It has been a very mixed few days. Not in terms of weather. For Britain that has been remarkably stable. Dry, sunny and warm. Very pleasant indeed. It hasn’t yet lasted quite long enough for people to start complaining about it. In fact I passed the time of day with one bloke out cycling along the river bank with his young daughter who ventured the opinion (the bloke not the daughter) that it would be nice to have this heatwave until September. If only!!! Temperatures of 24 in April are pretty good by any standards.
No, it has been mixed in terms of my rambling around the North of England. And rambling around in my head.
Friday I ambled along the river on the Trans Pennine Trail. Not that I reached the Pennines because I was ambling in the opposite direction. It seemed that all the world and his dog (and his kids and his bike) were out enjoying the amazingly Good Friday Weather. Blazing sunshine. Shorts very much in evidence. Young families paddling in the river at canoe access points (Don’t let those two amazing things pass you by: 1 – the local council provides and equips canoe access points 2 – the Mersey is now clean enough to swim in, unheard of when I lived up here. The quality of Mersey is now strained – or at least filtered).
As if to echo the joi de vivre of the afternoon I came across some kind of pumping station on the river bank which has been painted like I’ve never seen a utilitarian building before. Whoever is responsible – “Thank you!!”
On Saturday I took my life in my hands once again and crossed into Yorkshire, this time on the train. I reckon this must be about the 10th visit I have made to Yorkshire in my life. Who said Lancastrians are narrow minded!
I went to see a girl I met on the internet. Well alright, don’t be too shocked, I met up with friends Enfys and I made in Greece a few years ago having had an e-mail exchange about ferry timetables. It was a very good day.
I got there towards the end of the morning and after a sandwich we went to Roche Abbey on the outskirts of Rotherham. With blue sky, green lawns laid out by Capability Brown no less, some significant bits of extant structures considered among the most beautiful styles of Medieval architecture, and a river flowing through the site it was very attractive.
But to me abbeys, cathedrals and the like are always pose a dilemma. On the one hand there is the thought that these grand architectural monuments are built with on the back of a forcibly tithed population which can ill-afford it. On the other hand religious institutions provided an order and structure for society, considerable employment and artistic achievement. So what is the balance? A force for good or ill? I guess there is no single answer, it depends upon the particular institution and the circumstances.
I’m no expert on the history of monasticism but I know that the Cistercians arrived from France shortly after William the Conqueror and established many abbeys in Britain, principally in Yorkshire, Scotland and Wales. The arrival of the Normans meant a major change in the structure of society to a feudal, very hierarchical system, with the land and its people carved up between Norman overlords who maintained law and order often brutally. Perhaps an irony is that one of the two Norman landowners giving land to create Roche Abbey was one Richard de Bully.
The Cistercians based their order on a return to the strict observance of the Rule of St Benedict with its emphasis on ‘work and prayer’, especially manual field labour. They valued self sufficiency rather than dependence on an exploited population and supported themselves principally by agriculture and brewing. By modern standards they were quite enlightened and liberal for their time.
Along with other such monastic orders the Cistercians became a very powerful, multinational economic force based on great agricultural wealth. They had monasteries and therefore agricultural operations across much of Europe including France, Britain, Ireland, Italy Spain, Portugal, the Balkans and Poland. This was part of the cause of their eventual downfall as they came into conflict with the secular state both because of their economic wealth and their control over people. In Britain the end was accelerated by the Reformation.
But one can’t help wonder about the modern equivalent, multinational corporations controlling the lives and destinies of populations to a much greater extent than the state as well as controlling vast areas of land and property. In this modern battle between governments and the controllers of wealth, governments seem singularly incapable of keeping such institutions under control.
I digress. It was a very enjoyable amble around the remains of Roche Abbey ….. until the thunderstorm by which time we had arrived back at the car.