Ancient times have replaced the old railway line south of old Tintern station. Where trains once ran past a signal box and station buildings and a platform, legends now bloom, inspiring walking trails in the vicinity. This sculptures are portals to imagined pasts in the Monmouthshire countryside. In particular, this has a bearing on the mythologising of King Offa as a figure rooted in the story of the borderland, significant in relational terms with ‘Dark Age’ Welsh rulers and heroes.
I refer to an evocative circle of 6 sculpted larger-than-life wooden figures around a central monolithic, constructed in 2002/3 to celebrate the myths and history of the Wye Valley and its links to the historic landscape of east Monmouthshire. The Circle of Legends is located at Old Tintern Railway station beside the Wye, and now a car park for walkers and a picnic venue with a cafe and a miniature railway. There was originally a website but this is now defunct.
The form reflects the gorsedd stone circles found across Wales and, of course, actual prehistoric stone circles. Yet, the Circle of Legends draws in the landscape and its stories. It is a ‘heritage hub’ art feature, linked to 6 walking trails, one for each of the sculptures (although only 5 trails are on the Visit Monmouthshire website: the 6th, for Sabrina, is presumably too wet to walk!)
Five are carved in oak and one in sweet chestnut and the trails were devised by the Countryside Service to facilitate exploration of the Monmouthshire landscape. The six figures are explained by interpretation panels in a display to the west of the circle, each of imaginative appearances, and with their names carved upon them.
Sabrina (Hafren): the spirit of the River Severn.
Arthur – King of the Who? His hound and Excalibur. Winston Churchill is evoked as a reliable historical source for the historicity of Arthur!
Tewdrig – king of Gwent!
An Offa you cannot refuse: Batman meets Beowulf, and with a facial expression suggesting he shares in this duo’s famed wit.
Geoffrey of Monmouth: reading all about himself.
Eleanor of Provence, Queen of Henry III of England: she has a splitting head.
These sculptures endured as a rare example where Offa is sculpted in the Welsh Marches. The other principal example I know is at Plas Power, Wrexham.
It is unique in juxtaposing Offa with mythological and legendary figures in a mystical and historical conflation in encouraging engagement between past and place through walking trails. From Sabrina to Eleanor, defining the shift from myth to history, four men fight for Wales and the Anglo-Saxons, tales of heroism and conflict after Rome and before the Edwardian conquest of Wales. The figures look inwawrds, and draw in the Monmouthshire landscape, but they also project outwards, encouraging visitors to go forth and explore on foot.
In this regard, it is also worth noting that the positions of the figures on the circle are not arbitrary. Twedrig is situated at the east (looking from Gwent towards Mercia), opposing Offa looking west towards Gwent with his back to his eponymous Dyke. This is an axes of an Offa/Twedrig face-off across the central monolith. Sabrina is located south-east, the direction of the Severn. Arthur is to the south-west, in the direction of Caerwent and Caerleon. Geoffrey is north-east: vaguely the direction of Monmouth. Eleanor of Provence is situated north-west, crudely in the direction of Grosmont Castle whence she visited and reflecting her architectural influence and connections.
There is much in these sculpture to ponder and reflect upon, not only their individual forms but their spatial references to the wider landscape and its Roman ruins, Anglo-Saxon linear earthworks and medieval castles and towns, and also the nearby Tintern Abbey. In particular, it is striking (and problematic, I would contend) to see how Offa exists as a figure juxtaposed between myth and legend and history in the popular imagination. He lurks in the mists of the Dark Ages, bound into a circle of fables (with the exception of Geoffrey who is a writer of legends, and Eleanor the mother of Wales’s conqueror Edward I). This is despite the proximity to Britain’s largest ancient monument for which Offa remains the most likely commissioner. Yet in positive terms it shows the enduring power of sculptures to capture visitors’ imaginations and bring multiple historical and legendary personages together in a complex and poorly understood early medieval borderland. The circle effectively connects together trails and ancient monuments. The visitors are to be forgiven for recourse to myth and legend alongside the assuredly historical personages of Offa, Geoffrey and Eleanor. For Offa, this is enhanced by the frustration that no compelling and grounded historical story has been securely told about Offa’s Dyke and much else for the vicinity in the Early Middle Ages. At the very least, the sculpture signals the proximity of an otherwise invisible monument: Offa’s Dyke.