Neath Abbey was the oldest Cistercian house in Wales but Tintern was the first Cistercian house to be founded in Wales. The solution to this paradox is that Neath was originally founded as a house of the order of Savigny, a Benedictine reform movement with very similar ideals to those of the Cistercians. The two orders were so similar that they eventually merged in 1147. By that time the Cistercian order was immeasurably more powerful and the Savignac houses became Cistercian.
Richard de Granville founded Neath in 1129, when he had been forced to come to terms with his Welsh neighbours on the west bank of the river. Some of the land which the new abbey was given was land he had recently taken from the Welsh, and it looks as though he gave it to the abbey as a compromise between retaining it himself and returning it to Welsh control. Both Norman and Welsh rulers continued to endow the abbey and it became one of the most powerful religious houses in south Wales, with extensive sheepwalks and mineral rights on its granges. The monks were also able to use their situation near the mouth of the river to trade across the Bristol Channel, using their own ships and offering facilities to others. Because the monastery was outside the boundaries of the borough, merchants using its quays could escape some of the payments they would have to make if they took their goods upriver to the borough’s own quays. In effect, it was an out-of-town shopping centre, and this caused recurrent disputes with the townspeople.
Nevertheless, the monastery was a respected local institution. The legends that it was an informal Welsh university have no basis in fact, though the monks may well have helped to teach some local children. The abbey should have been dissolved in 1536 but was sufficiently reputable and important to be allowed to purchase a stay of execution. This was a considerable drain on resources, and in any case it only kept the monastery in being for another three years. It was finally dissolved in 1539.
The abbey buildings are in a rather anomalous situation in the angle between the canal and a dual carriageway, surrounded by a run-down industrial estate. Much of the church survives, including the south transept with its night stair. This is how the monks would have made their way into the church from the dormitory for the services in the middle of the night. You can still see the stone handrail which would have guided their sleepy procession. There is very little left of the east and south ranges, where the monks would have slept and eaten. The oldest buildings are those in the west range, and those are in the best state of preservation. The community became smaller in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and the abbots took over much of the south-east angle of the buildings for their own private lodgings. After the Dissolution, the site was acquired by a local landowner, Sir John Herbert. He made the abbots’ lodgings into the core of his own mansion, much of which you can still see.
In later years there was a copper works on the site, which was responsible for much of the damage to the buildings. The whole of the area around you is of immense interest to industrial archaeologists. A little to the south-west of the abbey is the Clydach aqueduct, its arches submerged in the river and acting as an inverted syphon. Near this, the sluices on the river are all that remains of an ambitious scheme to build a dry dock in Neath. North of the abbey is the famous Neath abbey iron works: you can visit this on your way out of Neath.