Waverley Abbey, Surrey

Founded in 1128 by the Bishop of Winchester, this was the first abbey in England where monks of the Cistercian order settled. Although it ranked as an important abbey, from the point of view that six daughter-houses were founded from Waverley, in itself it was a relatively small and plain monastery. Today, however, in the meadow setting beside the River Wey, the slowly-crumbling ruins of this almost-forgotten monastery still retain their sense of timelessness.

With very little of the church now visible, it is difficult to determine the ground plan, but a section of the square chancel, showing three lancet windows, help with the understanding of simplicity and austerity that was apparent at Waverley Abbey.

Perhaps the most noteworthy fragment of this abbey to remain standing is the undercroft of the lay brothers refectory. A good section of 13th century vaulting still exists, supported by slender columns with circular capitals. The south gabled end stands almost to full height, displaying two pairs of lancet windows at the lowest level, with a single traceried window above each pair, and a central round window between those.

By comparison to many of the most important abbeys which, built of smooth sandstone in various colours looked invitingly warm and elegant, Waverley Abbey looks sadly stark and drab with its walls dressed in rough flintwork. As Waverley Abbey was a significant starting point in the Cistercian movement, I find it remarkable that this abbey lacks the ornateness of Tintern Abbey, the enormity of Rievaulx Abbey and the wealth of Fountains Abbey. Notwithstanding these factors, Waverley Abbey ruins do possess a strange and thought-provoking quality, and the site provides a tranquil arena for the imagination to piece together what transpired nearly 900 years ago.


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