Whalley Abbey,dissolved but not forgotten

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This is the second week of my Easter break from work, and in these strange times all that means is that I’m just not looking at anything work-related for a fortnight. On Monday morning I’ll take up my position at my home desk and work on whatever can be worked on within the limitations imposed by distance and technology. At the onset of lockdown I thought working from home would be easier than the reality has proved, hence my present ‘hard line’ on taking this two weeks’ leave. Still, I’m immensely grateful and relieved that I’m able to continue working and have security and peace of mind where so many others now face uncertainty.

Being blessed with excellent weather, I’ve spent much of my time contentedly pottering outside: sowing, re-potting, pruning and repairing. I’ve also been able to finish a couple of books, both sidelined some weeks or months ago, and am now, after a slow start, just over a hundred pages into Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. This final part of the trilogy which charts the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell has been a long time coming, and I know that I have not been alone in wondering, impatiently, what was taking Hilary so long. I read somewhere that she was finding it hard to write the end; to finally put Cromwell’s head upon the block. Hilary Mantel is a perfectionist, which is the real reason for the gap between Bring up the Bodies and this finale. Having been awarded Booker prizes for instalments one and two, the pressure to maintain that standard a third time must have been immense.

Thomas Cromwell was a key figure in driving King Henry VIII’s programme of dissolution of the monasteries as part of the English Reformation. Henry’s main interest was in the considerable revenue which, confiscated from the wealthiest monastic establishments, could boost his kingly coffers. For Cromwell, apart from wanting to impress his boss, the king, his own agenda was more theological, being strongly in favour of rooting out all things papist.

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All this talk of Tudors and Reformation brought to mind another of my favourite places, Whalley Abbey near Clitheroe. Now owned by the Church of England, only ruins remain of the 14th century Cistercian monastery. More modern (still centuries old) buildings on the site are in use as a spiritual retreat and conference centre. I was first introduced to Whalley about 10 years ago by a friend who was training to be a counsellor and had taken part in a residential course there. She had found great pleasure in strolls among the ancient ruins and along the banks of the river Calder which skirts the grounds. These photographs I took on a summer’s day a few years ago capture the Abbey’s serenity.

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Of course, the Abbey was not always the peaceful location it is today. Established in the late 13th century and a work-in-progress for nearly a century after that, the monastic community had its fair share of controversies and scraps over money with other local religious powerhouses. The founders had relocated to Whalley from their original Abbey at Stanlow on the banks of the river Mersey where a series of unfortunate incidents including flooding, gales and fire damage had led to the decision to move to pastures new. An age of prosperity and calm followed and the Abbey became one of the principal landowners in east Lancashire. Rivalries in the region were fierce where money was concerned, and records dating from the last quarter of the 15th century tell of vicious feuds between the Abbott and the Rector of Slaidburn over tithe payments, with reports of the Rector’s thugs attacking monks.

The church then, as now, enjoyed fantastic wealth, and inevitably some of that was abused as records of lush living and monkish opulence describe. Of course, Abbeys were also places where the sick could receive care and the poor, alms. The rising star that was Cromwell saw an opportunity. In 1535 delegations of ‘visitors’ were sent to the English Abbeys to carry out inventories of their assets and to look for signs of superstitious practices such as promoting belief in the power of so-called relics, a lucrative business in its time. Examples of some of these finds were widely publicised by Cromwell to provide further justification for the dissolution. The Visitors’ report on Whalley was not especially damning, with only one monk apparently conducting himself lewdly, but the Abbott, John Paslew, was accused of selling off some of the church’s gold. Sanctions were placed on the community and records show that Cromwell himself was required to make judgement when the Abbey appealed. He relaxed the sanctions. Nice.

The following year, 1536, saw Abbott Paslew and many of the monks participate in the Pilgrimage of Grace, a Catholic rebellion. Paslew was executed for treason. The year after that the Abbey was dissolved. Centuries of private ownership followed before it was bought by the Church of England in 1923. It is a grade 1 listed scheduled ancient monument. To me, it’s just a really lovely place to spend some quiet time.

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I hope to go back to Whalley once some sort of normal life is resumed and spend a few hours just moving slowly around the grounds, bench-hopping, listening to birdsong and blissfully doing nothing much.

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Sawley Abbey

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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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