Fountains by Floodlight

Darkness falls at Fountains Abbey.
Darkness falls at Fountains Abbey.

The days are getting shorter.  The nights are getting longer.  We grumble every time we notice another milestone passed, another hour in which it’s no longer possible to enjoy sun and light and – daytime.  Ten o’clock. Nine o’clock.  Eight o’clock.  And now we’ve reached 7 o’clock. Winter’s on its way.

But there are consolations in that diminishing light.  Yesterday for instance.  As darkness started to blot Fountains Abbey from view, floodlighting blazed over the buildings, enhancing well-known silhouettes against the night sky. Places grown familiar to me over the past months presented themselves fresh and new. The structure and proportions of those arches!  Those solid yet soaring columns, supporting unimaginable weight!  That vaulting in the cellarium!  No mediaeval monk would have had the least experience of the power of modern lighting to illuminate every corner of the abbey they knew so well from a lifetime spent within its confines.  Yet last night, I felt closer to them, and to their spiritual concerns and way of life than I do as I enjoy the abbey site by day.

Glancing upwards to Huby's Tower.
Glancing upwards to Huby’s Tower.

The place was busy though.  I was there as one of my duties as a regular volunteer there*.  Dressed as a monk, I first of all spent an hour or so with families, taking them round the site while talking about the daily routine of those silent choir monks, from their first act of worship at 2.00 a.m. to their eighth and final one at an early bedtime.  And then I stayed dressed in those robes as night fell, the floodlighting came on, and Saddleworth Male Voice Choir assembled in the cellarium to perform in the gathering darkness.  The acoustics of the place are exceptional, bringing a power and mystery to the voices of the singers, affecting listeners and performers alike: everyone present knew they were witnessing something special.

Performing in the cellarium
Performing in the cellarium

As for me and my fellow ‘monks’.  Well, we answered questions,  We tried to persuade children to join us at 2.00 a.m. Vigils (Did any of them come?  I don’t know.  I was asleep at the time).  We were on call as local colour for all kinds of photo opportunities.

Monks by night.
Monks by night.

As the music finished, we all walked up the hill, away from the Abbey, to street lights, a car journey back home, and 21st century life.  It had been good, very good, to have an hour or two away from all that, in touch with life in simpler times.

Fountains Abbey by night,
Fountains Abbey by night,

*I keep promising to tell you more about life as a National Trust volunteer at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal.  And I will, I will. 

20 thoughts on “Fountains by Floodlight”

  1. How absolutely splendid! I’m pea green with envy. Despite Bernard of Clairvaux being my old Art History tutor’s bête noire, I found the Cistercians fascinating and years ago made a special trip up to Fountains. It is a dramatic site in daylight, but it looks like you’ve visited in a time machine from your floodlit photos. Thanks for sharing such a special experience.

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    1. They were indeed. Sadly, they weren’t exactly young men. I wonder where the next generation is coming from? ‘Volunteering’ blog when I get back from holiday. Watch this space!

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  2. Usual fab photos and what a wonderful event. Monks certainly knew how to “do” acoustics, it’s the same at Battle Abbey. Lighting at night is truly magical and I recommend the Alhambra by night if you’ve not already experienced it. Probably warmer than Fountains as well!

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      1. When you go to the Alhambra make sure you stay in the Parador in the grounds – magical and convenient!

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  3. It must be magical by night. Very atmospheric. And I’d love to hear more about your volunteer work – especially if we get a picture of you dressed in your monk’s robes!

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  4. Wow–I want to see (and hear) this! Does it happen regularly? Your photos are beautiful and i love the description you give in your first paragraphs–it really sets the stage and mood. I used to volunteer at a local historical house museum–NOTHING like your experience, but very satisfying all the same.

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  5. Wow, what a great opportunity to witness the abbey lit up like that and to be part of it. It looks amazing. I know what you mean about feeling close to history. Years and years ago I volunteered at Canterbury Cathedral and I was loitering in the chapters when I found graffiti from the 1500’s written by someone with the same name as me. It was in quite an obscure place so it felt as if I was meant to find it. x

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