Visitors have been coming to the Wye Valley since the mid 18th century, and, according to Anne Rainsbury, Monmouthshire Community Museums curator, it has a good claim to be the birthplace of British tourism. The valley first became popular when Dr John Egerton built a boat to take his visitors on trips downstream from his home in Ross. Local boatmen soon realised the commercial possibilities of such trips, and by the end of the century, there were eight boats offering similar tours.
These were popularised by the travel writer William Gilpin, who published his Observations on the River Wye and Several Parts of South Wales in 1782. Gilpin coined the term ‘picturesque’. “His book was all about looking at scenery and the landscape,” says Anne.
As well as being encouraged to look at the scenery in a new, more direct, way, people were also looking at historic ruins differently, thanks to the new interest in antiquarianism. “There was a growing interest in English ruins:
Gothic was seen as a native British style with merit, rather than something grotesque, and people were more interested in engaging with the past and history of Britain,” says Anne. The Wye Valley had both dramatic scenery and romantic ruins, thus making it a perfect destination for tourists; Gilpin’s guidebook, and the fact that the Continent was off-limits for travellers during the Napoleonic Wars, only added to its popularity.
An early visit to the Wye Valley followed a fairly simple formula, with a two-day boat trip down the river from Ross or Monmouth, stopping off at sites such as Tintern Abbey before finishing at Chepstow and its castle. “It was like a package tour. You had an itinerary, and when you hired your boat, you hired a guide as well, and your innkeeper would provide you with a packed lunch,” says Anne.
The more intrepid might ride, or even walk, but travel on the river was the most convenient. Gilpin helpfully highlighted various ‘picturesque’ views along the way, while other writers provided checklists of what to bring on a trip, including maps, sketchbooks, journals and watercolours.
A Claude glass was also recommended. This was a convex black mirror, which offered the tourist a way of holding in their hand a miniaturised view of the landscape. “You stood with your back to the landscape scene you wanted to capture and moved the mirror about until you had your ideal view,” explains Anne.
Famous visitors to the Wye include the poet Thomas Gray, who toured the area in 1770. William Wordsworth similarly admired the valley and wrote his poem Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey during his visit with his sister, Dorothy, in 1798.
Many artists also visited, including Thomas Gainsborough, whose sketch of Tintern Abbey, made in 1782, is at the Tate, and J M W Turner, who painted both Tintern and Chepstow following his visit 10 years later.
Works by other artists are now on display in the Wye Valley gallery at Chepstow Museum, where highlights include a view by John Martin of Chepstow painted in 1844 and an atmospheric watercolour of Tintern Abbey by David Cox. A more amateur, but equally charming, view of the river was painted in 1802 by Anne Rushout and depicts a group
being shown the view by the steersman from a canopied rowing boat.
The area became increasingly accessible during the 19th century, thanks to the introduction of a regular steamboat service from Bristol to Chepstow, and the opening up of a new road, now the A466, along the valley. In 1867, the railway reached Tintern, and it was possible to make a day trip to the abbey
from Bath or Bristol. Today, the valley is still popular with visitors for its beauty.
“If you come to the Wye Valley, a lot of what you see is still an unspoilt landscape, with the same dramatic viewpoints that people enjoyed in the past.
“You can still feel that connection with the landscape that people in the 18th century made,” says Anne.