Workers Digging Near A Medieval Monastery Just Uncovered A Mysterious Network Of Tunnels

It’s early spring 2021, and a team of electrical engineers are working amidst the picturesque scenery of Wales’ Wye Valley. Their task involves digging a trench, but soon they find themselves breaking into a strange tunnel hidden beneath the ground. This structure isn’t on any of their maps or plans, meaning it’s taken the workers totally by surprise. It seems that this eerie tunnel has been forgotten for untold centuries.

The Wye Valley’s natural beauty was certainly on the minds of the Western Power Distribution team. They’d been dispatched to a customer’s home in Monmouthshire to install a new power line pole, but the electricians wanted to preserve the landscape as much as possible while digging. The discovery of the tunnel, therefore, threw everyone for a loop.

Allyn Gore, the technician in charge of the job, spoke about the discovery in an article published on the WPD’s official website. He said, “Before work began, all the usual checks and permissions were in place, thanks to Wayleave Officer Luke Summers. Nothing had shown up on any of our drawings or records to indicate there was anything unusual about the site.”

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Gore explained why they needed to dig in order to move the pole, as the customer requested. He revealed, “We needed to move the existing wooden pole, and underground a span of cable, because if we used an angled stay on the new pole, it would impede walking on a footpath there.” The thought of creating an eyesore in an area of such physical beauty would have been unthinkable to the team.

The Wye Valley has been credited with kickstarting Britain’s early tourism industry. That’s because the area’s home to more castles than any other place in the U.K., meaning that it’s rich with history. In 1971 it was officially designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the landscape is still visited regularly by tourists today.

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One of the main selling points of the area is the absolutely gorgeous river scenery. The famous Wye Tour – a two-day boat ride along the river from Ross to Chepstow – was first held by the Reverend John Egerton in 1750. With that, stories of the wonders of the valley soon spread far and wide.

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This increased profile naturally led to more visitors, and soon public tour boats were traveling up and down the river. And, of course, all these people needed boatmen and guides, as well as somewhere to stay the night. They also needed food and drink while they were in the area. The effort to satisfy these needs helped the tourism industry form.

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The Wye Valley landscape is made up of rolling hills and ancient forests, not to mention all the cliffs and gorges scattered around the place. The land in some parts has been formed into an interesting pattern, thanks to the ways that the region’s natural resources have been exploited over the centuries. The valley hosts small communities amidst larger fields, with churches and monasteries also found in remote locations.

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On top of being an area rich in natural beauty, the Wye Valley was also among the first spots in Britain to industrialize. In the latter part of the 16th century, the valley’s streams were used to run large waterwheels. Copper, tin, and iron factories were formed, which made use of charcoal created with timber sourced in the area.

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Part of the Wye Valley, the Tintern wireworks became the single biggest industrial business in Wales in 1600. Hundreds of individuals called this factory their workplace. The Wye River was actually what helped commerce boom here, as materials and goods could be easily transported up and down the waterway. Associated businesses such as shipbuilders and vessel repair enterprises therefore sprung up in the area, too.

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In the 1870s the Wye Valley Railway became operational, leading to a new wave of tourism coming to the area. In the 1880s, then, Tintern Station welcomed thousands of tourists who wanted to visit the Tintern Abbey monastery. Here, they hoped to watch the rising of the harvest moon through the building’s famed Rose Window.

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Tintern Abbey is located close to the border separating Wales from England. The monastery’s origins go as far back as 1131, though it’s been in ruins for the better part of 500 years. In 1901 the site was designated as a monument of special significance to the nation of Wales and was purchased by the Royal Family.

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The abbey was created by Walter de Clare, the Lord of Chepstow. To fill its walls, he imported French monks from the L’Aumône monastery, who lived in accordance with a doctrine known as the Rule of Saint Benedict. Life in the abbey, therefore, consisted of prayer, obedience and work, all conducted in absolute silence. The monks would have practiced chastity and rejected money, preferring to live a life of poverty.

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In the early 14th century, many Welsh monasteries were destroyed during the wars of Edward II. Tintern Abbey, however, survived this period unscathed. Most historians believe this is due to the fact it was located in an isolated area that was difficult to get to. Interestingly, though, it’s believed that Edward II actually visited the site in 1326, even staying for a couple of nights.

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History has tended to remember Edward II as a man of culture. He reportedly enjoyed music and dancing, as well as the theater. He was also a keen blacksmith and he loved to thatch. This separated him from his father Edward I, who’s mostly remembered as a wager of war. It’s not outside the realm of possibility, then, that Edward II personally saw to it that Tintern Abbey wasn’t destroyed.

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The abbey managed to stay afloat during the Black Death plague of the 14th century and even survived serious financial difficulties in the early 15th century. Sadly, though, in 1535 Henry VIII enacted his first Act of Suppression, which closed down any houses of worship whose yearly turnover was less than £200.

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Tintern’s annual income was £192, which was enough to make it the wealthiest monastery in the entire country of Wales – but it was still dissolved. In 1549 the buildings of the abbey came to be owned by the Earl of Worcester Henry Somerset. He ordered the disassembly of the building’s roofs because they were full of lead, which was worth a lot of money at the time. To this day, the abbey is roofless.

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In the wake of the Reformation, the abbey’s ruins became a place of great romance to tourists and poets of the era. In fact, the ruins grew to be viewed as a beautiful highlight of the Wye River Valley. During this period, the abbey was the property of the Duke of Beaufort, who felt connected to the site and wanted to preserve it.

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The abbey’s first brush with becoming a tourist destination came when Reverend William Gilpin wrote about taking a voyage on the River Wye. He dubbed Tintern Abbey “the most beautiful” thing he saw on his journey, though he wasn’t overly fond of it lying in ruin. He wrote, “A number of gable-ends hurt the eye with their regularity and disgust it by the vulgarity of their shape.”

