There is something so personally satisfying about ruins.
Contemplation and prayer come easily to me in places such as Bayham Old Abbey because they closely mirror my own shifting relationship to a Christian current.
Firstly, they are an invading force. There is no avoiding this.
Whether you consider them Norman or Roman, they are outposts of an imperial power. They are foreign.
Secondly -and related to this- they are a reminder that the outcome for gods is the same as it is for anyone else who plays the game of thrones.
Henry won. They died.
The very same withdrawal of support we are currently living through is encoded in the word, dissolution. The abbeys weren’t closed, they were dissolved. Closing something seals it, conveys a solidity and the possibility that it may reopen.
Dissolving something implies that its physical existence was always entirely in your hands. It does not end, it fades.
Can you imagine what the buttresses and the vaulted ceilings looked like when the first weeds grew through them? What the scuttling of rats through smashed idols sounded like as it echoed down the south transept?
For the locals there was presumably some sadness, but there must also have been a feeling of misplaced ambition. Like that terror that grips you just before your birthday party when you worry that only a few people will actually turn up.
Before there was the grand foreign architecture, however, there was a community. Once, long ago, some people decided to dedicate themselves to spiritual enrichment here. The extreme wealth followed as an inevitable byproduct of being the nodes of the national economic grid.
I get to these places just as they open because it means I get them all to myself. And indeed, it was just me and the hares at Bayham Old Abbey on Saturday. You can stand in the remains of the water room, look up, and realise that the denizens of the abbey lived on the vanished first floor above you for the warmth.
This was home and work to people for hundreds of years… with all the politics and illicit love affairs and sickness and joy and sadness that implies. They would complain about the weather, inquire after distant relatives, make food, sweep floors. It is never far from my mind that this place was a home for a very long time. One that… somewhere in there… had some admirable ideals at its core. I silently acknowledge that.
Now it is just bones and they have the most valuable lesson to teach.
Bayham Old Abbey is over-manicured in that very English Heritage way, but there is still a holiness here. It is the underlying holiness that is revealed by the ruination of what was built over it, in honour of it. You may remove the relics from the High Altar but a tree will replace them with its own benediction. In some sense, every ruined abbey is now a gnostic holy place because you are compelled to see through all the accreted crap to the jewel at its core. There is that which remains.
Remember all ye that existence is pure joy; that all the sorrows are but as shadows; they pass and are done; but there is that which remains.
An appropriate message, given our next stop. Netherwood, the deathplace of Aleister Crowley. (Do you think the name appealed to him as much as it does to us?) All that remains of this former house, its bones, are the old coaching houses and a pub that is actually a lot better than its exterior might imply. Another lesson there!
My immediate impression is that the whole place, on a sunny Saturday morning, is just lovely. There is so much inaccuracy about the last year of Crowley’s life. Namely that he died a penniless drug addict in a shithole on the outskirts of a faded, seaside holiday town. But in the twenty first century, you will be lucky to retire to place like Netherwood. (Getting your heroin through the mail is also more difficult now.)
We go inside for a drink.
My immediate sensation is that this is not a place a wizard retires to, but it is one that an artist certainly does. This is where the Bright Young Things would put their cool parents.
According to people who were there at the time, it was his very reputation that so appealed to Netherwood’s owners.
The intellectual and gustatory attractions of Netherwood were made clear by him in the handbook: ‘So long as I am here,’ he wrote, ‘this house will never be a guest house in the ordinary sense of the term. Those seeking a conventional establishment will be able to find better accommodation elsewhere, for my friends care more for fine food than for the ritual of dressing for dinner, and more for culture and the arts than for bridge and poker.’
My kind of place!
Tuning in, there is a persistent sense of amiability that is often lacking from the conventional retirement homes I have experienced. It was a place of laughter, rather than god’s waiting room.
Despite his unenviable reputation and the fact that he insisted on greeting everyone with injunction ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’, the Great Beast proved a popular addition to the Netherwood household. He had considerable charm, a pleasing personality and was very erudite, which helped make him a good companion and a stimulating talker. He had many long conversations about all manner of subjects with Vernon Symonds.
I go to a lot of haunted pubs. Okay, I go to a lot of pubs, but I actively seek out the haunted ones. This place had absolutely none of the restless, often hostile, energy associated with hauntings. Whilst I’m sure the staff may have stories of things moving in the basement, I can tell you right now that the spirit of place here is satisfied and amiable. (‘Satisfied’ is the word I got. Go figure.)
That is, assuming they are even aware of the history of the building. Most of the downstairs and the entire upstairs were booked for separate functions due to start later that day. I’m quite sure that none of the people attending a wedding reception or birthday party here are aware that Uncle Al left our realm from this very spot… and that delights me.
It echoes the layers of meaning you find at Bayham Old Abbey. It provides a lesson in the unfolding of meaning and place. And it makes secret again the goal of the initiates, it re-veils the holy of holies. In the spiritual quest, you can’t hide your own Easter eggs. You have to go looking.
This is the teaching I find written on the bones of the master, buried somewhere in a nether wood.