Ebb and flow at Rievaulx 

We spent yesterday at Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire. The site contains the ruined remains of a Cistercian community who lived, worked and prayed in the area for over 400 years. 

The condition of the ruins, along with the thoughtfulness of the information provided by English Heritage, make it easy to imagine the Rievaulx ways of life. But, more than this, half a century of faithful prayer and simple living have left spiritual footprints on the area that are impossible to miss. 

Faced with this ruined grandeur and remnant spirituality, I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if history had been kinder to Rievaulx. 

What if it hadn’t struggled so badly in the 13th Century with livestock loss and debt? 

What if it had not been pillaged by the Scots in 1322?

What if it had not been struck by the Black Death in 1348?

What if more than 15 monks (down from 650) had survived to the end of the 1380s?

What if it had not been suppressed and dismantled in 1538?

What if the dissolution of the monasteries had not taken place? 

What would Rievaulx be today? 

These questions turned naturally on their head, to the institutions and ways of life that I know and love. The ones that seem strong, and yet are as fragile as Rievaulx. 

What if the bricks in the wall of my life – the bricks that offer security and hope and a future – one day lie as ruined as this once-great abbey? 

Rievaulx’s most famous abbot was also one of its first: Aelred. As Aelred watched his community strengthen and prosper, I wonder what he knew about life’s ebb and flow? 

Did he hope that Rievaulx  would become one of the richest abbeys in England? 

Did he fear the challenges that eventuality brought it to its knees? 

Did he wonder about the imprint of holiness that his community would leave on the area for centuries after its death? 

Halfway through our visit, we set up a groundsheet on the site of one of the many chantry chapels. The significance of sitting down for a picnic where, centuries earlier and for hundreds of years, monks and locals had gathered to break bread, was not lost on us. 

And so the questions that have stayed with me – questions about me and about the institutions and ways of life that I take for granted – are these:

When I am gone and forgotten, who will picnic on the remains of my chapel? 

What spiritual footprints will I leave? 

How might my holiness (or otherwise) impact a place? 

What grandeur I see now will lie in ruins? 

What of these ruins will people wonder at? 

Rievaulx was a good reminder of life’s ebb and flow. We grow, we prosper, we struggle, we fade away; leaving only our footprints in time. 

“Ducks only”

There was an excellent piece of journalism in the Guardian just over a year ago about the travesty that is defensive architecture: the spikes and bollards and uncomfortable bus stop benches that are supposed to prevent “anti-social” behaviour.

What about defensive signage? That is, the signs around us that are designed to instruct, protect, control and inform. Some of these are good and necessary. Without road signs, for example, driving would be chaotic and perhaps dangerous.

But signs create a certain atmosphere, however unconscious we are of them. As a family we visited an attraction last week that was littered with instructive or prohibitive signs:

No entry for visitors
Disabled parking and drop off only
This area is closed
No access to gardens
No entry (CCTV in operation)
No parking

(The final three may have been exaggerated)

None of the signs were wrong in themselves. Some were helpful. But the cumulative effect was to create an atmosphere in which we were not cherished guests, but punters to be controlled and definitely not trusted. The atmosphere felt unwelcoming and tense: not very hospitable. A little eavesdropping on conversations between staff suggested they felt the tension too, with a panicky instruction to clear pots off a table quickly (in an otherwise half-empty restaurant) before a supervisor reappeared and saw it was dirty. The signs, and this conversation, reflected a place managed by a desire to control, and encourage ‘good’ behaviour and conformity. We’re not particularly unruly, but we didn’t really feel comfortable and at home here.

If the signs we display affect the atmosphere around us, they must also affect our behaviour and our emotions. On holiday last year in Anglesey, these signs didn’t make me feel especially welcome, as an alien in town:

If I was resident there, how would these signs make me feel? Suspicious, perhaps, of strangers who were not quick to leave? We seem to be increasingly suspicious, perhaps frightened, of those who are unknown and unexpected.

Do we display these signs because we are frightened?
Are we frightened because we display these signs?

This sign, displayed last year on our local playground, with its imperative “do not”, suggested we weren’t in a place of games and fun, but perhaps standing on the edge of a live volcanic crater, or next to live electrical wires:


I think the problem was actually that the playground surface was in need of repair. The one thing that this sign did was ensure a steady stream of daredevil kids vaulted the fence to play somewhere with such good advertising displayed!

Signs are important. But are we aware of how their tone can create a particular atmosphere, and engender particular feelings or behaviour? Who wouldn’t be put into a slightly better mood by this sign – informative and instructive, but fun – at Martin Mere?


And so I’m left reflecting…

What signs do we see around us, in our neighbourhoods, and in people we know?
How do they make us feel?

What signs do we display?
On our homes, our clothes, and through our words and our body language?
What messages do they communicate?
Are these messages the ones we’d like to communicate?

Are there things we’d like to tell the world that we could begin to say through the signs we display?