Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Three 'A's in one day

A shiningly summery morning. No question of lolling around writing up Miss Florence de Courcy for Victorian Vocalists. Today had to be a jaunt with Red Fred. But where to? Perhaps Seaview, at last? Or maybe I should really try one or two of the ex-grand houses which, research had revealed, have now been converted to ‘other uses’. A hurried glimpse at the Internet, and I was no nearer solving my trilemma until I hit www.rydeiow.co.uk and found there some pictures of Quarr Abbey. An abbey? Oh, a ruined abbey, and a 20th century replacement. Errrr. Well, nothing else appealed, so why not.
And thus it was that I headed back up the roads I’d covered yesterday, towards Osborne, through a Wootton Bridge which has obviously grown a heap since my map was printed and – thanks to some elegant golden signposts which glinted so much in the sun you couldn’t read them – wiggled my way without error into the Abbey carpark.

Alfred Hitchcock couldn’t have staged it better. You follow the golden directions on foot from the carpark and, coming round the corner, there it is. A startling, splendid, amazing edifice that – for all that it is a Catholic Benedictine Abbey -- definitely has some airs of the Alhambra about it. Great stuff. Grand stuff. But … could one go inside? I tried the door and found a notice about taking confession. Oh heavens, that much time I didn’t have. And then someone opened the door from the inside. Tourists, like me. I slid quietly in and … well, I crumbled.
What absolute, stunning, heart-halting beauty.
I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of churches, of all shapes, sizes and ages, during my half a century of travels round the world. But I can honestly say I’ve never seen one more beautiful, more awe-inspiring, more .. well, somehow more Godly, than this twentieth-century one. I’m not even going to attempt to describe it, because I – would you believe it – just don’t have the words. Go and see for yourself.
I was almost ashamed to take a photo, but I did. And here it is. It doesn’t do the place justice. Nothing could.

I wanted so much to see someone .. one of the brothers, perhaps .. with whom I could share my wonderment but, alas, there was no-one around. And, then, aren’t the Benedictines a silent order? Oh, dear, they wouldn’t think much of me! Anyway, I salved my greed by babbling on, instead, to the two other Tourists, as we headed off together to look at the ruins of this abbey’s predecessor. And then, by babbling, all over again, to the occupant of the 18th century house built next those ruins. Poor man, he was trying to read his book in peace..
Back in the car, I soused down half a litre of mineral water and, duly cooled in throat and brain, revved up. Where to? What could possibly follow that? Seaview would have to await another day.
I turned Fred homewards. But a little mis-mapreading (or overconfidence) led me where I had not intended to go. For the umpteenth time, I came upon the sign for Arreton Manor, and then that for Appledurcombe House. Two of the places I had crossed off my shopping list as being undoubtedly ‘not my scene’. So I decided to ‘do’ them both, and be done with it.
The two houses, or properties, are actually very different, the one to the other, and very differently run.

Arreton Manor (above, and with a capital M) is, like so many old buildings, a hotch-potch house including some bits of certain degrees of antiquity and others which I suspect are C19th alterations masquerading as something earlier. It’s owned privately, and the owner is making great and decidedly attractive attempts to recreate a multi-tiered C17th garden of some considerable envergure. For your five pounds you get to walk through his gardens-in-progress, and then ‘take a tour’ of the house. Of five rooms of the house, to be exact.
I knew I was in trouble when the guide turned up in fancy dress. Fifty minutes of approximate history, wishful architecture and iffy stories, whilst standing dumbly in each of the five rooms in turn, and I was ready to scream. Oh, the reason we saw only five rooms is – as we were forcefully reminded several times -- that the rest of the place is being run as a B&B. Carry me back to Hermitage Court Farm.

Appledurcombe (above) has also gone in for accommodation. More, it features an owl and falcon sanctuary, giving exhibitions by birds of prey, and it hosts ‘events’. It is also under the wing of English Heritage. And, my goodness, did the difference show. The accommodation was in a park down the road. The falconry, too, was in a field apart (and very well patronised). Thus, Appledurcombe House, magnificent amid its neatly mowed green lawns, was there to be enjoyed unalloyed (three pounds fifty, guide, optional … phew!).
The big difference, however, which I had not pre-realised, was that Appledurcombe House is uninhabited. In fact, it is a ruin. And its story is a tragic one of real estate greed.

A splendid small exhibit tells you the story of the Worsley family (them, again!) who built the place, of its heydays and of its decline and fall, after their time, into latter day use as a school and .. good heavens, this is where the monks of Quarr Abbey first came, in 1901, when they quit France for England! Those Benedictines are following me around! I’m glad they left, or we would not have had Quarr Abbey, but this must have been a beautiful house in its prime and even in their day. Why did they leave? Lousy landlord, it appears. Wouldn’t fix the roof, and so forth. What an idiot. Why buy a beautiful house and let it die? Surely it could have made an Edwardian B&B!
(I take that back).

So, a day of ‘A’s. Abbey, Arreton and Appledurcombe. But in my book the ‘A’ grade goes by a million miles to Quarr Abbey. An absolute ‘must’ for anyone coming to the Isle of Wight who has a heart and a soul with which to wonder.
Goodness me, after Carisbrooke Priory and now Quarr Abbey, is this heathen old reprobate starting to find himself altogether too susceptible to the earthly manifestations of the Christian church?
I think not. I think, perhaps, it is just that goodness shines from stones and bricks as well as from hearts and faces. As it certainly did, for me, today.

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