Sunday, August 11, 2013

Border Abbeys — Jedburgh Abbey

Jedburgh Abbey is my favorite of the three Border Abbey ruins (Kelso, Jedburgh, and Dryburgh) that we visited last weekend. I wish the abbey was more remote, but it is surrounded by the town almost as much as Kelso Abbey. Nevertheless, it strikes a commanding pose on the hill leading down to the river, made more so by the sky and trees peeking through the symmetrical stacked rows of arches. The two long walls of arches rounded Romanesque arches on the (older) bottom and slightly pointed early Gothic arches on the (newer) top makes up the bulk of the view, with partly intact towers on both ends.

Blue sky and trees peeking through the open arches of Jedburgh Abbey.
It typically took more than 100 years to build a massive structure like this. Between the founding of Jedburgh Abbey and its completion, it got caught between the older Romanesque style of rounded arches on the bottom and the newer Gothic style of pointed arches on the top.
Archeological digs have excavated the footings of other parts of the abbey, including the cloisters and the cellars. The abbey was founded in 1138 and expanded over time, cascading down the hill toward the river. The audioguide available at the entrance provides some useful information. These many small rooms and low walls are great for young ones to climb and explore.

Not much remains of the various work buildings.
Only parts of the cellars are left.
The best view, however, is standing alone in the middle of the nave with no one else around. The walls of stacked arches stretch skyward, but no roof remains to meet them. It's slightly wondrous that these nearly 900 year old walls stand as straight and intact as they do without a roof to brace them, approximately 450 years after the abbey's destruction during the "Rough Wooing" period between England and Scotland. They don't even seem to lean much, which I guess must be due to their characteristically thick Romanesque bases.

Looking down the nave of Jedburgh Abbey.
Another great view can be found by climbing a narrow winding staircase inside one of the towers. You can see some of the fine architectural details best from this height, such as the skilled masonry involved in creating the arches. I was reminded a bit of an ancient Roman aqueduct, like Pont du Gard in southern France.

View down the nave from within the tower.
One of the best things about these ruins is the ability to focus on the architecture of the structure. The interior clutter statutes, shrines, candles, organs, altars, etc. of an intact cathedral or church has been stripped away. The stained glass windows are gone. All that is left is the form and stonework. While I love all the details and colors and vibrancy you can find in intact cathedrals and churches, I found the starkness of Jedburgh Abbey refreshing and clarifying.

Each stone had to be quarried, handcrafted into an exact shape and size, and then lifted into place.
No clutter distracts from the form and architectural details.
Jedburgh Abbey is a ruin I could happily visit multiple times, enjoying its structure and angles and blank spaces. Ideally, I'd go at sunrise or sunset, though the opening and closing times don't facilitate such visits except during the short daylight hours of a Scottish winter. The kid in me wants to hop the fence at sunset and set up a tent inside the nave, watching the light fade, maybe set a campfire to watch the resulting shadows, and sleep gazing up between the walls at the stars.

Backlit arches.
We had the abbey mostly to ourselves, even on a summer weekend afternoon. A handful of people also wandered the grounds. As we left the Jedburgh Abbey ruins, Grammar remarked she thought she might like ruined abbeys even more than the intact ones. Kate agreed. Do I agree? I straddle the fence, loving both kinds of experiences. For me, not much is more awe-inspiring than entering a massive cathedral like Notre Dame in Paris or St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. But I can feel more moved, perhaps more spiritual, in bare, quiet ruins.

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