stone slabs. A path leading up from Nannerth Ganol suggests that it was part of the same property, perhaps an outlying gathering point for the sheep and cattle grazing on the moorland above. The trod becomes more indistinct as it crosses some boggier ground until it bears left to cross the stream at Nant y Sarn (which tellingly means “road brook”). Here the track cuts down between some rocky bumps and then climbs directly up the other side to a road, which it follows for a mile or more before joining the path we took the previous afternoon.
At the road, however, we turn left to join the ridge running down towards Rhayader. A branch of the trod follows this ridge, offering an alternative route via the town. Veering away from the road, we pass the site of a striking quartz standing stone, called Maengwyngweddw (“White widow’s stone”). It may have marked the boundary point between two manors or simply been placed here to help travellers find their way.
A long-running battle over use of the trod for off-roading has been won by the conservationists for much of its length, at least for the time being. But not here. The track is deeply rutted and, where it isn’t, it has been infilled with rubble. Channels have been cut to drain water from the roadway. Signs plead with drivers and bikers to keep to the track and not to diverge onto the grassy slopes either side. It seems an unsatisfactory solution for both parties. Driving along the heavily repaired trackway can be no more exciting than tackling a bumpy drive, albeit with better views. For the walker the repaired road service simply looks a mess, even on a day when no vehicles come along.
After a mile or so we cut left to drop into a curved valley. It’s difficult to find the top of the path but once over the brow we can see it slashing a green gash through the bracken. Ahead is a patchwork of small fields in the fertile bend in the Wye Valley surrounding Nannerth Farm. The dog bounds ahead down the slope. We pass above a clump of trees and take a short steep path down to the single-track road leading back to our start point.
Other places to follow the monks
It’s always intriguing to look at a map of the countryside surrounding a Cistercian abbey, to try to figure out the paths leading out to the abbey granges (the usual term for an abbey farm) and beyond. Rievaulx Abbey, in north Yorkshire, had some 20 granges, all of which would have been in regular contact with the abbey and connected to it. Of course the majority of the major routes between the abbeys have been overlaid by modern roads.
On the North York Moors many miles of paved pathways have been found and attributed to the medieval monks. One well-known section, also called the Monks’ Trod, leads to Whitby Abbey on the coast. There is no proof that these paved roads were built by the Cistercians, though it is possible, given their wealth, that they had a hand in some of them. Equally likely is that they were built as “pannier ways” joining the fishing ports with their markets, since it would have been important to make quick progress with cargoes of fish. They may also have been used to carry smuggled goods away from the coast during the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Cistercian order expanded right across Europe, into Spain, Portugal, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Sweden and Norway. By the end of the 13th century there were 300 houses; at the order’s height in the 15th century, over 750. Everywhere you travel on the continent you are likely to come across its soaring architecture.
One Cistercian abbey sits just outside the village of St Jean d’Aulps in the Rhône-Alpes region of France. Leading from it and taking the high road along the Vallée d’Aulps is an ancient path towards Lake Geneva. We know it was used by the powerful of the order because just a mile or so beyond the abbey there is an oratory to the memory of Saint Guérin, second abbot of the abbey and bishop of Sion in the Rhone Valley. It is on a steep section of hill where the track cuts back and forth in a series of hairpin bends.
The unfortunate Guérin seems to have got this far and no further. The sign above the oratory tells us that he was “stopped here” by illness on his way to Sion in 1158 (“Ici la maladie arrêta St Guérin allant à Sion”). Of course it’s possible he just had a tummy bug and had to return to the abbey for a few days before setting off again, but the implication is that the condition was terminal. The story is indicative of the way in which the order put out its tentacles into the remotest places and used the pathways to them to maintain control.
Below is a list of other walks visiting monastic sites:
The walk starts at Abbotsbury Swannery, established by Benedictines who built a monastery during the 1040s and farmed the swans to produce food for their lavish banquets. Now the swannery has become a popular attraction, where visitors can help... More info
Almonaster La Real - Acebuce Circuit is on old drove-roads and mountain paths through chestnut groves.... More info
Almonaster La Real to Los Romeros via the lost paths; a challenging circular walk taking in the San Christobal viewpoints - not for the faint-hearted.... More info
This is a classic hike, the beauty and interest of which make it truly memorable experience. It starts and ends in Cazorla, which is a fascinating and historic old town in its own right.... More info
This short walk from Tintern Abbey along the Wye Valley to the Devil's Pulpit, takes in part of Offa's Dyke Path and combines historical interest with fine views of the monastic site and its surroundings.... More info
From the monastic site at Tintern, follow the old railway track acros the river and through the woods, climb to Offa's Dyke and the Devil's Pulpit and return through the woods.... More info
Follow in the footsteps of medieval monks on this trackway joining the Cistercian monasteries of mid-Wales. The walk samples two branches of the Trod, one passing just below the hill of Moelfryn, the other a spur heading towards Rhayader. It can be... More info
A delightful low-level route through the hamlets and villages of the D'Aulps Valley, including the monastic site of the St.Jean d'Aulps abbey. The walk goes past traditional homesteads and through classically alpine woods and meadows.... More info
The walk, which starts and ends at the entrance to Ludlow Castle, uses mainly tracks and bridleways and is well-signposted, a bonus for Shropshire. It takes you to the village of Bromfield to the north, where there is a church of a Benedictine... More info
A circular walk, with moderate climbs which provide wonderful views to both the north and south, it passes by a restored Tudor chapel and leads down the hill to the rare remains of a Carthusian monastery. After this it's back up the hill to proceed... More info
Baume les Messieurs is a beautiful monastery in a spectacular setting. This walk takes you from the monastery, past cascades and up the rock staircase the monks built to get to their lands above. Then it proceeds more gently through the woods and... More info
This walk has everything: a stroll through surprisingly remote countryside with wide open views, a stretch of spectacular coastal path, some breathtaking vistas from clifftop miradors and a visit to a monastery that has been abandoned for some 200... More info