A history mystery

National Trust, North Yorkshire
Acting the facts (Pad Dawson)

Acting the facts (Pad Dawson)

When teachers bring parties of children to Fountains Abbey, we often tog them all up in monastic robes, and explore the site with them .We want them to get a feel of the day-to-day life of a mediaeval monk. What? Prayers eight times a day? No underclothes? No talking? No heating? They’re impressed, in a horrified kind of way.

Then they go away, with only brief notions of the story the Abbey itself has to tell. Or why the place is a roofless ruin.

Until this year. Now they can come with their teachers and ‘Act the Facts’. They’re given props – perhaps a simple cape, a feathered cap, a woollen robe, a crown . These turn them into an early monk, a master mason, an Italian wool merchant, a dastardly baron, or even Henry VIII.

They have a script. It’s a melodramatic pastiche telling the Abbey’s turbulent history. Simple God-fearing beginnings, then powerful prosperity, then war, plague and corruption all leading to the final action. Henry VIII dissolves the monasteries.

The question at the beginning of the play is –

Who destroyed the Abbey?’

Acting it out, the children lose their places, stumble over words like ‘Cistercian’ and ‘lavatorium’, and forget which character they’re playing.

Honestly, what’s the point? It’s too complicated. They’re learning nothing.

Then they reach the end. We ask them to line themselves up. Twelfth century characters first, then thirteenth… and so on, through to those who bring the story to an end in 1540. We ask them which century was best.

And that’s when we realise how much they’ve learnt. They talk passionately about the simple piety of the early days set against the laxity of later centuries. They discuss austerity versus comfort. They talk feelingly about the plague, and the reasons for the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

And in telling the story of the Dissolution, they’ve solved the mystery of why Fountains Abbey is a roofless ruin.

Back at school, there’s so much for their teachers to build on. The ruin has brought history to life.

Come and see it for yourselves.  We can’t promise you a feathered cap, or a cardboard crown, but you could join one of the regular tours.  You’ll get a real taste of history as you soak up the special atmosphere of this special site.

(Pad Dawson)

(Pad Dawson)


The Old Grange

England, Patrimoine, Yorkshire
Here's the Old Grange, as it was in May, with the wisteria out.

Here’s the Old Grange, as it was in May, with the wisteria out.

As we’ve been four months back in England, it’s perhaps time to introduce our home, which answers to the name of ‘The Old Grange’.  I’ve already mentioned that it’s in part of an older building which forms part of a large, mainly Georgian house.  To understand how it came to be built, we’ll have to pay a quick visit to UNESCO World Heritage site, Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal, some 5 miles from us as the crow flies.

The nave of the now ruined Fountains Abbey

The nave of the now ruined Fountains Abbey

Back in 1132, there was no Abbey.  But there were 13 monks anxious to build one.  These particular men had joined holy orders in order to live a simple, strict and holy life, and were dismayed by the lax conditions they found in the Benedictine order they had joined.  The Archbishop of York offered them his protection, and the gift of some land near Ripon on the banks of the River Skell.  This area now is a fertile place, with pastureland, woods, stone for quarrying, and the waters of the Skell.  Back then, it was a hostile, overgrown and thoroughly unpromising environment.  The monks joined the Cistercian order which they felt offered the structure and discipline they sought, and strove to emulate the lifestyle promoted by its founder Bernard of Clairvaux.  A tough life of manual labour, self-sufficiency, and prayerful spirituality was the order of the day.

A view of Fountains Abbey: Wikimedia Commons

A view of Fountains Abbey: Wikimedia Commons

To cut a very long  story short – one which I will tell in a future post, because it’s a fascinating one – the Abbey the monks built prospered, to the extent that it became one of the largest, most successful and wealthy monasteries in the whole of Europe.  When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in the 1530s, the buildings and lands belonging to Fountains Abbey sold for over £1,000,000 – unimaginable wealth at the time: the monastery had acquired land over much of Yorkshire and Lancashire.  The simple life of those early monks had changed over the years. The monks themselves devoted more of their time to their spiritual life, with prayerful ritual being an important part of their routine.  The day-to-day work, mainly with sheep and cattle and all the other work associated with farming, both at Fountains itself and at all the other sites, was done by the so-called ‘lay brothers’.  Less educated, they had far fewer spiritual obligations.   And they lived communally in ‘granges’.

All those older buildings you’ll see as you travel around this part of the world, which include ‘grange’ as part of their name owe their existence to the fact that once they housed those lay brothers, mainly from Fountains Abbey.  The room where we sleep once formed part of the dormitory where the men working at our ‘old grange’ once slept.

In truth, it’s hard to believe.  We live in a stone building of traditional design, but with all mod cons.  One of the few signs of the building’s age is the huge fireplace on the ground floor which is now simply an alcove, though we gather it wouldn’t take much to reveal the old spit mechanism.  We have only one room downstairs.  The other spaces, which we have no access to, are now, as then, workspaces and storage areas.

Upstairs, where the bulk of our living space is, was once a single room, as long as the building itself.  In Victorian times, the owners of the larger property which had been built onto the original Old Grange in Georgian times, decided to break up the space into a number of rooms, to make it convenient to use as servants’ quarters.  And this is where we now live.

We find all this thoroughly exciting.  We enjoy noticing other granges as we explore Yorkshire, and we appreciate the connection that we now know we have with Fountains Abbey, a wonderfully beautiful site, whose history has touched the area for so many many miles around.

The Old Grange seen from the walled garden which most certainly was unknown to those lay brothers.

The Old Grange – the top floor dormitory – seen from the walled garden which most certainly was unknown to those lay brothers.