The meaning of historic places has very much changed in recent years. People have been using them in very different and personal ways, above and beyond the usual interest in architecture and historical events. I’ve seen this developing at an historic site I’ve been visiting for the past 15 years or so. It was an abbey, having been dissolved, because of fire and bad luck in the early in the 16th century, well before the Dissolution. All that is left are the remains of the central arches leading out to the transepts, chancel and the absent nave. It is free to enter and makes a nice visit for 40 minutes or so. It is a usual English Heritage pile of stones that you can find throughout the county.
One feature has always appealed to me. A niche. It is gothic, decorative and has made me think, “OK, what was this used for?” But before I go down the route of abbey architecture and niches, I wasn’t the only one whose attention was caught by the inset mini-arch. One day, about 6 years ago, a small bunch of flowers had been left within it. It wasn’t a random bunch of flowers freshly picked from the fields that day, but was considered, modest and placed with intent. I felt it was a touching thought, for whatever reason that thought was. Someone had left a piece of their world there.
The next time I visited, there was more. Not just flowers, but very personal effects. As time went by more and more objects were being placed around the Abbey. The belongings were all there to remember people, family, loved ones. They included a small bible, a crucifix, herbs, feathers, prayers, photographs, an opened chocolate coin, a shell, a poem for a father, candles both new and half burnt. Someone had taken a fist-sized stone and written on one side:
“Emma, 8.12.1972, 5 hours old”
on the other side
“Kitty Rose, 30.7.2009, born sleeping”
“Angels” written between the two.
These were positioned alongside a prayer in plastic wallet, which protected it from the weather and ensure longevity.
The items are mainly Christian, the crucifixes, prayers, bibles, but they have been purposely placed outside of organised religion. The site itself, is no longer a church. Within a church, we would not leave objects. In a church, we feel we are being watched, constrained and must behave in a certain way. Even if the church is empty, and they often are, we are quiet, still, and don’t want to upset the peaceful balance. The buildings impress upon us a sense of awe. We feel the Judgement is happening right there and then.
The Abbey is free of that. It is a series of stone walls, arches and columns all stripped bare of former riches. There isn’t even a roof. The ruins are devoid of authority. There is no-one watching us. You can be sure that during certain times of the day, the week, the year, the ruins will be empty. No one will be there. You can take your time, be at peace, remember or pray without the feeling of being watched. You can do what you want.
The Abbey also offers a sense of spirituality. It had been a place of worship for hundreds of years, before being dissolved. Perhaps there was something spiritual there before that. It gives us confidence that this is the right place for a prayer.
I am guessing this is why the remembrances are there. It does not matter that the ground has been de-consecrated and it is even better that the Abbey is in ruins. There is no-one there to judge, or tell us what to do. This place still has a spiritual meaning for people and offers the chance to remember and pray on our own terms.
The last time I visited the Abbey, the objects being left had changed. There was a plethora of coins. People had left them in the niche, but also anywhere a coin could be left. Coins were forced into the bonding between stones, balanced in cracks and on mini-ledges in the walls. We have a long tradition of leaving coins. It’s good luck to throw a coin into a well, or a fountain, a practice that goes back to the Iron Age in this country. In pre-Christian times, water was the place that led to the next world, where the dead and gods lived. Across Britain, ceremonial objects, bodies and coins have been discovered in rivers, bogs and wells. Coin are not personal items, but they have a value and being made of metal they are long lasting, they endure. We throw coins into water out of tradition. But unbeknownst to us, it is a deal we are entering into. We give a gift to the gods and the dead, and in return we receive good fortune. I can only guess why these coins were left in the Abbey. The tradition of good luck. Empathy with the loss of loved ones we see remembered. Or just a moment to think of our own loss.
I’m struck with the similarity with the Hill of Crosses in Lithuania, where crosses and personal items have been left for generations. The items there are evidently Christian, but homemade and unofficial. The site is ancient and even having been purposefully destroyed, it has come back and its meaning to people continues. It is there for faith, grief, sadness and made by the people who have suffered.
The Abbey has become a place of a folk movement. People connect with their belief, emotions and memories, away from authority and organisation of the Church. Such sites give us a chance to connect with other parts of our world. They can be entertaining, intriguing, immersive, nostalgic, or somewhere to get lost. They can play on our heart’s emotions of happy and lost times. We often look down at such nostalgia and other meaning, as if it is something that only has a place in a retro popular-culture. Perhaps that is because the intangible is difficult to grasp. And so, we fall back on the architecture of arches and niches.
Since writing the first draft of this piece, I visited another abbey which I go to regularly. The remains are not of an abbey, but of the Tudor building, constructed after the Dissolution in the 1540s. There in a quiet corner, on the outside of the building, was a large painted pebble. Secretly, I am hoping a similar folk movement does not break out here. I wanted to move and hide the pebble so that no one would copy. But I didn’t. That is not for me to decide.