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.
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.
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.
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.
*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.