Sawley Abbey, Lancashire

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The ruin of Sawley Abbey stands within the Forest of Bowland, an officially designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in Lancashire. I may be biased because it’s my home county, but I believe it would be a tall order to find another region of England which has as much variety to offer visitors in terms of open rural landscapes, miles of exhilarating beaches, buildings of historical interest, quaint chocolate box villages and not forgetting bustling towns and cities. Anybody familiar with this neck of the woods doesn’t need an official label to point out the beauty of this part of the shire.

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Situated close to the lovely town of Clitheroe, the Abbey was founded by a Cistercian order of monks in 1146 under the patronage of the extremely wealthy De Percy family of Northumberland. It was smaller than many of its contemporaries such as nearby Whalley Abbey  and Furness Abbey (link to my blog below). By all accounts the brothers of Sawley were not a happy bunch, complaining of poor crop yields and marshy land, and they didn’t reap the great material benefits enjoyed by many of their counterparts at other sites. Another gripe was that Sawley, due to being close to a busy road (nothing has changed there!), was an obvious resting place for travellers who had to be offered hospitality, this eating (pardon the pun) into the Abbey’s resources.

Like almost all Abbeys and monasteries in England and Wales, it was dissolved (torn down) in or just after 1536 when Henry VIII set up the Anglican Church and smashed – both metaphorically and literally – the Catholic Church in England. Many of these ruins are in the north of England. Most were not destroyed completely, as it was said that the King wanted people to see them, witness his power, and understand that he had authority, not Rome. Over time, much of the stone from these ancient sites was used by landowners and local people for new building projects.

The larger structures are long gone but visitors can still get an impression of the scale, stature and the space the Abbey occupied within its beautiful pastoral surroundings. It is now managed by English Heritage. No staff members are on site, but a local key holder opens and locks up daily.

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Nine centuries later, the ruin is still accessed via the extremely busy A59 road, and I can vouch that life and limb have to be risked when crossing. Visitors will also spot lots of four-wheel-drive vehicles pulling steel containers often crammed with sheep. This is the countryside, so it is to be expected, however I always find this upsetting and it is sure to cast a shadow over my day. Once the treacherous dual carriageway has been traversed, a side road leads to where lovely stone cottages line the short road up to the Abbey precinct. I didn’t take any photos of the desirable residences, as people were milling around outside and I thought it a bit rude to photograph them and their homes – and possibly a bit weird….or envious…. or all three.

A stone wall encloses the site and once inside I was fascinated to see some of the interesting architectural features displayed on natural stone shelves along one length of the perimeter.

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Below are some well preserved sections of the original floor. Imagine the painstaking work involved in lining up all of those stone blocks!

 

Although I was the only soul around for most of the hour or so I spent a Sawley, at one point a family with boisterous children entered. It seems that the site also doubles as a playground, unfortunately. I found a quiet nook where I could sit, relax, shiver a little despite the deceptive sunshine and enjoy the emergence of spring.

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The Bombed Out Church – St Luke’s, Liverpool

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Bold Street is my favourite place in Liverpool; a quirky, alternative spot, home to some fabulous places to eat, international and organic food retailers and ethnic and arts shops. Look towards the top of Bold Street with your back to the city centre and you will see what first appears to be an ordinary church; but things are not always what they seem. Any native of Liverpool will be able to tell you why this church, St. Luke’s, is different. For those who are not ‘in the know’, keep on walking and you’ll find out…….

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St Luke’s, colloquially known as the ‘bombed out church’, stands as a proud shell of its former self – literally. It was built to serve the Anglican community of city centre Liverpool after Lord Derby granted the land on Leece Street to the Church of England in 1791, apparently on condition that it be always used as a church and that no burials take place there. The building was completed in 1831.

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The good people of the city worshipped uninterrupted at St. Luke’s for over a hundred years until a fateful day in the spring of 1941. Britain was at war with Germany and nightly air raids were commonplace, affecting many British towns and cities. Outside of London, Liverpool was the most targeted location in the country, due to it being a major port. In May of that year, the German Luftwaffe attacked Liverpool for seven days in a row. St Luke’s was hit by an incendiary device, thankfully at a time when nobody was within. The church blazed for three days before finally revealing all that was left – a roofless shell. Some photographs of the blitzed city and church are displayed within the modern space.

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After the war, Liverpool Council planned to demolish the remains of the church, but there was a public outcry; to the people of the city, the ‘bombed out church’ was a symbol of survival and strength. Happily, the plans were dropped, but over the years the site became neglected.

