Waverley Abbey


I hope all of you in the States are enjoying Labor Day!  We took a little day trip this past Saturday to enjoy the lovely weather (likely to be the last warm weekend over here) and explored the area of Farnham. It’s 42 miles to the southwest of London, in Surrey (and yes, Alex sang the song from Oklahoma several times throughout the day).  Luckily, since we’re already on the SW side of town, we could jump on a train to Woking, and then change for a train to Aldershot.

Farnham is a really nice little town, with a lively town centre and a really great park. We went up to see the famous castle (that’s a separate post!) and then had a picnic lunch in the park. We’ve discovered that it’s quite easy to dash into the local store (usually Sainsbury’s or M&S Simply Food) and grab the makings of a quick lunch. Some crackers, bread, and fruit makes for a nice midday meal.

Then we started walking. “It’s just a few miles down this road…” said Alex.  “I think there’s a sidewalk for most of it…”  Ha!  Before you know it, we were on this tiny, winding, narrow, with-speeding-traffic road, and when we weren’t dodging cars, we were being harassed by the horses. Seriously! A couple of really cute ponies came right up to the fence and demanded some fresh grass. I really regret having eaten all of my apple for lunch, because I’m sure they would have loved a tasty treat.

Finally, after trekking through the wilderness for what felt like ages, we came upon Waverley Abbey. And despite the near-death experience of getting there, it was totally worth it. The entrance is off the main road, and then through some fields (with cows). There’s a lovely little lake, and a charming stone bridge (which is the private property of the big mansion house on the other side of the lake).

After you walk down the road of many little deaths, past the ravenous horses, through the fields of intimidating bovines, and beyond the bridge of stone, then you get to the turnstyle. Yes, indeed, there was a rusty old turnstyle in the middle of the field. It was totally adorable. In the distance you can see the ruins of Waverley Abbey. Finally!

Waverley Abbey was the very first Cistercian abbey in all of England. It was founded in 1128 by William Gifford, the Bishop of Winchester. That same year, Geoffrey of Anjou married Matilda, daughter of Henry I of England (who went on to fight Stephen for the crown and cause a major civil war). This story is told by Sharon Kay Penman beginning with When Christ and His Saints Slept, a thoroughly excellent book.

This aerial view (from here) shows the ruins as they currently stand. Apparently the abbey was quite large, with a thriving group of monks and lay brothers inhabiting this little bit of land. By 1187 there were 70 monks and 120 lay brothers living here; they founded six separate monasteries.  The picture is an artistic rendering of what the site would have looked like in the 12th century, with many buildings and a large church.

The River Wey curves around the site, and while the river provided fresh water, it also posed a flood risk.  You can see the River Wey today, filled with lily pads and flowers. (There is strictly no fishing.)

This the lay brother’s refectory, where the lay brothers would gather and eat. The upper storey was the dormitory, where the lay brothers slept in a long hall. The monks probably used the lower-class lay brothers for most of the hard work, including working the fields and supporting the monks. The abbey is recorded to have had 30 ploughs!

King John visited Waverley Abbey in 1209. This is the same year that he was excommunicated by the Pope, so presumably he visited before the order was published, or that the local Abbey decided that royal largesse was more important than the distant Pope!

In 1210 King John persecuted the monks of the Cistercian Order, and the abbot of Waverley was forced to sneak away in the middle of the night. (From a Google book scan, here).  But John soon relented, and a year later restored the money (if not the dignity) to the Cistercians. He had quite a tenuous relationship with the Church!

In 1225 King Henry III visited Waverley. It was just before Christmas (Dec 17, to be exact) and while there he was “admitted to the fraternity”.  I don’t really know what that means, but I’m assuming it’s something involving sacred rights and rituals, and maybe some dancing virgins.

In the year 1240 Waverley was big news, because a young man arrived at the monk’s doorstep and was accepted as a cobbler for the abbey, but he was wanted for murder by the local sheriff. The monks protested the man’s arrest, saying that the Abbey was a “house of God” and therefore inviolate.  The argument didn’t stand, and the cobbler was taken to prison. The monks decided to protest, and sent their Abbot to the king; they also decided to forego the divine service until the man was freed! This appears to have convinced the King that the man was innocent, and he was returned to Waverley. But the monks were not satisfied, and they forced the Sargeant-at-Arms and his men who arrested the cobbler to be publicly whipped, “for the good of their souls!”

Foundations for a new church were laid in 1230, and the building was consecrated in 1231. Repeated flooding made it necessary to build on higher ground, and the new church was better positioned away from the River Wey.

You can see the remains of one small fireplace in the wall, and I can only assume that Waverley was bitterly cold in the winter! It appears that someone has used the fireplace more recently, as the ash was quite new. Supposedly the site closes at sunset, but I can only imagine that teenagers come here to hang out in the evenings.

By the end of the thirteenth century Waverley Abbey was losing importance. The Waverley Annals were written around this time, and are in the Cottonian collection at the British Library. The annals stop in 1298, but are an important source for information from this time.

Apparently there was still some stained glass in these windows up until the 19th century, even though the rest of the site was badly overgrown with weeds and ivy. It’s too bad that the windows were not preserved.

The abbey is a popular site for a picnic with the kids, and we saw lots of children running around the climbing all over the ruins. Part of me wanted to yell at them to stop, because this is an important site that should be preserved, but then Alex reminded me that ruins like this are very common in Europe. Perhaps it’s okay to have one or two for children to explore … I’m sure English Heritage would block the site if it became unsafe, or was too important to risk.

This was the coolest looking tree I think I’ve ever seen. The root system is crazy! Alex said it looked really creepy, and he refuses to post for a picture on it.

When we walked around the corner, it got even cooler, because you can see that the tree has grown over the remains of the foundation wall.  That puts things in perspective regarding time, don’t you think?

Waverley Abbey was formally dissolved by Henry VIII, but by then there were only a few dozen monks living at the site. It’s revenues at dissolution were a piddly £184.14s.11d, which runs to be about £60,000 today. That’s not very much. No wonder the abbey was dissolved under the resolution to close all religious sites worth less than £200.

After the Abbey was closed, the grounds were sold to William Fitz William. Many of the stones were carted off for use in other buildings, and the 750 acres of land were split up a number of times. Eventually the site was bought by Florence Nightingale’s family, and she visited the area  number of times.  Apparently the site was also considered vitally important in World War II, as the River Wey provided a break point in any potential advance up the Wey Valley into London. There are still anti-tank bunkers visible near the carpark.

And after all that, I’m sure you’re really curious as to how we got home! You can be sure that I didn’t walk back up that scary road! Luckily there was a hail & ride bus, and we hitched along to Guildford, where we caught the train for home. Overall it was a fantastic day. These kinds of outings are perfect for us because Alex loves the transit and the trains to get there, and I love the actual sites. It’s the best of both worlds.


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Posted on 06/09/2010, in Castles & Cathedrals, Exploring the UK, travel and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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