On Visiting Tintern Abbey

Tintern Abbey, Wales

Image by DanieVDM via Flickr

Cows have always been an intensely important part of my life.  Growing up in one of the world’s greatest beef producing nations, cattle have come to have a greater significance than merely as a source of food.  Just how different my attitude is to other people’s with regard to cows, however, was brought home to me on a visit to Tintern Abbey in Wales, made famous in a poem by William Wordsworth. 

In Botswana, cows have a very different status to cows in other parts of the world, specifically, for the purposes of this essay, cows in England.  In the southern African desert republic, cows are a symbol of wealth and life, bringing riches to families and governing the institution of marriage.  They are not sacred beings, as cows are in India, but the theft of a cow still carries a higher penalty than does a conviction of rape.  In England, however, cows enjoy a much more romanticised status, as beautiful, domesticated, doe-eyed and gentle creatures, who provide milk and meat and spend their days cropping the greenest of English grass in picturesque meadows enclosed by white-washed paddock fences.  The Botswana variety, on the other hand, are a much hardier and tougher breed, wandering through the bush as they please, with no restrictions on their movement other than the availability of food and the heavy stick of the herd boy.

Tourists to Botswana, mostly English ones, are often disconcerted by the presence of cattle on the main roads in the centre of the capital city.  A visit to the British High Commission or the Main Mall will most probably involve negotiating one’s way around a herd of cows and calves, the bell on the lead cow jangling languidly as she wanders across a busy main road.  This is a phenomenon that leads most ‘civilized’ people to dismiss Botswana as backward and provincial, with the necessarily corrupt government that inevitably partners such an obvious lack of development.  Expatriates are often disgusted by the need to shoo cattle off the grass verges outside their garden walls before they can reverse their fancy vehicles out of the gate to take the children to school.  Yet these same people will drive for hours in a bid to remove themselves from this peculiar brand of civilization, and to see animals, albeit more dangerous ones, wandering around in the bush.  This romanticisation of ‘nature’ and the wild is akin to what many see as the romanticisation of nature by the Romantic poets, most especially William Wordsworth.

In the poem, Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth refers to picturesque ‘pastoral farms’, but makes no mention of cows or other traditional farm animals.  Yet when I actually visited Tintern Abbey, the field behind the Abbey was home to a herd of heifers.  I overheard a foreign, possibly German, tourist, deprecating the presence of these animals and claiming that it detracted from the beauty of the scene, even though cows can be considered part and parcel of pastoralism.  And I also felt that the presence of cows somehow spoilt the majesty of the ruined Abbey.  But why should it be so?  In a moment of self-realisation, I pinpointed my tendency to over-romanticise things, and dismiss those creatures or objects which don’t quite fit into my picture of how I think things should be.  Thinking back now, with a couple of years’ hindsight, it strikes me that the modern building housing the gift shop and tourist information office should have been what detracted from the romanticism of the scene, and the cows should instead have added to it.  Perhaps they didn’t fit into my picture because Wordsworth made no mention of them in his poem, and neither did cows appear in Sergeant’s painting of the Abbey.  Yet in a modern postcard souvenir, the cows and hay barn are an intrinsic part of the scene.

During my recent holiday back in Botswana, I was again struck by the presence of cows in the middle of the city and outside my garden gate.  At the end of the dry season there are more cows in the city, looking for tended lawns and easily accessible water supplies, as well as more donkeys, goats on top of cars trying to reach the tastiest acacia leaves, and sheep, wandering fairly aimlessly across the only highway.  Incidentally, for the sake of providing a useless piece of information, the harming of the cattle that wander in the middle of town carries a greater penalty than the harming of other cattle, since those that are allowed in the city centre are all part of the President’s herd.  I’ve been thinking again about the fact that when I’m away, the discussion of this characteristic of Botswana is both what makes me impatient with the backwardness of the country, but yet also makes me feel like I belong there.  What to one person may make a place alien, uncomfortable, and unfamiliar is precisely what another may find the most familiar and endearing thing about a place.  I know that home wouldn’t be the same without the cows.

By the same token, I now know that I wouldn’t find Tintern Abbey nearly as charming without the cows.  Even when I visited two years ago, despite the fact that I didn’t really appreciate the presence of the cows, I would have felt very differently about the Abbey.  Time and others’ descriptions and impressions of it have clouded any personal response to its atmosphere, and have made it an intimidating and majestic place.  On the other hand, by accepting the heifers as an intrinsic part, as probably the only part that were also there when the Abbey was still inhabited by monks, walking then cloisters in silence, Wordsworth’s delight in the pastoral scene is reinforced.  Although the Abbey is no less impressive for having cows and farmland surrounding it, it does become less intimidating, and seems as though there is nothing that separates it from the beauty of nature around it.  And for those people that live near the Abbey, those cows have probably also become a part of what makes it home, and comforting and familiar, just like the Botswana cows have done for me.