Grid reference: around SS 801 863
Margam was a Norman foundation, begun by Robert Fitzroy, earl of Gloucester and illegitimate son of Henry I of England, in 1147. The original group of monks came from St Bernard’s own house of Clairvaux. Robert gave his new foundation ‘all his land between the Kenfig and the Afan’. This was over 5,000 acres of land, most of it still in Welsh hands. His gift was more of a declaration of intent - ‘when I get it, you shall have it’ - which would have given the monks a really powerful incentive to pray for his success. Within a few years, though, the local Welsh rulers were also making generous gifts of land to the new foundation and seeking the privilege of burial in its sacred enclosure.
All that remains of the early buildings at Margam is the nave of the church, converted after the Dissolution for parish use. The Italianate west front is part of a nineteenth-century restoration and the inside is decorated in High Anglican style. Beneath this, though, the design of the building is much as St Bernard would have wished. Plain, even austere, with massive rectangular pillars and an almost complete absence of architectural detailing, this is a huge space for single-minded prayer and contemplation.
The church also has an outstanding collection of post-medieval tomb monuments to the Mansel family, who bought the monastery and most of its lands after the Dissolution. In spite of this, the family were Catholics by inclination and Sir Rice Mansel and his wife both served Mary I.
To see the rest of the buildings, you may have to pay to go into the Margam Country Park.
By the end of the twelfth century, the monks were beginning to desert their initial ideals of austerity and simplicity. No sooner was the first church built than they began an ambitious rebuilding programme. The first phase of this new building was the octagonal chapter-house with its elaborate vaulting and clustered central pillar. Here the monks would have met daily to hear someone read a chapter of the rule and to transact the everyday business of the community.
Once the chapterhouse was completed, the monks began to rebuild the church from the east in a much more ornate style. There were problems with the layout, and if you look at the windows in the south transept you will see that they have been squeezed to fit them into the space alongside the chapter-house. There is also an opulently moulded entrance from the cloister to the chapter-house. After the early thirteenth century, money seems to have run out, and the west end of the church was never rebuilt.
More about the abbey at http://www.monasticwales.org/site/30 .
The little village clusters around the west entrance to the church. The old school has been converted into a museum to house the impressive collection of early Christian carved stones found on the site. These suggest that Margam may have been an important early monastic foundation which was dispossessed by the Normans. There's a very detailed description of the stones on Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margam_Stones_Museum . Access is currently (2015) limited - see http://cadw.gov.wales/daysout/margamstonesmuseum/?lang=en for details.
A line of cottages runs west to the park wall. These were originally almshouses, part of the village which grew up outside the gates of the great house after the monastery was dissolved. The village street originally continued through what is now the park. The last cottages can be seen at the other side of the park enclosure, on the road out of the village to the M4.