More about the Cistercian Way Project
This web site is very much ‘work in progress’ — as is the whole Cistercian Way project. We started in 1998 trying to work out a way that we could walk round Wales, linking all the Welsh Cistercian abbeys, medieval and modern. This was part of the celebrations of the 900th anniversary of the foundation of the Cistercian order. We worked on developing the route and walked it again in 2005.
On this web site you will find an outline of the routes we took in 1998 and 2005, notes on improvements we have made since, lots of background information on the places we walked through. We used existing rights of way, footpaths and green lanes, and quiet side roads. This means that you can walk it for yourselves, using the Ordnance Survey maps of Wales.
There may be places where you have to improvise because we ran out of time and had to walk along the road. There may be places you want to visit that we didn't have time to go to, or things you know about the route that you would like to share.
We would like your input into the project. Tell us about the way you went, what you found, what you felt about it all — and let us know if we can put your ideas on the web site.
Why are we doing this?
The Cistercians were enormously important in the history of Wales. Their belief in the importance of self-sufficiency and hard work made them great farmers, and they cleared much of the upland farming landscape of Wales.
The Cistercian abbeys gave hospitality to Welsh poets and chroniclers. It was the Cistercians who wrote to the Pope in support of the Welsh kings Llywelyn ab Iorwerth and Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, and who backed Owain Glyndwr in his bid to regain Welsh independence. The Cistercians looked after important pilgrimage shrines like Penrhys. The ruins of their abbeys are among the most beautiful and evocative places in our landscape.
So our walks in 1998 and 2005 became a walk through Welsh history. Since then the route has grown to take in all sorts of interesting places — the amazing geology of the Pembrokeshire coast, Stone Age burial mounds, medieval castles and sheep-farms, picturesque landscaped gardens and the industrial heritage of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Wherever possible, we have tried to use old roads and trackways, like the medieval pilgrimage route from Llantarnam (near modern Cwmbran in Gwent) over the hills to Penrhys in the Rhondda. In north-west Wales, we walk along part of Sarn Helen, the Roman road which led from Carmarthen to Caernarfon. Elsewhere, we walk on nineteenth-century canal banks and tramways.
The route also links many of Wales’s other long-distance paths. We now have a coast path round Wales from the Wye to the Dee. You can walk through South Wales along the Coed Morgannwg Way and the St Illtyd Way, join the coast path at Pendine or Marros, walk north from Tenby along the Knights’ Way and the Landsker Borderland Trail, pick up the Cambrian Way north of Tregaron, follow Sarn Helen from Machynlleth to the Conwy valley, pick up the North Wales Coast Path and join the Offa’s Dyke Path near Holywell. We have also taken in some shorter waymarked paths, like the trails through the Hafod forest near Aberystwyth.
The whole route takes about 650 miles — so it will be the UK’s longest heritage footpath. Doing it all in one go could be a challenge, or you could do it in chunks over a few years. Or you can work out a circuit based on part of the Cistercian Way and another route. For example: you could follow the Cistercian Way from Llantarnam to Neath, walk up Sarn Helen to Brecon, then take the towpath of the Brecon and Monmouthshire Canal back down to Llantarnam. If you want a rather longer walk, you could leave Sarn Helen to join the Cambrian Way above Ystradfellte and walk to Strata Florida then take the Monks’ Trod, the traditional route followed by the Cistercians from Strata Florida to Abbey Cwm-hir - which gets you back on the Cistercian Way again. In North Wales, you can walk from Cymmer near Dolgellau to Conwy Abbey’s earlier home in the Lleyn Peninsula, along Lon Eifion and the North Wales coast path past Conwy to Basingwerk, and back along the Mynydd Hiraethog Way and the Clwydian Way to join the old Roman road, Sarn Helen, and back to Dolgellau. There are lots of shorter circuits using the Cistercian Way and the Wales Coast Path. Really, the possibilities are endless. What is certain is that you will have a walk full of spectacular scenery and historical interest.
We have always thought of the Cistercian Way as primarily a footpath. Some sections, though, use or run near to the Sustrans cycle routes — such as the section from Ponterwyd through Machynlleth and up the Corris valley. You can use Lon Eifion, the Caernarfonshire cycle path, to get from Clynnog towards Bangor, and join the North Wales cycleway from Bangor to Prestatyn. Lon Eifion and the North Wales cycleway should be easily accessible to wheelchairs and pushchairs, but the mid-Wales cycle routes are rough mountain biking only. If you want to ride, there are also bridleways and green lanes, but these are not always as easy to use as they should be.
We still have a lot to do on the route — and we can use all the help we can get, with ideas, research or actual walking. We have used existing rights of way wherever possible. Some of the Welsh local authorities have done sterling work in recent years, clearing and waymarking footpaths, building stiles and footbridges. Others have still some way to go. There are far too many footpaths deliberately blocked with barbed wire or made impassable by water troughs. But even the best local authority cannot keep paths clear if they are not walked.
The project has been supported and helped by a number of organisations, including branches of the Ramblers’ Association, Leader projects, groundwork trusts and local authorities, Visit Wales and the Churches Tourism Network. We are working with a number of local authorities and similar bodies to finalise the route and make arrangements for its management and maintenance. Watch this space — click on the main web page for details of sections of the route — and contact us if you want to get involved.