Friday, October 16, 2009

Much Wenlock, Shropshire


Space invaders

After the church, the chapter house was often the most impressive part of a medieval monastery – especially if that monastery was a house belonging to the Cluniacs, an order who were famous for their ornate buildings. This is part of the chapter house at Wenlock Abbey, which was originally a Saxon monastery but was re-established by the Cluniacs after the Norman conquest.

The monks of Wenlock built their chapter house in about 1140. Every day they met here, entering through a magnificent triple-arched doorway, and sitting down to discuss abbey business and hear a reading of one chapter of the monastic rule. What remains of the interior now is three high stone walls, each decorated with intricate multiple arcading. This kind of decoration, covered with chevron or pellet motifs or with carved mouldings, is a hallmark of the most elaborate late Norman architecture in England.

I photographed the one wall of the three that has plants growing on it. The other two are kept scrupulously clear of vegetation, but here nature is taking its course and the flowers (are they some form of campanula?) grow freely. I’m not sure if this is a conscious decision on the part of the building’s custodians, English Heritage, although I do know that they have approved of this kind of equilibrium between plants and stones at certain sites.

Deliberate or not, I like this modest invasion. The plants don’t seem to be doing any harm to the masonry and the unruly splash of colour they provide is welcome amongst the grey stone and clipped lawns. There is more than one way to display a ruin, and old buildings are hospitable to other species than our own.

7 comments:

Neil said...

Nature reclaiming abandoned human sites is always moving, I feel. Of course a body like English Heritage can't allow a building like this to be torn apart by ivy or completely overgrown - but a modest allowance for plants and wildlife seems right.

Vinogirl said...

It does indeed look like campanula, how wild and pretty.

CarolineLD said...

A lovely photo, and the wild plants certainly enhance the site. I did see an example which went too far recently: the ruins of a Templar tower in Brittany, completely submerged under a mass of ivy!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Caroline: Yes, ivy is usually a plant too far. The stuff goes everywhere, and many of Britain's old ruins were covered in it until well into the 20th century. There's plenty of evidence in the engravings and photographs in old guidebooks such as the Highways and Byways series on the counties.

Peter Ashley said...

I like this photograph, not least because it's another example of architecture contriving to make a face.

DC said...

I'm glad if English Heritage are moving away from the clinical, scraped approach to presenting their ruins in a more Romantic fashion, but the apogee of this approach has to be the privately-owned Jervaulx Abbey in Wensleydale where ruins, haphazardly assembled stones and plants combine to create an harmonious pastoral and architectural idyll. Well worth a visit (it used to have the most wonderfully Unmitigated pub close at hand; the Blue Lion at East Witton; now, alas, gastro-ed out of all recognition)

Philip Wilkinson said...

DC: Pleased to hear that Jervaulx is still its charming self - I visited it about 20 years ago.

There is a balance to be struck, though, between plants and buildings. Some creeper is pushing the mortar out from under a parapet on top of my own house as I write.