Wight Life

Sanctity in Brick

by Joyce Eley

PASSENGERS ON THE FERRY BOAT as they approach Ryde Pier can hardly fail to notice the brick towers of Quarr Abbey rising serenely above the trees. Perhaps they sometimes wonder why it was built of brick, since the very name Quarr suggests the local quarry at Binstead, which supplied the stone for the first Abbey.

This abbey, founded in 1132 by Baldwin de Redvers, Earl of Devon and Lord of the Isle of Wight, was one of the earliest Cistercian monasteries to be established in England. The local stone was of such good quality it was even shipped across to the mainland for the building of Winchester Cathedral. Yet, today all that remains of this once splendid monastery is a crumbling ruin; for when dissolved by Henry VIII in 1536 much of it was pulled down under the direction of John Mill, the Recorder of Southampton, and the stone taken away to build castles at Yarmouth and Cowes.

Why was the second abbey not also built of the traditional stone? The answer is that in 1901 when the Benedictine monks, fleeing from oppression in France, took refuge in the Isle of Wight, they could not afford expensive new stone nor was there sufficient of the old stone left in the quarry. The man-made brick, designed to fit comfortably into a man's hand, was then the cheapest and most convenient of building materials. So they chose brick.

Picture of Quarr Abbey

The 90 monks, in a manner strangely reminiscent of Britain's dealings with refugees today, were given temporary accommodation in Appuldurcombe house, for long empty and neglected. Six years later they purchased Quarr Abbey house built in the old Abbey grounds, and some time later the site of the ancient abbey itself. They decided to build a new abby incorporating part of the abbey house which was built of stone. Like Cardinal Wolsey, who imported red brick from Flanders to build his sumptuous palace at Hampton, the French monks also imported Flemish bricks, but unlike Wolsey who employed a thousand Flemish workers skilled in the then new art of brick laying, they made use of local labour. They were fortunate in having in their own community Dom Paul Bellot, a young French architect who had studied architecture at the Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris. The son of an architect, he was born in 1876 and qualified as an architect in 1900, but in 1904 he decided to enter a monastery.

He continued to practise as an architect and was responsible for several buildings in Belgium, Holland, France, and later Canada where he died in 1943.

Nikolaus Pevsner, who describes Quarr Abbey in the Hampshire and Isle of Wight section of his 'Buildings of England', considers the abbey Paul Bellot's outstanding achievement, establishing him as one of the pioneers of 20th century expressionism, for the abbey church although basically gothic in style is com- pletely original in its conception.

The Island builders had probably never tackled anything more complicated than the endless rows of Victorian villas that had sprung up all over the Island, but under Paul Bellot's inspired guidance they set to work. They sorted out the Flemish bricks which were noticeably smaller than the English ones, considerably harder and in various shades of red and yellow. The architect decided to make use of the colour and texture of the bricks. Every part of the abbey was to be brick without and within. There was to be no plaster work, no stone facing or sculpture. The bricks themselves were to be the ornamentation. The church began in 1911 and was completed in 1912.

Anyone can go and visit it. Ladies are not frowned upon, not even a whole coach load of them. The first thing that struck us as one of the black robed monks welcomed us in front of the porch, was how clean and new everything looked. After sixty years the hard Flemish bricks showed no signs of weathering. Then we noticed the clear-cut lines, the effective simplicity of the facade with its stepped gables and brick ornamentation, making full use of the play of light and shade; and the fact that red and yellow bricks were used alternately in the great archway framing the porch. The elegant belfry housed the huge bell which takes two monks hanging on to the bell rope to ring, and can be heard all over Ryde and sometimes as far away as Portsmouth, when the wind is in the right direction. The extremely short nave was slightly lower than the long choir ending in a massive eastern tower.

Picture of a monk ringing the bell in the cloister

Stepping through the thick oaken doorway we were at once impressed by the size and spaciousness of the choir. An area of high blank wall dwarfed the monk's stalls. Great brick arches sprung from the massive walls, themselves unsupported by pillars, so that there was nothing to impede the view of the simple altar and the silver tabernacle hanging from the roof above it. Stark and bleak I had heard it described, but to me the perfect proportions, the utter simplicity, unmarred by ornamentation, gave it an austere dignity, which was very moving. The windows recessed high above the blank walls were filled with plain glass but geometrically patterned with panes of amber, pink, and pale green. The result was that the light was thrown downwards, and on that sunny autumn afternoon, a soft glow diffused the whole building, dispelling any sense of coldness. The very lack of sculptural monuments created an atmosphere of restfulness, and the sense that this was indeed a place for quiet meditation.

We sat in the nave, and the monk who had been telling us the history of the abbey sent for the young organist and asked him to play for us. He disappeared up the steps, and suddenly music filled the church from the organ immediately above our heads but completely invisible to us. The purity and clarity of its tone must have been emphasized by the absence of any unnecessary furnishings. The music seemed to rise to the great transverse arches which were the dominating feature of the church and then to the unusual pierced openings above them and through the openings in the spandrels between the ribbed vaulting supporting the eastern tower, until the whole building seemed to be one with the music.

Being a group of ladies we were not able to visit the rest of the abbey, although we could look across to the guest house where eight male guests can be accommodated. The little community, now just under forty and all English, has moved with the times. The abbey, including a service in the church, Was televised in 1969. Up-to-date aerial photographs were available, and these enabled us to grasp the whole plan of the abbey, and to marvel anew at how Dom Paul Bellot, while maintaining its functional purpose, had yet contrived to unite the buildings into a complete and aesthetically satisfying whole. The idea of brick inside and out had been maintained in the traditional cloister and in the refectory where the arches again spring from the walls, and where the windows make their patterns of light and shade. As Professor Pevsner so aptly expresses it, Paul Bellot was truly 'a virtuoso in brick.'

Picture of a monk with a class of novices

A monk's life is austere enough, with the rising bell ringing at 5 am and Matins in the church at 5.30 am. Our guide remarked, 'We are not here to be comfortable,' but neither are they there to devote their lives entirely to meditation or to be completely cut off from the world. That very afternoon, a small party, laughing and talking, had set off down the drive for their weekly walk outside.

The Benedictine rule established the hours of divine service, meditation and prayer, but much of the monks' time is devoted to work, not only to the necessary cooking, cleaning and gardening but also in learning the skills and crafts of painting, weaving, and the making of pottery; for, said St Benedict, 'Idleness is the enemy of the soul.' The young monk who played the organ for us is still studying music.

Fortunately for this small community, the simple strong brick-work of the buildings requires little or no maintenance, but they have had to adapt themselves to modern life and still remain self-supporting. The grounds are simply kept with lawns, shrubs and trees. A lady begged a cutting from one of the shrubs. Good naturedly, our guide broke a piece off, and then others, as they were asked for. 'The shrub needed pruning,' he said with a smile.

Male guests can take part in the life of the monastery and find time to reflect in peace and quiet. This privilege was not for us, but as we drove down the treelined drive back to the noisy world, we were grateful for this brief glimpse into another way of life.