Fergusson & Harrison: Rievaulx Abbey

December 6, 2015

51HPY1SN36L._AA160_If I had to choose my most beautiful place in the UK, I can’t think of anywhere I’d place higher up the list than Rievaulx Abbey, for its isolation, its ruins, its atmosphere. I’ve visited a number of times, and each visit has provoked different reflections and responses. I prefer it to Fountains, which I’m rather more familiar with, or any other of the countless ruined abbeys and monasteries of Britain I’ve visted and explored.

Whilst I’m not sure I can approve of such wealth and leisure in the service of religion, I can respond to the spiritual impulses awakened by such places, their beauty and the way they remind us that there is more to life than the merely material.

This book has lots of wonderful aerial photos of the abbey and its surroundings, and chronicles the growth of the abbey in the centuries before its destruction by Henry VIII and his minions. The more I reflect on it, the more I am astonished and outraged by the scale of this religious and cultural vandalism, fed by the ego of a king and the greed of his henchmen. I suppose a modern-day equivalent might be a government decision completely to ban football and force everyone to play and watch rugby instead, along with the giving away of all stadia and playing fields to the Prime Minister’s cronies for selling off and demolition…

So, the destruction of Rievaulx over the years is charted in detail; it became a romantic ruin to be viewed from a distance by the guests of the nobility who acquired the site and buildings on the cheap for plunder. In the early years of the twentieth century, it was finally acquired by the Ministry of Works, and the site cleared, excavated in a fairly rudimentary fashion, and landscaped for tourists; in a way, still romantic ruins for people to gawp at, but now the plebs could pay their way in… Apparently no reconstruction was allowed, though much might have been possible, and a lot of the remaining old stonework was either carted away or used for levelling the surrounding meadowlands.

Maybe you can detect an ex-Catholic writing, from the tone of the above; I can’t say that I think Britain would have been a better place without the Reformation – that’s the realm of science fiction, and I point you in the direction of Kingsley AmisThe Alteration, or Keith Roberts‘ marvellous Pavane if you want to travel down that route. But I do feel that our world sorely needs places which are capable of uplifting our spirits in different ways, certainly taking us beyond the tawdry material and consumerist society we have the misfortune to inhabit at the moment.

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