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Then, in 1792, famed painter J. M. W. Turner arrived at the site. He was only 17 years old at the time. He drew some wonderful sketches while viewing the abbey, which became the basis for his famed 1795 watercolor painting Tintern Abbey. This was later displayed inside the London Royal Academy of Arts, where Turner studied.

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Perhaps the most famous poem associated with the abbey is William Wordsworth’s Lines Composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey, 13 July 1798. While the poet doesn’t make mention of the abbey in the body of the piece, it’s understood that it was inspired by a walking tour he took with his sister in the Wye Valley. The experience supposedly left him struck by the area’s beauty.

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Returning to the modern day and the WPD team, Gore revealed, “Shortly after the excavation work began, the digging team made the extraordinary discovery of what they initially thought to be a cave.” Naturally, the team ceased digging while a call was placed to Gore and Summers. They were needed at the site, because it was their call on how the team should proceed.

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This find was a lot more intriguing than anything else that Gore had previously discovered while on the job. As he reflected, “I have been involved in other excavations where we have discovered old wells and cellars not shown on any plans, but nothing as exciting and impressive as this.”

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Gore went on, “Further investigation revealed it was a manmade tunnel around four feet in height. The tunnel system was tucked away underneath a footpath, running parallel to the Angiddy Brook, and seemed to follow the brook’s route along the valley. It may have been unknowingly walked on for centuries.”

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Armed with the knowledge that the team had made a discovery of some potential historical significance, the team’s manager Bradley Griffiths placed an important call. It was to Cawd, the historic and cultural heritage branch of the Welsh government. It sent one of its officers to the site to take a look.

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Gore revealed that the officer, “was very impressed with the sheer scale of the tunnel and quite fascinated to see it.” It was the Cawd representative who put forward the first theory about the origins of the tunnel. Gore said, “In his opinion, it could possibly be linked to the iron work ruins previously discovered in the area.”

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Indeed, the WPD said Tintern Abbey’s ruins were only a hop, skip and a jump from where the tunnel was discovered. The area has a lot of ruined forges, furnaces and iron works. It therefore stands to reason that the tunnel’s construction could have been connected to the abbey somehow.

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The mystery tunnel’s discovery shocked not only the WPD team and Cawd, but also local residents. None of them had any clue that it was there. Even local governmental authorities were none the wiser. The tunnel didn’t show up on a single ordnance survey map from the last 300 years. It was a true secret.

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The WPD and Cawd put their heads together and came up with a plan: they’d stop work entirely. No one wanted to risk damaging the tunnel in any way, especially as archaeologists were going to be brought in to investigate it. A viable alternative would need to be found for moving the customer’s pole.

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Gore explained, “For now, we have backfilled the trench and re-instated everything and we are planning an alternative route for the customer. All in all, he was keenly aware that the upcoming archaeological work could go on for an extremely long time. He admitted, “It could take years before the investigations are concluded.”

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As for the function served by the tunnel, perhaps a clue can be found in a similar discovery in Poland. On February 17, 2021, The First News website broke the news that two tunnels had been found running underneath Szczecin’s Ducal Castle. Cavers had made the find while exploring a network of World War II era passages beneath the city.

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These passages, believed to have been built by the Nazis, ran for around 885 feet. But after that point, the concrete tunnels gave way to bricks and mortar. Samples were sent away for analysis, and it was confirmed that this area of the tunnel network dated back to medieval days.

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The experts theorized that the medieval tunnels were built to create a drain for groundwater. Ashley Cowie, of the Ancient Origins website, wrote that the tunnel in the Wye Valley was perhaps built for the same reason. After all, the WPD’s Allyn Gore did reveal that the tunnel lines up with the Angiddy Brook body of water.

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Interestingly, the archaeologist James Wright also posited a theory on the official website for his consultancy company Triskele Heritage. In an intriguing turn of events, he took umbrage with the discovery being labelled as a “secret medieval tunnel” in the media. To him, the answer to the tunnel’s origin was likely much more prosaic.

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Wright noted that two old corn-grinding mills lie immediately east of the area where WPD were working. The Chapel Wire Mill and the Middle Tongs Mill were active in the 1700s and early 1800s. An 1821 inventory claimed there were two waterwheels at the mills, but scholars could never say how water reached the wheels.

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Wright couldn’t be certain that these tunnels were used to get water to those mills, but he felt it was a far more likely explanation than the tunnels being related to Tintern Abbey. He claimed the monastery is actually more than 3,000 feet away from the tunnel discovery, contradicting what the WPD said. With that in mind, why would monks choose to get their water from such a long distance away?

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Some observers have suggested that the passageway wasn’t used for ferrying water, but was rather part of a network of escape tunnels. Again, though, Wright picked holes in this theory. For one thing, he wondered why a group of Cistercian monks in such a remote location would ever need a secret tunnel.

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Piggybacking on this idea, Wright asked how the construction of the tunnel would’ve been concealed by the monks. He also didn’t know how they would’ve kept the tunnel dry and ventilated, nor how they would’ve kept up its regular maintenance. If anything, Wright believed it would have been an impossibly physically demanding task for the monks.

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In the end, perhaps the reason the discovery was labelled as a secret medieval tunnel is simply because that sounds more fascinating to people. It’s fun to imagine elaborate explanations for these secret subterranean areas, filling them with spooky history and folklore. But, in reality, the truth is probably much more realistic.

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Perhaps Anthony Clayton said it best in his book Secret Tunnels of England. He acknowledged that tunnel discoveries spark the imagination into storytelling. But these are more often than not “fanciful misinterpretations of shallow mines, sewers, drainage tunnels, underground conduits or closely adjacent undercrofts and cellars with vaults and arches.”

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