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.
Lindisfarne Priory, Holy Island, Northumberland
Dryburgh Abbey, Kelso
St Dunstan in the East, London
Fountains Abbey, Yorkshire