Posts Tagged ‘Rievaulx Abbey’

On time…

December 2, 2019

I’ve written about this topic before: it’s one I return to a lot in my thinking, perhaps reflecting the fact that I’m growing older and so have less of it left.

I’ve always been fascinated when staring up at the night sky and the stars, especially in winter. The sense of the vastness of space, the enormous distances to the stars, our lack of knowledge about what and who might be out there, and the unlikelihood of our ever making contact with anyone, all come together to amplify the sense of timelessness or eternity for me: everything is just so big and unfathomable. Science fiction writers have characters and machines travelling across the vastnesses of space so easily; only in Ursula Le Guin’s visions of the worlds of the Ekumen has any writer fully explored the sadness (or the horror) of someone having travelled faster than light, then returning to the world whence they came, where decades or centuries have elapsed, and everyone they knew, parents, loved ones and friends, are long dead… the loneliness of such an existence seems unbearable, and it’s only fiction…

Ancient places on our own planet have a similar effect on me: the vanished world of Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire where I live, where monks prayed, chanted and sang for centuries; the Roman remains in Provence where it’s possible to imagine quite vividly how people lived two thousand years ago. Many years ago, when I lived in East London, I watched as the old railway station at Broad Street was demolished and redeveloped; my eye was caught by a plaque on the wall which said that the vanishing station had been built on the site of the old Bethlehem Hospital (Bedlam in common parlance) which had been on that spot from the twelfth to the nineteenth century, and I wondered what, from our modern world, would have a chance of remaining in the same spot for seven centuries.

It’s things like this that put the pettiness of our existence into focus for me: we are marvellous, complex and sometimes intelligent beings experiencing the joys and sadnesses of our lives which are but an instant in the time of the universe.

The classic book about time is probably the late Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, a best-seller that featured on so many people’s bookshelves and may well have been the most unread book of all time, so difficult it was to comprehend. I can say that I did, once, read it from cover to cover: what I did not do is understand it. Science, especially physics, actually makes my brain hurt; I tried, and failed.

Somehow the canvas of time came across really effectively for me in Ivan Yefremov’s A For Andromeda, a classic of Soviet science fiction, set over a thousand years in the future, in a world where communism did triumph, succeeding in transforming everyone’s lives. Utopian, certainly, but people need to dream. And in his future world, religion, of course, has vanished into the dustbin of history, is regarded as a quaint piece of the past. And yet, his characters are still capable of being moved by the enormousness of space and the cosmos, experiencing what I can only label powerful spiritual feelings as they look out from our world.

There are writers who can capture the sense of loss over time, bringing to life vanished worlds in their fiction. I experience this particularly in novels set in Eastern Europe, where worlds have literally vanished as a consequence of the upheavals and horrors of the twentieth century. Ernst Wiechert’s The Simple Life is a very powerful example: a German ship’s captain, wearied after the horrors of the Great War, retreats from the world into the dense forests of one-time East Prussia to live a simple life in a hut on an island in a lake, with only a single companion, and finds peace of a sort; others of Wiechert’s novels are set in this place which vanished forever in 1945. A number of Günter Grass’ novels are set in the Free City of Danzig, another world which disappeared at the same time. Perhaps the saddest moment in The Tin Drum is the suicide of the Jewish toyshop owner as the Nazis tighten their grip on that city: there is no hope, and his is another world gone forever. Lastly I’ll mention Walter Kempowski, whose works are now appearing in English translation; he again pictures the disappearance of that small area of Eastern Europe.

Our existences are transient; we cannot understand the cosmic scale of time and place – we are too little for that. Olaf Stapledon, in Last and First Men, makes an astonishing effort to take human history several billion years into the future. It’s a noble attempt which cannot succeed, hard to read, painful in its reminders of our pettiness. Maybe that’s why most writers stay away from such themes…

On visiting ruins

October 13, 2018

I visited my favourite place in Yorkshire, possibly my favourite place in the country, the other day: the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey near Helmsley. Yorkshire has many ruined abbeys and castles, but I have always particularly loved the way Rievaulx is nestled in a valley, surrounded by hills and woodland, off tiny minor roads where two cars can barely pass each other. I’ve often wondered what it must have been like to be a monk there five or six hundred years ago, isolated from the cares of the world…

And I found myself wondering, what is it that attracts me to ruins? For this year I have spent a week wandering the Roman remains of Hadrian’s Wall, as well as various places in Roman Provence. But then, I suppose, it’s not only ruins, but also ancient places in general: I love cathedrals and churches and castles, though I’m not quite so attracted to stately homes.

Ancient places remind me of my insignificance: I’m on the earth for three score years and ten, by the traditional reckoning, a century if I’m very lucky (or unlucky?), and the places I’m writing about have either survived as remains, or intact, for many centuries, in some cases thousands of years. They remind me of the different kinds of existences which I have read about, which went on there long ago. And they have endured, which I won’t in the same way, and which I can’t see many of our contemporary constructions doing, either: we don’t build to last any more. You might imagine we would have access to better and more durable materials: maybe we do, but don’t use them. How long before the Metropolitan Cathedral in Liverpool – for example – crumbles away or is demolished? It was only consecrated in 1967…

Many years ago I used to live in east London and often travelled on the train to Broad Street Station (it no longer exists); there was a plaque somewhere on an outside wall that said that the station had been built on the site of the original Bethlehem(=Bedlam) Hospital, around about 1850, and the hospital had been there for about five or six centuries previous to that. Reading that used to give me a headache: something being there for so long, serving the same purpose all those years.

There is something romantic about ruins, of course, as the Victorians discovered, and they excavated and tidied everywhere up, as well as wandering the world stealing bits of others’ ruins. And it wasn’t only the Brits, as you will realise if you visit various museums on the Museum Island in Berlin. Ruins are often seen in peaceful and rural settings, tidily manicured for the discerning visitor. They fit in with certain aesthetics of beauty, and arouse what may be termed spiritual responses in the spectator. Certainly this is part of my response to such places; often their isolation is conducive to reflection and meditation on all manner of things.

And yet… ruins are in many ways the detritus of past ages. In countries where there is plenty of space, old buildings that have served their purpose are abandoned, left to decay, and new ones constructed; it’s easier and cheaper to leave the old behind rather than to demolish and tidy away (in crowded Britain this is often not possible). Sometimes old materials may be re-used. Travel writers have sometimes been shocked at locals’ dismissive and cavalier attitudes to their unwanted remains. Dozens of Roman cities apparently lie buried under the sands of the Sahara, awaiting the attentions of archaeologists – or not. Does any of this matter? I enjoyed visiting the Roman city at Moulay Idriss in the Moroccan desert, but it was miles from anywhere, and forgotten, I suspect, until it was realised that crazy westerners would visit, and there was money to be made.

We are interested in the past: we explore, excavate, research, write up reports; we learn how our ancestors lived and died. Perhaps we are wiser, perhaps thereby we understand ourselves and our behaviours and impulses better – I don’t know. But something draws us back to the past, as something which can be known, after a fashion, and which is gone, too: not as fearsome or unknowable or unpredictable as the future into which we are all inevitable moving…

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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