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The Present Past: Netley Abbey

Please note this is an image-laden post. Netley Abbey was built during the medieval period and changed into a manor house after the Henrican Reformation, before being somewhat demolished by builders in the 1700s needing materials. It stands today as it was left.

As a historian who gravitates to old buildings, I rarely pass up an opportunity to tick another site off my list. This list is courtesy of Wikipedia’s page of all the castles in England, however I am of course aware that there is more to history than buildings where fornication was rife and falsehood the key skill to acquire. Therefore you will find me at religious houses too. It is impossible to be ignorant of the fact that sexual intercourse and pretence went on at Christian establishments just as much as at castles, but the context for Christian buildings brings a completely different outlook for the modern visitor, even if the buildings being in ruins renders all sites similar in appearance.

I would love to tell you that I travelled to Netley in earnest, enthralled by stories of the building’s life from monastery to country house to victim of a need for architectural materials, but I can’t. I travelled to Netley on a whim because I was bored and there was the promise of ice cream.

When you arrive at the Abbey the view is quite something. The car park is tiny and the Abbey right in front of you, open to exploration. Indeed the entire site is free to access which means you can wander around at leisure. There are a few fenced-off areas for safety reasons, such as stairs that now lead only to the sky, and a barrier to stop you falling into what was either a sewage gutter or urinal. Whichever it is, ancient or not, I’m glad the remnants of people’s banquets have been cordoned off.

On entering the partially roofless building you find yourself in what was likely the foyer. A few steps further and you are in the cloister. The cloister is especially beautiful and whilst it may be in ruins, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the quad at King’s College, Cambridge. From all parts of the Abbey the centre section is visible, the section being worth a mention because although there is no access to it, it exists as though unchanged. I envy the bird that can nest in the top room, and take back my envy immediately on remembering that envy is a sin and I am in an Abbey. I don’t want the spirit of the dark monk to discover it.

Ghosts. It is said that the Abbey has two, the other being a white soul who only appears to those who don’t believe in spirits. I suppose that’s why I didn’t see him, as while I’ve never seen a ghost, I am a believer.

In the east wing there are a few rooms, including one that appears to be a dining or meeting room. There is also the priest’s changing room or small chapel – the plaque says one thing but the presence of a raised platform had me opposing the idea. This is surely what I should be doing as a historian, providing debate albeit in my head, and I am loathed to concede to those who have been studying history for many more years and have far more knowledge than I have. What can I say? Prior reading has shown me that those with sketchy evidence get their books published.

Next you enter the church itself, an illustrious hall that, although in tatters, retained from the 1700s demolition team its four walls and huge window. Whilst it may not feel much like a church any more, the visuals are still there and standing in the hall you can easily imagine it being used for mass. The height of the room, shown by the intact walls, is incredible. It’s difficult not to wonder how many may have died building it.

It is in this hall that an information board stands, telling you that Jane Austen visited the ruins. Austen seems to turn up everywhere I go lately, it’s like I’m following in her footsteps. If I could follow her footsteps to eternal best-seller status that would be brilliant although I doubt it will go that far – she would likely leave me once I declared that I was a staunch supporter of the House of Lancaster. The sign says Austen took inspiration from Netley for Northanger Abbey. Believe it if you will, I’m under the impression that that’s wishful thinking.

Just when you think you’ve viewed it all, a walk through the wall (or rather the gap in it, but that doesn’t sound as clever) and a stroll eastwards reveals to you a small house. This, even more so than the chapel with the roof still on it, has the potential to take your breath away. The ceiling of the ground floor is unbroken, constructed of arches and small stone bricks. Although the furniture has long gone and the walls are past their best, the effect is powerful. You are walking in the supposed house of the abbot and by God it feels as such. I cannot remember standing in a place as well preserved as this and want to do it all over again. I wonder if the dark monk cast a spell on me, enthralling me to come back to his lair.

Throughout the Abbey and abbot’s house “graffiti” is the word of the day. Everyone and their dog has scratched their name into the stones, from a professional-looking 1800s engraving, to the infamous “I woz ere” of the 21st Century. “It’s sacrilege,” said the person I was with. Maybe, but it is adding to the history and the open access allows the Abbey to remain in use. And you can’t help but be awed by the etchings of a pompous Victorian.

I loved Netley Abbey, the beauty amongst the sorrow, the destruction by the tyrannical Henry VIII, the romantic notions of poets in a place their grandfathers had deemed good substance for structural work. I didn’t find spirituality here as I’d expected but I did find a place that I would return to daily if I could.

It’s wonderful to know that the Abbey is still used, not just by people as a place to hang out after work (the wine cellar here would have been bigger than your local pub’s), but also as a wedding venue and for Christian worship. Long may people find the sense of history they seek here.

The rest of my photos. If you want to see them full size, right click and open them in a new window/tab.


jenn aka the picky girl

August 20, 2012, 2:23 am

Gorgeous photos! This is exactly what I’d like to do on my next trip to Europe. There’s something about ruins, something you’ve hit on here – a combination of history and destruction and love and war. Beautiful.


August 20, 2012, 1:27 pm

I love your photos! I took some of my weekend away but there not as good as these. Netley Abbey looks like a great place to visit, never heard of it before so will have to make a note of it. Thank you for sharing.


August 20, 2012, 2:25 pm

Love the photos and your thoughts that go with them and how the stones are stories not just silent ruins


August 21, 2012, 8:54 am

Such beautiful photos and a very atmospheric place. I am SO envious. We have nothing like that in Australia. :)


August 21, 2012, 9:34 pm

What great photos! I love visiting historic sites but have never had the chance to go to Netley Abbey. There’s something so atmospheric about walking through ruins, isn’t there? I went to Fountains Abbey in North Yorkshire last year and it was beautiful too.


August 26, 2012, 12:42 am

Lovely pictures! Thanks so much for sharing . I adore stone arches :-)


August 26, 2012, 9:57 pm

Jenn: Thank you. Yes, it’s a pity that places are in ruins, but there is a beauty in it and so many tales.

Jessica: Thanks. It’s a good place to go, and there are other historic places nearby which make it worthwhile if you’re visiting from far away.

Merrian: Thank you, if the walls could talk they would definitely have a lot to say!

Violet: Thanks, and it is. I have friends in Australia who told me the same, but I had t reply about the whole grass is greener idea – Australia looks absolutely fascinating to me.

Helen: Thank you. I was just wondering the other day where Fountains Abbey is, so I’m glad you commented on it! There is atmosphere, and it’s so often mixed with an eerieness, an eerieness you don’t know whether to worry about or not.

Aarti: Thanks. Yes, there’s something awesome about stone arches, especially when they’re still there after all that time – it’s almost magical.



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