Sunday, 7 September 2014

Imaginative History

Trip out
RHS Harlow Carr Gardens - with its great bookshop 
Unpacking boxes, bags and months of living in the South finally gave way to a trip to North Yorkshire, via Harlow Carr Gardens bookshop near Harrogate. Where else more appropriate for a visit than Fountains Abbey?

Buried in a secluded valley not far from Ripon, the word “magnificent” is not too strong to describe the experience of visiting Fountains Abbey.  Pretty quickly it is obvious why the place is a World Heritage Site – from the romantic abbey ruins, to the landscaped lakes and gardens of Studley Royal, the “High Ride” walk with intriguing follies, the deer park, St Mary’s Church, Fountains Hall, the herb garden, the display rooms….
Views from the "High Ride" walk at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal
Time travel
If only time travel were possible…. To glimpse the place when the first 13 rebel Benedictine monks arrived in the valley in 1132, and then to see a time lapse movie of the growth of the buildings over several centuries into the richest Cistercian monastery in England, and then to despair as the site turned into the largest abbey ruins in the UK…. If only I believed that King Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell had pure religion in mind when they began their dissolution scam.… (£!£!£!£!)
Vices and virtues
Fountains Abbey speaks of time, decay, conviction, faith, vanity, glory and power. The stones, without doubt, hide stories of anger, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony. Of course I am sure there were many monks who demonstrated virtues of chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness and humility. One of my favourite pastimes is to let my imagination roam on the sites run by the National Trust or English Heritage. Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth is partly responsible for cementing my imaginative take on the blood, sweat and turmoil that went into the construction of church buildings in the medieval period.
Whose history is it anyway?
Seamus Heaney famously thought that history “is about as instructive as an abattoir” and Henry Ford wrote that "history is more or less bunk” but I suspect they were referring to the official version of history, the one written by the military winners. History to me has always been about the untold stories, the domestic details, the women and children, the teachers and builders, the doctors and bakers. Shakespeare’s history plays are as real, to me, as Holinshed or Plutarch in evoking the passions of the past; sure, they are biased, but so are the text books. The billions of words of conjecture written about the Tudors cannot all be correct. Give me Sharon Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour over David Baldwin’s biography of Richard III (though I have to say Baldwin’s is the best I know….) Both approaches are equally popular but I have yet to be convinced that a literary view of history is any less valid than a “historical” approach to history.
Either our history shall with full mouthSpeak freely of our acts, or else our grave,Like Turkish mute, shall have a tongueless mouth,Not worshipp'd with a waxen epitaph.

That was then, this is now
Wandering round Fountains Abbey can be an experience which involves the politics of the rise and fall of monasteries and the factual history of the architectural decisions, or it can be about imagining Brother Dominic and what brought him there, how he fared in the different seasons, what jobs he enjoyed doing the most, what were the greatest hardships, when did he experience his finest moments of faith and what caused his strongest moments of doubt? What kind of an abbot was Henry MurdacWandering round on a crisp September day in 2014, Fountains Abbey is an ideal place for contemplation of who we’ve been, who we are and who we’re going to be.