The Story of an Unknown Church

Last night I started reading a short story by William Morris, ‘The Story of the Unknown Church’. I didn’t get very far into it, because it was time to sleep. But a few sentences on the first page reminded me of one of my favourite places in all the world. The story is told in the voice of the master mason of a church built six hundred years ago, and destroyed two hundred years ago.

No one knows now even where it stood, only in this very autumn-tide, if you knew the place, you would see the heaps made by the earth-covered ruins heaving the yellow corn into glorious waves, so that the place where my church used to be is as beautiful now as when it stood in all its splendour.

The mason goes on to remember the church. He can only remember it clearly in autumn,

. . . yet it was beautiful in spring, too, when brown earth began to grow green: beautiful in summer, when the blue sky looked so much bluer, if you could hem a piece of it in between the new white carving; beautiful in the solemn starry nights, so solemn that it almost reached agony. . .

I too remember a church. The beautiful Bolton Abbey, in the Yorkshire Dales. I love walking around abbey ruins. Reivaulx Abbey and Whitby Abbey are also among my favourites. I love how crumbling stone arches frame the sky, how outlines of windows once decked with stained glass now show the dazzling patterns of cloud and sun. I love the ground, where the monks have walked and slept, and I love how the wind sweeps in. The sky seems an appropriate ceiling, and the shifting weather a worthy heir to the monks’ prayers. But I always try to imagine how it would have been – the windows glassed, the arches roofed, the walls painted. There is a melancholy about such open, broken places.

I was thinking these very thoughts as I wandered the ruins of Bolton Abbey, thinking how wonderful it would be to see this place as it was then. And then I turned a corner, and found a door, opened it, and stepped inside.

The nave of Bolton Abbey is still in use. You can attend church services. There is a roof and windows, paintings on the walls. I hadn’t known this, and it seemed like an apparition come to life, a fragment of history. The wall paintings aren’t old ones, but they are lovely. Twining stems of lilies cover the back wall. This seemed right, too – nature brought inside. The abbey is set in the most wonderful grounds – there is a river with stepping-stones, and thousands of trees. You can walk along the river and then up into the dales – truly a magical place, ‘as beautiful now as when it stood in all its splendour’.

Cross-posted at The Little Book Room.

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