Pandaemonium

FAITH IN RUINS

I recently visited Lindisfarne Priory. Set on Holy Island off the Northumberland coast (it was the Romans who first called it Insula Sacra), there is something quite otherworldly about the ruins. Part of what makes Lindisfarne so ethereal is that Holy Island is not quite an island. As Sir Walter Scott put it in his poem Marmion,

For, with the flow and ebb its stile
Varies from continent to isle

At high tide, Holy Island is an island. But at low tide, it is connected to the mainland by a causeway, driving along which, with the sea on either side, gives a sense of moving between worlds, as in a CS Lewis novel. The not-quite-one-or-other character swaddles the island, as Magnus Magnusson observes in his history of Lindisfarne, in ‘a curious sense of timelessness, of being in time but not entirely of it: a powerfully atmospheric impression of reserved isolation, a place where history and legend can still inform the here and now, a place where unreality softly tones the drabber colours of reality.’

Ruins possess a strange attraction because they are freighted with a particular burden of history. They are enveloped by an inevitable aura of melancholy. And most of all in every stone and crack and buttress is impressed a reminder of the transience of human life. That, perhaps, is why the most evocative of ruins are often those of churches and priories and abbeys and mosques and synagogues and temples. These were built as monuments to the sacred and the eternal. In their ruins we become witness to the very human character of faith.

So, here some of my favourite ruined churches around Britain. If Lindisfarne is perhaps the most evocative, Dryburgh Abbbey has possibly the most beautiful setting, on a bend of the River Tweed, near Kelso in the Scottish Borderts. But my personal favourite is St Dunstan in the East, in London. Nestled, almost unseen, in the shadow of the Gherkin and the Lloyd’s Building, it was originally built in the eleventh century, rebuilt by Christopher Wren after it had been damaged in the Great Fire of London, and then almost destroyed during the Blitz. The church remains today in ruins but within and around it has been created a wild and wonderful garden. The remaining windows are draped with Virginia creeper and ornamental vine. Inside the roofless walls thrive such exotic plants as Moroccan broom, New Zealand flax and Japanese snowball. The effect is quite enchanting.

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Lindisfarne Priory, Holy Island, Northumberland

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Dryburgh Abbey, Kelso

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St Dunstan in the East, London

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Fountains Abbey, Yorkshire

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St Benet’s Abbey, Norfolk

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For more photos see my photographic website Light Infusion, or Flickr or 500px.

6 comments

  1. I know that this is totally off topic, Kenan, but will you be commenting on the Rotherham scandal? It is difficult to underestimate the revulsion, anger and rage it has produced, and it seems to me that we’re approaching a very dangerous place. Also, the blatant racism and misogyny displayed by the Pakistani perpetrators towards their victims makes it difficult to see how Islam is not a factor in this outrage. Whether it’s Isis killing Yaziri men and raping their wives and daughters, or Pakistani grooming gangs raping and killing the infidel “gori slags” in Yorkshire, the crimes have one thing in common – and it isn’t Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Sikhism or Christianity.😦

    Qur’an 33:50—O Prophet! surely We have made lawful to you your wives whom you have given their dowries, and those whom your right hand possesses out of those whom Allah has given to you as prisoners of war …

    Whatever “moral compass” these animals have lost, it certainly wasn’t in the Qur’an to begin with.

    I, for one, am filled with unutterable loathing.

      • Harpreet Kaur

        Thanks, Kenan. I know you’ll be fair so here’s hoping you find the time.

        p.s. And sorry about spoiling your beautiful post. Those pictures haunt my imagination.

        Harpreet

  2. Simon Graham

    ‘a place where unreality softly tones the drabber colours of reality.’ I thought you caught this line well in your picture of St Dunstal. Wonderful post which has left an imprint. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Some beautiful images and a nice reminder of the landscapes of my homeland now that I’m far away from it. While I understand your point about the transience of human life and the humanity of faith laid bare in these ruins, as someone from a Christian tradition who still holds, however loosely, to it, I also find ruins such as these powerful testimony to the persistence and, more importantly, constant renewal of faith (though you and I will obviously see the source of that renewal in different terms.)

    One of my own photography projects many years ago was to record the small ‘gospel halls’ and independent churches that I grew up in Northern Ireland as they closed down or were taken over for other purposes. Ruins are truly poignant when the bear the signs of recent use – old hymnbooks still stacked in a corner or a faded or water stained biblical text painted on a wall. Yet the faith that sustained these places, however transiently, is now located in other, newer places, in new forms and among a new generation.

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