Thursday, 11 March 2010

Waverley Abbey

A few miles walk out of Farnham town, up a leafy road beyond the railway station, will bring you to the fringes of Moor Park - a large, white-painted, early 18th century, country house which was the seat of Sir William Temple.

Temple - though famous in his own right - is these days more famous as the employer of the young Jonathan Swift, who came to Moor Park from Dublin to be Sir William's private secretary - Swift's first job outside of Ireland.

Running past the front entrance of Moor Park is a narrow and sandy lane, which skirts the marshy fringes of the estate. At the end of the lane - which terminates at the entrance and lodge-house of Waverley Abbey - is a small cottage which was the home of 'Stella', the young girl who Swift fell in love with and wrote poetry about during his stay with Temple. Even in his infatuation, Swift held a firm grasp on reality. At the end of a long and florid poem in which Swift extols the purity and beauty of Stella, he added the final words, "... but Stella shits..."

In medieval times, when the abbey was still active, a woman herbalist and hermit lived in the mouth of a cave, about halfway down the lane. She was known as Mother Ludlam, and her cauldron is displayed at the church in Tilford, a few miles away. The foundations of her house are still to be seen on the floor of the cave, and a bright stream issues from the back of it, falling down the hill to the carp lake of the monastery. An inventive monk diverted the stream using the Roman technology of lead-piping, in order to provide the Abbey with fresh water.

Higher up on the sand bank overlooking Mother Ludlam's 'hole', there is a smaller cave - just big enough to lie down in, and this was the home of another recluse called Father Foote. These days, he would be considered a 'care in the community' case (or 'scare' in the community, as my friend calls them), but then he was tolerated by the locals, despite his shouting abuse at them whenever they passed below. He fell ill in old age, and was taken to Farnham to die in comfort. His last words were, "Take me back to the cave..."

The abbey is now a melancholy ruin, and has been the subject of many works of art - the 'Waverley' novels being a famous example. The whole area is deeply magical and steeped in history, now populated with what used to be known as stock-brokers, etc., but even they cannot break the spell.

I worked as a mason on Farnham Castle, and in those days, public projects like that were run by the 'Ministry of Works', which has now been superseded by English Heritage, who are the current guardians of Waverley Abbey. I also worked on the abbey, albeit briefly, and I will always regret arriving just too late to witness an amazing sight there, as told to me by my boss at the time.

They had discovered a lead coffin in the grounds, and - because it was in such good condition - they had decided to open it up and take a look at the mortal remains of it's inhabitant, an abbot who had been sealed up sometime in the 12th or 13th century.

A team of archeologists began prising away at the seal on the lead lid, and when they broke it, there was a loud hiss as air rushed into the void which had been in a state of vacuum for around 700 years. When they lifted the lid away, they could not believe what they saw.

The abbot lay in the coffin, looking like he had died a matter of a few days ago. There was colour in his cheeks and his hair was well combed and glossy. His plump hands were placed on his chest and held a small flower which looked as though it had been picked a day before.

As they watched, and within a couple of minutes, the entire cadaver, it's clothing and the flower turned into colourless dust which fell and settled around the skeleton on the floor of the lead box, like the final scene in a Hammer Horror 'Dracula' film.


  1. I seem to remember that the sand bank by Mother Ludlam's gaff was also home to hundreds of Sand Martins.

    Love the story of the lead coffin. I think there's a film script in there somewhere.

  2. I never witnessed Sand Martins.

    Sadly, the film script has already been covered (by Hammer Films...).

  3. P.S. I have written an entire (almost) fictional book which covers all this and more, so if there are any film rights involved, then bags I the first shout.

  4. Fabulous story. And also fascinating to discover that you are a denizen of Farnham. We spent a while looking for a house there -a nd still may do again. In this virtual world that makes us practically neighbours. Nice to have found your blog.

  5. Thank you DWC. It's been a while since I lived near Farnham, but I hope you visit Somerset soon.

  6. Tom, I wonder if you remember the name of that architect/builder who built several fabulous half-timbered houses around Farnham, using bits from old ships, windmills, barns, etc? We lived very near to one at Dippenhall. I've been trying to remember his name for yonks!

  7. Yes - it was (Sir?) William Faulkner, I seem to remember. Difficult to remember, because it is the same as that American novelist.

  8. No it wasn't, it was Harold Falkner - easy to remember because it's nothing like the American novelist with an entirely different name.

  9. Thank you. Amazing buildings!