Easby to Love

Ask me to name the monastic houses that Henry VIII “dissolved” in the North East of England and my first response would be Rievaulx, Fountains, Mount Grace; the ruins that I visited as a schoolboy.  Give it a little more thought and I might venture Whitby, Tynemouth, Jervaulx, Monkwearmouth, Finchale and Lindisfarne.

I might say “there’s another north of York”, meaning Byland but as I’ve never been its name would escape me.

Show me the full list and I’d probably kick myself for omitting Hexham, Newcastle’s Blackfriars and Bolton Abbey, but then there’d be others that would produce a shrug because I’ve never heard of them.

_PW_9472I came across one of these recently on my way to Richmond (North Yorks).  Having passed a sign for Easby Abbey I remarked that I’d never heard of the place, prompting J to tell me that she was a regular visitor when she lived in the area.  On reaching Richmond and finding the car park full (it was the first sunny day in some time!) we decided to head to Easby and walk along the river from there, giving me the chance to see the abbey.

Like many of Henry’s victims there is ample evidence of damage and neglect, with carefully crafted masonry emerging from patches of rough and broken stone.  English Heritage must be well employed here preventing further collapse.

Henry’s decision was more than a statement of vengeance against Rome – he also benefitted from seizing the land and assets of the monasteries, so the contents of this 12th Century structure are mostly lost but for a notable exception.  A visit to Richmond Parish Church reveals a fine set of canopied choir stalls; furniture from the abbey that has found a new home.

_PW_9412Of course the trouble with visiting such a site in ignorance, especially when it isn’t your main reason for being out and about, is that you might miss something and I did.  The real gem here is the small church adjoining the abbey site.  St Agatha’s may not look much from the exterior but it may be even older than the abbey; a stone cross from the 8th or 9th century was found broken up and recycled as masonry within its walls, but the church also contains some beautiful medieval frescoes that lay protected for years under coats of whitewash.  And I missed them.

Ah well.  At least it gives me a reason to return to this beauty spot.


Back so soon Persephone?

After the thick mists which regularly obscured Watership Down at dawn last week, it felt as if, following an unusually warm summer, we were in for a more Keatsian autumn.  The trees and bushes are bent under the weight of abundant fruit, the leaves redden, and days grow shorter.

The ancient Greeks (and several other early civilisations) tell the story of how the goddess of the harvest, Demeter, sees her daughter Persephone abducted by Hades and taken to the underworld.  In her grief, she forsakes her agrarian duties, causing the onset of winter and the accompanying withering and death of vegetation.  The resultant disruption led to some tricky negotiations within the pantheon and bout of underhanded trickery involving pomegranate seeds, but eventually a compromise solution was reached whereby Persephone would spend half the year above ground with her mother and half with Hades, her new husband.  The daughter’s return heralded the return of warmer weather as her mother’s joy was restored, usually coinciding with spring.

I was in North Yorkshire this afternoon so picked up a sweater and light jacket before leaving with my camera, first for the beautiful village of Osmotherley, and then to the former Carthusian monastery of Mount Grace Priory.  It wasn’t cold as I left Durham, but over the 45 minutes of my journey the temperature rose by about three degrees and I arrived to find myself bathed in sunshine.  The Three Tuns, a noted pub in the village was empty; not because they had no customers, but because every one of them was taking the opportunity to sit outside.  It’s very nearly October; these were the last weather conditions I, and clearly many others, were expecting.

And so I have two galleries of images here; the autumnal fruits that are the last efforts of Demeter before she neglects the world, and the bright, golden hues of an unexpected burst of summer.  Persephone had clearly forgotten to pack something.

By Carol Ann Duffy

Where I lived—winter and hard earth.
I sat in my cold stone room
choosing tough words, granite, flint,

to break the ice. My broken heart—
I tried that, but it skimmed,
flat, over the frozen lake.

She came from a long, long way,
but I saw her at last, walking,
my daughter, my girl, across the fields,

in bare feet, bringing all spring’s flowers
to her mother’s house. I swear
the air softened and warmed as she moved,

the blue sky smiling, none too soon,
with the small shy mouth of a new moon.

Trenches, strings, and roof wraggles!

Long before Channel 4 unleashed Tony Robinson and the rest of the Time Team crew upon us I was interested in archaeology, (studying Latin and Ancient History at school has that effect) and so when there was a dig taking place locally I was excited to see what was going on.

This was in the mid 70’s, when a team led by the formidably-named Professor Rosemary Cramp of Durham University‘s Archaeology Department excavated the site of the former monastic buildings to the south of St Peter’s Church, the monastery that gave name to this part of Sunderland; Monkwearmouth.  The site was 1300 years old.

I remember looking forward to visiting the dig one weekend, but when the day came it was cold and wet, miserable conditions for digging and scraping at ancient stones.  I don’t recall whether it was my own reaction to the conditions, or the lack of geniality on the part of Professor Cramp et al, but I didn’t stay long!

Today, despite being one of the most historically significant buildings in the area (together with St Paul’s at Jarrow it is seeking World Heritage Site status due to their links with St Bede) St Peter’s is overlooked by many.  In fact when I showed one of today’s photographs to my younger daughter she had no idea where it was.  To many now the name is more associated with the nearby campus of the university and the sixth form college which adjoins it.

Visiting today I found similar conditions to the day of the dig.  Whilst the church is intact, little of the original Anglo Saxon structure remains, other than the west wall and the porch, though the characteristic steep sloping roof profile is retained and continues to influence other buildings nearby.  The intertwined serpents that once guarded the entrance arebarely visible, as it the statue set into the wall above the porch, which was presumably damaged during the dissolution of the monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII.  It’s a pity that this little gem seems so forgotten by the hundreds who commute past it every day.

Even the perimeter wall has character,  I have no idea when it was built but the variety of masonry used in its construction would not be considered nowadays.

Just beyond the perimeter I prematurely met today’s portrait subject; Winter.  It was almost inevitable that I should meet an Asian student with the university so close at hand.  I wonder if she has any idea of the history she was passing.