About fourteen years ago Ambrose Reynolds, founder of local arts organisation Strawberry Urban Lunch, sparked a regeneration of interest in St. Luke’s by using it to host arts events in commemoration of the blitz and its survivors. Within a few years he was granted stewardship of St. Luke’s and through a lot of hard work and receipt of financial support, he and his team were able to open the space to the public once again.

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The building has been put to some creative uses during the last decade, including live music and outdoor cinema events, educational projects and art exhibitions. It has even been a wedding venue. Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono have counted amongst its patrons, though despite the high-profile support, St Luke’s has struggled for its survival over the last few years as austerity cuts have hit the north west particularly hard. Ambrose Reynolds and his team have fought this all the way, determined to preserve this amazing space and living museum for the city of Liverpool. Thanks to sheer hard work and determination and whatever financial support they have been able to get their hands on, these brilliant people have been able to secure the future of the bombed-out church, at least for the next thirty years.

The space is currently used for an eclectic range of activities from daily Tai chi and yoga through to performance art. The thing I really love about this special little place in the big city is that it has not, despite its iconic status, developed affected arty airs; it stands in simplicity, displaying its war wounds: charred timbers, glassless windows and warped metalwork, a real symbol that life goes on and human spirit survives conflict.

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Furness Abbey

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Furness Abbey, or what remains of it, is a Cistercian Abbey just outside Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria. It was built by a community of monks in the 12th century and dissolved by Thomas Cromwell about 400 years later. Like other religious buildings which were destroyed during Henry VIII’s ‘Dissolution’, parts of it were left intact as a reminder of the power of the king.

I have this fascination with ancient English buildings, especially ruins. There is something about them; an atmosphere; some connection with the past. I love to visit them and to soak up my surroundings.

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Whalley Abbey in east Lancashire is one of my very favourite places, so I had high expectations of Furness, which had been described to me as being even more splendid.

I discovered a local bus service would take me from the train station at Dalton-in-Furness and drop me off half a mile from the entrance to the Abbey. The stop for this bus was, according to the Abbey website,‘outside the station’; that wasn’t true, but it was only a short walk away outside the tiniest town hall I’ve ever seen, in which resided the tourist information centre. The two staff members seemed a little surprised to meet an actual tourist and although helpful, were not particularly knowledgeable. One of them went online and found me the numbers of three local taxi firms. We’ll come back to that later.

After leaving the bus I enjoyed the short walk (it didn’t even seem like half a mile) along a peaceful lane to the Abbey entrance. As I strolled along I could smell the wild garlic mixed in with the roadside vegetation. Some farm animals grazed and lazed in a small field.

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As Furness Abbey is owned by the English Heritage this means the admission price is higher than at similar sites not owned by them, and that their people are on hand to give information and sell you merchandise – whether you want these things or not. The entrance was inside a modern brick and glass annexe. I paid my admission fee and was invited to buy an information booklet. I declined, but was then made to wait whilst the young man flicked through the aforementioned booklet, summarising its main points. The poor soul had clearly been instructed to go through this script with each visitor and dared not deviate from the script. Still within the entrance area was an interesting display and collection of artefacts, archaeological finds and photographs illustrating the Abbey’s history.

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Furness Abbey ruins were impressive. I spent some time sitting in the blazing heat just contemplating how magnificent the structure must once have been. The experience was marred slightly for me by quite high levels of noise coming from outside the Abbey site; some adjacent farm land was being used by picnicking families and what looked like a children’s summer camp,  and two motorcyclists performed seemingly endless circuits of a surrounding road. I guess ancient remains must defer to the here and now. Being in a more isolated location, Whalley Abbey in Lancashire is much more serene which is why it is also a popular retreat.

Nevertheless, Furness Abbey held its own and had some interesting little features such as troughs of wild herbs planted amongst the ruined stone walls.

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Due to some structural instability, investigations and reparation work were being carried out and part of the main church building was surrounded by scaffold. This will be in place until 2016. I hope to go back and enter the ancient church, scaffold free.

When I’d looked around and spent some quiet time I decided to use the taxi numbers I’d been given to get back to the station. This turned out to be a waste of time: the first one-man enterprise was in Manchester; the second wouldn’t be free for two hours and the third didn’t even answer. This was to be my first encounter with unreliable single driver taxi firms in Cumbria, though not my last. The bus arrived just at the right time for me to head home whilst reflecting on my day.