Whilst in Lincolnshire recently, we visited Kirkstead Abbey, near the village of Woodhall Spa. All that remains of the former Cistercian abbey is a great crag of masonry, standing forlornly in the middle of a farmer’s field.
England was once dotted with many such monasteries, the result of 1000 years of the monastic tradition, and they played an important part in the life of the surrounding communities. It was of course King Henry VIII who, assisted by Thomas Cromwell, dissolved the lot in the 1530s, pensioning off the monks, killing the awkward ones (including some from Kirkstead), taking the riches and the tithes that had gone to the pope, effectively vandalising the buildings and giving the land to his mates. It was of course all about money and power – removing the influence of the Pope and monks, and transferring it to Henry and his cronies.
Follow the unmade road across the field past the lonely crag, and you come to the little church of St Leonard’s Without, nestling among trees, now well and truly ‘out in the sticks’. This was once part of the Abbey building complex, but lay outside the walls, being used for services with the surrounding lay community – hence the ‘Without’. Presumably that is why the little church survived, as the local parish church.
Being isolated, the church is usually kept locked, a sign of the times, but happenstance sometimes comes along at just the right moment – more satisfyingly viewed as synchronicity. As we walked up to the church gate, a car drew up. It was the local vicar returning books. He was delighted to give us an impromptu tour of the interior. It really is one of those special little churches with a feeling of great reverence and peace.
Although built slightly later (13C) than the abbey (12C), its architecture gives a very good idea of what parts of the abbey would have looked like, and parts of the wooden rood screen are said to be original 13C.
Overall, a good and extremely compact example of Cistercian simplicity, which for me resulted in some of the supreme achievements of European architecture.
If you’re interested in visiting, go to the sharp bend in Abbey Road in Woodhall Spa. A sign offering loan of a key from a nearby dwelling suggests that you may not have to rely on synchronicity to gain entrance to the church.