Kirkstall Abbey and the Tractate Middoth
For the first time in what seems ages, I found I had a day to myself today. Now I do like spending time with people, especially if it involves a good talk over coffee. But I also like to have regular time to myself, so today felt like a bit of a treat and I decided to take advantage of it.
I took a walk to one of my favourite places in Leeds: Kirkstall Abbey. Generally speaking, I’m not a one for churches. York Minster and St Paul’s left me cold. I love the Abbey though. It’s a genuinely beautiful ruin. I imagine that historians have a fair idea of how it would have looked when it was still a working monastery. But to be honest, I’m not very interested in that. I think it’s perfect the way it is now.
The Abbey was founded in 1152 by Cistercian monks and became an important part of Yorkshire life. It was closed in 1539 by the order of the Henry VIII and began its inevitable transition into a ruin. It’s become a very recognisable landmark, featuring in various paintings and it sometimes plays host to markets and dramatic performances.
It’s great fun to explore, full of cloisters, arches and columns. It’s also a very peaceful place. Perfect for contemplation and dreams. It may have been a home to religion once but to me, here in the 21st Century, it’s a landscape of the imagination.
In a way, being in the Abbey reminds me of the feelings described by Urban Explorers who break into abandoned buildings. Some of them are interested in the history and want to connect with the stories of past lives. Others want to experience these places in their new, altered state. I sympathise with the second viewpoint. For me, it’s all about the experience.
A monastic ruin is also, of course, the perfect setting for reading some classic horror. Recently I’ve been enjoying the collected ghost stories of MR James. The main reason these ended up on my Kindle was the excellent adaption of one of his tales, The Tractate Middoth, that the BBC showed at Christmas.
The stories generally work to a formula of a scholar of some description chancing upon clues to a secret from the past, unleashing terrible powers and only just escaping with his – it almost always is his – life. MR James’ world is full of ruined buildings, old books and mysterious artefacts. Up to a point, they are all highly predictable. What I love about these stories is that we only ever glimpse the monsters that haunt his world. Usually they are very physical things, hairy and crawling. Even after their secrets have been revealed,so much about them remains unexplained. Often they are left at the end of the story to go about their beastly business and presumably terrify more touring scholars close to death. Those glimpses though, however fleeting, are marvellous.
Sitting in a ruined abbey, reading ghost stories. What a perfect way to spend an afternoon.