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Abbey Cwmhir, Radnorshire

Recent reconsolidation work on the remains of the 12th-century Cistercian abbey at Abbeycwmhir in northern Radnorshire (SO05557110) has revealed further detail regarding the plan and construction of the building. A detailed stone-for-stone survey of the surviving wall facing was undertaken by the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust in 1988 with a small Community Programme team. The survey has now been repeated following the reconsolidation, with funding by Cadw: Welsh Historic Monuments.

Abbey Cwmhir elevation drawing


Abbey Cwmhir was both the largest and one of the remotest foundations in Wales. A greater part of the monastic complex was dismantled at the Dissolution, and although parts of the original plan are known from small-scale excavations carried out in the 1820s and 1890s, only parts of the church are visible today. A description of the monastery and its historical background are provided by Ralegh Radford (Radford 1982).

Abbey Cwmhir

Right: Part of the surviving section of wall that was re-surveyed during this project © CPAT CS97/14/8

Of the nave, all that remains visible above ground are the outer walls of the north and south aisles and three pier bases of the original fourteen-bay colonnade; the west wall of the nave is largely missing, but shows as a bank. At the eastern end, parts of the west walls of both the north and south transepts still survive, as well as a fragment of the north wall of the north transept, and a slight bank suggesting the line of the south wall of the south transept.

It has been suggested that the eastern crossing and chancel were never completed: the reconsolidation work has revealed the base of a wall at the east end of the nave, of poorer construction than the rest of the abbey, and butting against the pier base for the crossing arch. The bases of some of the pillars belonging to vaulting in the north and south aisles and the west walls of the north and south transepts remain, although in most cases the dressed sandstone has been robbed away, leaving gaps corresponding to the original responds. At the eastern end of the nave the southern pier base of the west crossing arch survives, and the base of the respond at the junction between the north aisle and north transept still survives. No windows or doorways remain.

The re-survey was undertaken in three stages between 1997 and 2000, following the progress of reconsolidation work. During the reconsolidation the ground level had been lowered against parts of the walls, revealing additional facing not visible in 1988. New detail of putlog holes and masons’ marks was also uncovered. In the years between the two surveys some masonry had become displaced, while the reconsolidation had inevitably altered the outline of the corework. The aim of the re-survey was therefore to record all new details and provide a drawn and photographic record to enable a comparison of the surviving masonry between the two surveys.

The re-survey was conducted using total station surveying to record a plan of the nave and transepts, together with outlines of the corework. Targets were then temporarily attached to the wall on a rough 2m grid, their positions being accurately surveyed before being photographed. A photographic survey was then undertaken consisting of a series of overlapping views. The photographs were subsequently rectified using AutoCAD, allowing a digital stone-for-stone record to be made of the facing stones, together with details of pillars and putlogs.

Building Methods

A brief study was made of the building materials during the 1988 survey, which showed that the principal stone is a hard, grey, fine-grained quartzite of a type common to the area (not 'hard limestone', as suggested in Radford 1982, 69). It has been suggested that an old quarry at Fowler's Cave (SO 05827154) on the summit of a hill to the north-east of the abbey may have been used as a source of building material. In addition, there are occasional blocks of conglomerate containing quartz clasts in a similar matrix, which were probably obtained from the same source. Minor quantities of slate were used as packing in the facing stones, and as string courses in the core masonry.

Abbey Cwmhir

Left: Detail of building stone used for the construction of the Abbey © CPAT CS97/13/28

The surviving moulded stone at the site is composed of a yellowish-brown, fine-grained sandstone which is said to come from the Grinshill quarries near Shrewsbury (Radford 1982, 69). Blocks of similar dressed sandstone were also used to form the faces of the putlog holes through the core of the walls, which represent waste material or possibly, reused materials from the earlier establishment at Ty Faenor (cf. Radford 1982, 66).

Putlog holes, about 200 mm across, presumably used to support scaffolding during the construction of the abbey, appear to have been spaced at horizontal intervals of between about 2.5-4m. The walls are between 1.5-1.8m thick, and have a rubble core faced with angular blocks of stone which are characteristically 0.2-0.3m thick. The facing appears to have been build in 'lifts' of about 0.5m, which correspond with courses of the dressed masonry of the vaulting responds, and then filled with a mortared rubble core. Only parts of the original mortaring of the wall faces still survives in places. Occasionally, larger blocks of stone appear to have been used as ties between the inner and outer wall faces. A total of 11 masons’ marks were identified, mostly inscribed on dressed sandstone block.

Haslam. R - 1982, The Buildings of Wales: Powys Penguin Books

Jones, N W - 2000, Abbeycwmhir: re-survey of the ruins CPAT report no. 225.2

Radford, C A R - 1982, The Cistercian Abbey of Cwmhir, Radnorshire Archaeologia Cambrensis 131, 58-76.

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