Monday, June 4, 2012
Abbey Dore, Herefordshire
The monks and the birds
Near the border of England and Wales, deep in Herefordshire’s Golden Valley (the valley of the River Dore), among high hedges and garrulous rookeries, within sight of the Black Mountains with their evocatively named heights (Hay Bluff, Lord Hereford’s Knob), and close to one of my routes to the book-lovers’ haven of Hay on Wye, lies the sandstone Dore Abbey, home of the royal arms in my previous post. It’s the kind of quiet spot the Cistercians favoured, away from the distractions of the world and the city, where they could farm in peace (they were among the most successful sheep farmers in the Middle Ages), and build their monasteries and their communities.
Most of Britain’s greatest Cistercian abbeys, such as Yorkshire’s Fountains and Rievaulx, Gloucestershire’s Hailes, and Tintern in the valley of the Wye, are ruins now, but at Dore Abbey, part of the building – the choir, transept, and crossing of the original church – remains in service for parish worship. In the monks’ time, where there are trees in the left-hand part of my photograph above there was a long nave, and its disappearance accounts for the unusual shape of the church. As we look at this fragment, though, with its continuous background noise of cawing rooks, the tall pointed lancet windows give an idea of the building’s strong but simple Gothic architecture.
It is even more impressive inside. Repeated lancet windows, pointed arches, and piers with multiple shafts line the choir. Light pours in from the splayed upper windows, creating patterns of light where the arches are deeply moulded. There is a minimum of carved ornament (the austere Cistercians eschewed the sort of rich foliate carving that covered other Gothic churches of the time) but a strong sense of linear pattern. The arches and mouldings create a clear sense of the kind of space the monks wanted – and it is a rare treat to find it all surviving as an interior, roofed and used and protected from the elements and enhanced with fine furnishings from the 17th-century restoration. And so quiet too, in little known southwestern Herefordshire, in a corner where now the rooks must far outnumber the human population but the lucky few who are left can enjoy a place of peace and a setting for contemplation.