Monday, 6 September 2010

A very personal ramble...

I am lucky that in my work I get to ramble all over the country and also to see many wonderful sites and to meet many interesting people. Not long ago for example I was up in North Yorkshire at Mount Grace Priory. Once the home for Carthusian Monks and although I've visited and worked at many a monastic site, I have never worked at one quite like this....

Plan of Carthusian 'Cells' at Mount Grace Priory

East range of monks 'cells' at Mount Grace

Unlike most priories where Monks slept together in a dormitory or had their own small basic cell, the Carthusians at Mount Grace had their own private dwellings and gardens, and when not praying in the church, or in Chapter spent all their time alone. Even the serving hole set into each house was built with a right angled turn in it so that the Monks could not set eyes upon the lay brothers who served them...

Entrance to the reconstructed cell at Mount Grace
(Note the serving hatch to the right of the door)

Looking into ground floor of cell

Looking out from ground floor of cell

The separate bedchamber

Separate Scriptorium

Upstairs workroom with spinning wheel and loom

Reconstructed furniture in cell

Detail of 'adzed' door

There is a reconstructed 'cell' at Mount Grace that allows us a insight into the Monks private lives that is little seen elsewhere, and no expense has been spared. Even the reconstructed furniture, and doors are cut and shaped with an adze, just as they would have been over 600 years ago when the priory was founded.

Monk's private garden

Water supply into covered garden area

Monk's personal loo!

And even better are the very personal survivals from that time, like marks upon the doorstep leading out into the Monk's private garden; said to be where a Monk once split kindling for his fire. A very personal touch indeed and one that brings us closer to the a real person from the past......

Doorstep leading out to garden
(Note the marks said to be from Monks chopping kindling)

But does it really? I for one wouldn't mind living in that reconstructed cell even today and I can't help thinking that for a poor person long ago, such well appointed living quarters would have seemed like a palace. And not just to a poor cottager, but also to many a Monk from a different Order who didn't have the luxury of his own fire to chop kindling for! The consensus is then that many of the Monks at Mount Grace were rich men or their second sons, whose dedication to a less materialistic, spiritual life only went so far. And so for many it was a case of from Medieval Manor to cloistered life that they went with little knowledge of the harshness of the real world. And I for one find it difficult to know such people.....

Model of individual Monk's cells and gardens

From there I passed a brown sign with the words 'Ancient Church" written on it, pointing towards a small village called Kirk Hammerton and intrigued I followed. Only to find a Saxon Church which now survives as an aisle of a Victorian nave and chancel that in complete contrast to the bare stone walls of the Saxon nave now aisle is decorated in the high church fashion; full of wistful Pre-Raphaelite Angels. The Saxon Church is early and was built before 950 AD, and both the large stonework and its site on a high knoll point to it having an even earlier foundation....

St John the Baptist's Church, Kirk Hammerton

St Johns with later Victorian west end (Far right)

Like a lot of ancient sites it does have a certain atmosphere and as Esotericus once demonstrated at Norwich Castle, the walls whisper to you, if you know what to listen for! Certainly the locals whisper, for like many an ancient site the Church of St John the Baptist at Kirk Hammerton has many a story connected with it. Including the widely held belief that many of those slain at the battle of Marston Moor (1644) were buried in pits in the churchyard....

Large stonework, typical of Saxon churches

Original Saxon North Doorway

St John the Baptist tower with original Saxon doorway

It certainly is a great place to go if you want to get a 'feel' for the Anglo Saxons and the times they lived in. For one thing the great stone work and small almost defensive original windows point to the buildings many uses. Not only a place of worship, but perhaps a place of sanctuary during unsettled times. So once again although we might get a feel for the times they lived in can we really know these people? For however hard our lives today there are few of us who now understand the rigors and uncertainties of life over 1000 years ago, whether it take the form of famine, disease or pillage. Unlike the Monks of Mount Grace these people knew well enough that harshness of the real world, but to such a degree that I cannot comprehend.....

Part of original Saxon Chancel Arch, St John the Baptist

And so the journey continues to Rochester in down Kent and its Castle and Cathedral. It would be hard I think to find anywhere else in the country that has such a complete Norman Keep and Cathedral.....

Rochester Castle

The three floors of Rochester Castle

Rochester Cathedral at dawn

The Cathedral would give any fan of Romanesque architecture palpitations, a great word I think, although in truth the various architectural styles mean little to me. All I know is that the Cathedral has an honesty about it and it's not too frilly, which will do me! I was lucky enough to be able to explore it at 7.30 in the morning when first it opened its doors and I was alone with only my footsteps for company.....

Detail from the Romanesque West Front of Rochester Cathedral

Its bare aisles appealed to me for they worked well with the simple Norman arches and arcading of the nave. Although what surprised me was the lack of ancient memorial, with most dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. I found only two Tudor memorials and both were in poor condition. I read a sign that said that part of the nave burnt down in the early 14th century, but they rebuilt it in the earlier style. This was unusual, because often such a disaster would be just the excuse needed to rebuild in the latest fashions. I had wondered if the reversion to the old was due to a far sighted Bishop who bemoaned the loss of earlier styles, but no. It was simply that they didn't have enough money. But what was probably galling for a 14th century Bishop is good for us and has left us with what I think is an almost unique building. But does it tell us anything about us?....

