Religion In Ruins: My Favourite Abbeys

What with the Pope’s visit to the UK recently, the success of the period drama Downton Abbey on British television’s ITV1 and everyone now speculating as to whether it will be St Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey for the venue of Prince William & Kate Middleton’s marriage next year; I’ve been contemplating my favourite religious venues and attractions across the UK.

Some are in stunning locations, the medieval monks knew an idyll when they saw one, some have incredible stories to tell, having played significant roles in the country’s history, some still do and probably will do for centuries more, others are romantic in their ruinous state, abandoned by all, if not by ‘Mother Nature’ who welcomed them back with open arms. Some just have a certain something about them that tickles me, a quirk in their history, their architecture or the style of religious practice that was followed there (there were many methods and doctrines of religious life style that could be followed within a Monastery, Priory or Abbey).

Fountains Abbey

Fountains Abbey, Yorkshire – Cistercian.

Is the largest ruined abbey in England, set in a hidden valley next to the river Skell which is also part of the gorgeous Georgian water garden within the grounds of the Studley Royal estate. As a visitor you approach from above, looking down on the valley and it is a sight to behold. A UNESCO World Heritage Site it really is one of the most amazing examples of human achievement and natural beauty. It is co managed by English Heritage and The National Trust and is open for visitors all year.

Much Wenlock Priory

Much Wenlock Priory Shropshire – Cluniac.

Is an Anglo-Saxon monastery founded just outside the village/town of Much Wenlock in about 680 by King Merewalh of Mercia, whose abbess daughter Milburge was hailed as a saint. Her relics were miraculously re-discovered here in 1101, attracting both pilgrims and prosperity to the priory. There are some beautiful masonry carvings and some more unusual topiary animals in the grounds. Much Wenlock has a spotlight on it at the moment due to the 2012 London Olympics, the town hosted their own Olympics organised by William Penny Brookes who was the inspiration for Pierre De Courbertin to create the Modern Olympics one of the Official Olympic Mascot’s is called ‘Wenlock‘.  The site is open to the public all year and managed by English Heritage.

Lilleshall Abbey

Lilleshall Abbey, Shropshire – Augustinian.

Smaller but just as beautiful, with some gorgeous chevron masonry carvings and a triple Norman arched doorway. The Abbey was used as a Civil War stronghold with nearby White Ladies Priory and Boscobel House and the famous Royal Oak were all used to hide King Charles II from Cromwell’s Troops.

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey, London – Benedictine.

Probably the most famous Abbey in the UK; Kings, queens, statesmen and soldiers; poets, priests, heroes and villains – the Abbey has hosted  them all and is a must-see living pageant of British history. Royal Wedding rumours are currently circling Westminster Abbey and why not, it has been the location for Royal Weddings and Coronations as well as state events and parliamentary services for centuries. A Royal Peculiar not governed by state or church, Westminster Abbey is answerable only to the Queen and is a formidable place nestled next to the Palace of Westminster, the House of Commons, the House of Lords and Big Ben – Westminster is one of the most visited parts of the Country.

Mount Saint Bernard Abbey

Mount Saint Bernard Abbey, Leicestershire – Cistercian (Trappist).

Is one of only a dozen or so active monasteries in England, set amongst the beautiful Leicestershire countryside a county known as the Rural Heart of England it is the nearest Abbey to my home. The Monks established their Trappist order in 1835 and live a life of simplicity, silence, and solitude (Trappist Monk’s avoid unnecessary noise but it is not quite a vow of silence, more a vow of contemplation). It is open for public visits and sells a range of pottery, dairy products (milk, cream and butter) from the Abbey’s herd of cattle and a range of bee products from the Abbey’s apiary (honey, beeswax polish, candles and lip balm) which are all made by hand by the resident monks.

Mount Grace Priory

Mount Grace Priory, Yorkshire – Carthusian.

Is my personal favourite, beautiful location, lovely buildings and what can only be described as a unique lifestyle choice. The crumbling masonry and open grassland of the Priory have become home to a collection of wildlife that has taken advantage of the ruins. The Monks lived as a community of hermits in isolated cells with their own private herb garden, there were angled hatchways or rotating hatches leading out to the wider world where food and provisions could be passed back and forth without the cell’s inhabitant having to come into contact or see the lay brother who delivered it, communication if any was via written note. Mount Grace is the most complete surviving example of this order sometimes also know as the Order of St Bruno. The site also has a Mansion containing Victorian and Arts & Craft interiors and is managed by the National Trust & English Heritage.

About X-Wide P

Award winning advocate for the arts, heritage & culture; Fine Artist & Curator at StudionAme; Resources Manager for Leicester Arts, Museums, Festivals & Events; Founder & Curator of L.O.V.E. Art the Leicester Open Exhibition
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