Sunday, 15 November 2015

Strange Goings On at Fountains Abbey, Yorkshire

A naval officer in full uniform is the last person I expect to meet as I pick my way through the ruins of Fountains Abbey early one morning.  Not only is it miles from the sea but I had thought I was alone on this vast estate.  Yet, there he is, standing rigidly to attention and staring fixedly ahead.  He doesn't turn to look at me so I walk on, keeping my distance and feeling more than a little unnerved.

The naval officer in the abbey (sorry about the poor quality photo...I was trying not to be intrusive)

Fountains Abbey is part of the 760 acre estate which comprises Yorkshires first World Heritage site.  This much sought after status conferred for its wide variety of buildings and gardens spanning different eras of English history.  It is a privilege to be strolling around alone, or so I thought, so early in the day.  The gates don't open to the public until 10 but my son and daughter-in-law have treated me to a short break in a National Trust apartment in Fountains Hall, the magnificent Elizabethan manor house within the estate.  While they sleep I have wandered off to explore the ruins and ponder on nearly 900 years of history. It is a fresh spring morning. Swathes of golden daffodils and crisp white snowdrops line the River Skell which runs beside the Abbey.  My only company, whirling flocks of doves which make their nests high in the crumbling walls, hooting pheasants and the rabbits and squirrels which caper about in the early morning dew.  It is quite magical and I relish the opportunity to explore alone.
Our accommodation - Fountains Hall
It is hard now to imagine what it must have been like when a group of dissident monks made their way here in 1132.  They had broken away from their fellow monks in York, believing they had become too liberal and worldly.  In what was a bleak and desolate valley they formed a new community in order to return to their basic ideals.  Having survived failed harvests, the plague, Scots raids and, ironically, increasingly liberal attitudes, Fountains Abbey eventually became famous for the quality of its wool and grew wealthy and powerful.  This led to its ultimate downfall and life at the abbey came to a sudden harsh end when Henry V111 dissolved it in 1539 taking control of its wealth and plundering the roof for its valuable lead.
Fountains Abbey

So, here I am five centuries later, wandering through this vast crumbling ruin, thinking of the lives lived here. The cellarium, or dining room, oozes atmosphere and retains its glorious vaulted ceiling.  The bell tower soars defiantly to the sky and the massive church, with its lush, green carpet of grass is a peaceful meditative place.  I move through the cloisters, chapter house, guest houses, and even the toilet blocks which hang out over the river so that the waste could drop straight in.  No eco-warriors amongst those monks!  I linger in the warming room where huge fires were lit from November until Easter and which was the only place the monks could warm themselves against the bitter winter.  As a self contained town the abbey would once have hummed to the sound of bells and prayers, chants and industry but this morning it dozes quietly by the gentle murmur of the river, its mute, ivy clad walls standing testimony to the awesome skills of medieval builders and masons.
I could wander happily here all day but now I am feeling peckish and it is past breakfast time.  I retrace my steps through the abbey and, to my surprise, he is still there, my naval man, standing to attention and staring straight ahead.  How strange.  I stare at him but he ignores me.  I walk by and then, curiosity getting the better of me, I decide to circle around behind him for a closer look.  I approach nervously through the stone work but there is no sign of him.  He has disappeared into thin air.  I am bemused and wander around for a while trying to decide where he has gone.  It is then that I realise he was an illusion, his image created by the play of light on the crumbling ruins.  Early the next morning I take my family back to show them.  They spot him instantly.