The Romanesque 'Norman' nave of Rochester

Plain aisles packed full of eighteenth century memorials

Again I have to say no, for both Castle and Cathedral were above all else about Norman dominance, built, owned and controlled by Normans to aid in the subjugation of the Saxons. You only have to look at the church at Kirk Hammerton and remember that it was probably the biggest and most solid structure in any Anglo Saxon community, to understand the symbolic significance of the Rochester Castle and Cathedral. And looking at artistic reconstructions of the Castle within the old Keep it's easy to see that the privleged few who lived and visited there lived a life of luxury, far removed from the experience of most living in England at that time. It is then difficult to know these people....

One of the few Tudor memorials in Rochester

I thought I would have more luck searching through the town and was rewarded with a plaque, a memorial set up upon an ancient house that celebrates the charity of on Richard Watts who in 1579 founded a charity whereby, 6 poor travelers, not being rouges or proctors would receive a bed for the night, entertainment and 4 whole pence! Watts was it seems a kind man and his personal kindness makes him knowable or at least someone we might like to know. Except that his gesture was double edged and he had no shame in admitting that it was as much, In testimony to his munificence, as ever it was a concern for the poor. Here is a man whose overriding concern was with the maintenance of his honour and demonstrating to all that he was someone of importance in the City. I for one do not know what that's like and so I can't really know Watts...

Nineteenth century copy of sixteenth century memorial

And so sometimes our rambles can lead to many wonderful sites, and many interesting people, but it is more difficult to follow in the footsteps of those who have gone before. We can imagine, but often no more than that. Occasionally however a ramble can be a very personal adventure indeed. For just a few miles down the road from Rochester is the tiny village of Egerton, a small place set on a rise overlooking fields and orchards. And in the village is a pleasant but non discript church, yet in the churchyard are some ancient grave stones, one of which belongs to my great, great, great, great, great, great grandparents, Stephen and Ann.......

Eighteenth century graves in Egerton churchyard, Kent

He died in 1795 aged 79 and she in 1801 aged 85. I know from transcriptions that they are there, but now the stones are too worn to tell which plot is theirs. I have to admit to being disappointed at first, for I was like a treasure hunter looking for the X that marked the spot. But then I stopped, for seeing that the search was a futile one I took time to explore the church and village and realised that many of the sites and even experiences that they would have enjoyed like the beautiful view that went on and on for miles as you left the village traveling South, or the sweet smell of Honeysuckle that filled the evening air as I searched close by the spot where I know they were buried - These are things I too enjoy and in that way I can and do know them.

+Many Coats+


  1. I feel the need to point out that in general terms I believe that people in the past were not that different to us. There were many who like me long ago did not like to gap between the haves and the have nots. And though I am different to Watts in that I don't inhabit the modern equivalent of his world, I like Watts and indeed many people today, like to show off once in a while. For as a friend recently said, "If you don't blow your own trumpet, it'll go rusty"! Wise words indeed and what we in the Norwich branch of the Ragged Ramblers like to call, 'Doing a Robert Gybson...

    +Many Coats+

  2. Ahhhhh so this is where you lit out to.. Breat blog as usual. I have bookmarked you on this site.

  3. Hello again Scratch, its been a long time. Perhaps you could add some Rambles from your neck of the woods?

    +Many Coats+

  4. A wonderful rambling post Mr. Many Coats. I recently read a book ("Cloister Abbot & Precinct") where the author, Michael Thompson, describes the Carthusians as being in revolt against (Benedictine) communality. He adds that the ascetic demands of their solitary devotions restricted the numbers of their houses due to low recruitment.

    By the way, I did get palpitations when I saw Rochester Cathedral - not least because, in those turrets I see architectural influences from the Holy Roman empire... a pleasing thing to me. I particularly like the 'Rochester Cathedral at dawn' photo. Very atmospheric.

  5. I did consider the 'ascetic demands' placed on the Carthusian Order when writing this post Esotericus, and I'm sure it was demanding, but still I think a solid choice for anyone who might not want to mix with the great mass or live uncomfortably.

    I too like the Rochester picture, because it reminds me how wonderful it is to be up early, although I soon forget again!

    +Many Coats+

  6. Never met many monks, now I come to think of it, but s'pose you wouldn't, would you? Not exactly out & about, monks... praying or chopping wood or something. Never appealed, the monk idea. It's the sandals, I think, never quite trust a chap in sandals, somehow.
    But if you had to be, second son an' all, well, these Cartooson boys seem to have the best of it there. Never could stand blasted dormitories, rather only have to put up with me own farts, what? Besides, did you see the little filly that came with the place? Now that's worth a prayer or two...


  7. Hands off my friend-She is spoken for and don't knock sandals for I was once the proud owner of some 'Jesus creepers'! I did see a monk once in Florence and got very excited. I also saw some very old Nuns on a bridge in Rome who were being followed by a young novice who scurried along behind them looking worried. I smiled at her and she smiled back...

    +Many Coats+