Wednesday, October 13, 2010

York Part IV: Rievaulx

Our last stop on the Bing trip was Rievaulx Abbey, a stunning twelfth-century abbey that fell into ruin after Henry VIII dissolved it in 1538, upon becoming head of the English church and expelling all Catholic monks. Basically because he wanted to divorce his wives. (I keep seeing the physical consequences of the oddities of English history.)

So what's so special about a ruin? Well, let me tell you.

After only a 30-minute drive from Castle Howard, through which we saw some gorgeous English pastureland dotted with cows/sheep/horses, we arrived at a terrace where, after a short walk through some misty and beautiful woods, we could gaze down the hills and see the abbey's crumbling walls silhouetted against the countryside. This terrace was physically constructed as a manicured walk on which the gentry could look down at the abbey for inspiration. It was capped by two Ionic temples, both of which were used for (yet more) banqueting and guest-entertaining. Apparently the late 18th-century Brits liked to incorporate medieval ruins into their gardens, in order to capture a sense of the Gothic/picturesque/sublime. They'd even import ruins from another part of England, or reconstruct them, in order to attain the precise landscape they wanted.

Rievaulx, of course, is original (even if the garden high above it was contrived around its existence), and half an hour later we drove the short distance down to the abbey itself. There was no official tour, and so for an hour we were free to explore the crumbling walls, stunted pillars, and empty windowframes, climbing and snapping photos and feeling rather like kids on a giant stone playground. Many of the abbey walls were still intact, though in varying states of ruin, and some of the spectacular Gothic arches still stand, open to the heavens like an organic skeleton from the medieval world. A crowd of pigeons had nested atop the main framework of the cathedral, grass grew all around the ruins, some plants had poked out of cracks in high-up stone walls. Nature was taking back what man had made.

Especially after seeing York Minster, constructed in a similar style, I kept thinking of what the abbey must have looked like back before it was abandoned. It must have been spectacular. I felt it capturing my imagination and my wonder, as it must have done for the generations of British gentry that visited it. I found myself gazing up at its walls, pondering the ingenuity and the history of man, the forces of nature, and the inevitable march of time.

For this reason, in a way I found Rievaulx the most striking destination on our trip. I suddenly understand the Gothic and the picturesque (both of which have worked themselves into literary history) much more clearly...

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