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At Waltham Abbey

July 21, 2020
by the gentle author

One day last spring – just before the lockdown – I walked along the River Lea as far as Tottenham. Yesterday I returned and continued my journey by bicycle as far as Waltham Abbey. Even from the riverbank I could see the majestic tower rising over the water meadows as the Abbey has done for the past thousand years, commanding the landscape and undiminished in visual authority.

Once you see it, you realise you are following in the footsteps of the innumerable credulous pilgrims who came here in hope of miraculous cures from the holy cross, which had reputedly relieved Harold Godwinson of a paralysis as a child before he became King Harold.

To the south of the Abbey church lies the market square, bordered with appealingly squint timber frame buildings punctuated by handsome eighteenth and nineteenth additions. Despite the proximity of the capital, the place still carries the air of an English market town.

Yet the great wonder is the Abbey itself, founded in the seventh century, built up by King Harold and destroyed by Henry VIII. Despite the ravages of time, the grandeur and scale of the Abbey is still evident in the precincts which have become a public park. Although the church that impresses today is less than half the size of what it was, it is enough to fire your imagination. An imposing stone gateway greets the visitor to the park where long, battered walls outline the former extent of the buildings. A tantalising fragment of twelfth century vaulting, which formerly served as the entrance to the cloisters, encourages the leap to conjure the cloisters themselves where now is merely an empty lawn. A walled garden filled with lavender and climbing roses draws you closest to the spirit of the place.

The outline of the former Abbey church is marked upon the grass and at the eastern end lies a surprise. A plain stone engraved with the words ‘Harold King of England Obit 1066,’ indicating this is where legend has it that he was laid to rest after the Battle of Hastings. I realised that maybe the remains of the man in the tapestry, killed by the arrow in the eye, lay beneath my feet. Coming upon his stone unexpectedly halted me in my tracks.

This was one of those startling moments when there is a possibility of history being real, something tangible, causing me to reflect upon the Norman Conquest. A thousand years ago, their power found its expression in the vast complex of buildings here, which were destroyed five hundred years ago as the expression of another power.

We too live in a time of dramatic transition, still under the shadow of the pandemic while anticipating our country’s divorce from Europe. I cycled from Spitalfields to Waltham Abbey as a respite from this moment, yet here I was confronting it in a mossy green churchyard. The equivocal consolation of the historical perspective is that it reminds us that empires rise and fall, but life always goes on.

Effigy of King Harold

Harold cradles Waltham Abbey in his arm

The Lady Chapel

Victorian villa in the churchyard

The Welsh Harp

These vaults are all that is left of the twelfth century cloisters

Here lies Harold, the last Anglo Saxon King of England

Waltham Abbey

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18 Responses leave one →
  1. July 21, 2020

    I visited the Abbey a while ago now it has a fantastic interior Norman arches and beautifully painted signs of the Zodiac on the ceiling well worth a revisit.


  2. Robert Catt permalink
    July 21, 2020

    Thanks for these wonderful pictures and eloquent commentary. Later today I’ll be at Battle Abbey where I’m a volunteer. My thoughts about what was built, what was destroyed, the rise and fall of tyrants and dynasties echo yours. At Battle there’s the paradox: the beauty and tranquility of the Abbey on a site where carnage and, in modern terms, war crimes would have taken place.
    I often talk to visitors about the death of Harold, the legend of the Holy Cross, the grisly identification of his mutilated body by Edith Swan Neck and the possible sites of his grave.
    I enjoy the blog and, if you’re ever this way, I’d be pleased to give you a (gratis) tour of Battle Abbey and town.

  3. Gill Baron permalink
    July 21, 2020

    I enjoyed your excellent piece of writing on your visit to Waltham Abbey. Certainly makes me wish to visit it for myself! And superb photos to add to your great descriptions! Thank you – I so enjoy reading your articles.

  4. July 21, 2020

    //what an evocative piece, thank you for writing it. I was brought up in Enfield and remember hearing about Waltham Cross and Waltham Abbey but we moved to Dorset when I was 10 so have no recollection of it. I’ll be sure to visit when next in the UK.

  5. July 21, 2020

    Thank you, Gentle Author, for this lovely piece. It was the first thing I read this morning, and it has set me up for the day. Beautifully written, and consoling too.

  6. Greg Tingey permalink
    July 21, 2020

    A town I know well – Iwas drinking in the pub at the other end of Sun Street ( “the Angel” ) last night – ihave danced in the square in front of “the Welsh Harp” when there was snow on the ground.
    A very good friend was married in the Abbey – & sadly, was buried there, as well ….

  7. July 21, 2020

    Thank you for this, very glad you’re back to cycling fitness. I love the phrase ‘equivocal consolation’ …the mood of my day quite often recently.

  8. Neil Bartlett permalink
    July 21, 2020

    Beautifully composed and inspiring. Looking forward to a trip soon.

  9. Bernie permalink
    July 21, 2020

    This delightful piece confirms, though such is not needed, that I was a very callow youth indeed. Back then, I walked the Lea several times, including as far as Waltham Abbey, but discovered none of the history. Alas! Alas!

  10. July 21, 2020

    I have always loved the concept/tradition of statuary personages “holding” miniature representations of towns/buildings. For whatever reason, it conveys a feeling of enduring protection and guardianship. Harold looks like he could hold up the whole WORLD, never mind the lovely Abbey.

    Thanks for shining a light, and starting my day with optimism.
    Stay safe, all.

  11. July 21, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thanks for sharing your jaunt to Waltham Abbey and your reflections on the site. Agreed:

    “We too live in a time of dramatic transition, still under the shadow of the pandemic …I cycled from Spitalfields to Waltham Abbey as a respite from this moment, yet here I was confronting it in a mossy green churchyard. The equivocal consolation of the historical perspective is that it reminds us that empires rise and fall, but life always goes on.”


  12. paul loften permalink
    July 21, 2020

    Thank you for these photos . I am immediately struck by the feel of the history of the Abbey. Your photography says so much without hardly even needing any written discription..
    During the early 60’s I lived ina a block of flats in Clapton nearby the Lea . The blocks have been long demolished as they were already quite old at that time . My frieinds and I from the blocks used to reide their bikes along the Lea and across the Marshes to Tottenham Hale to view the birds on Herron Island but as far as I can recall that was a far as we went. There was a dog. Patch that would follow me everywhere and he would sometimes accompany us on the journey on the bikes. Its quite a ride to Waltham Abbey . You must be quite fit Its good to see you are recovering !

  13. Saba permalink
    July 21, 2020

    As always, the pictures and commentary start my day. I enjoy the comments also and always read every one. Dancing in the snow on an old-fashioned street! Riding a bike along the river and out to an island to see the birds! I value all of this.

  14. July 21, 2020

    Waltham Abbey is So Beautiful!! Thank You So Much!!!????????

  15. peter webb permalink
    July 21, 2020

    I fell in love with Waltham Abbey when I was a child I have lived here now for over 27 years and I am so grateful to be a resident.

  16. July 21, 2020

    I live here and every time I walk by, or go to the garden for a walk, or just visit the the Market Square…each and every time I am in awe and brought back in time.. Its lovely hidden gem

  17. Carolyn Hooper permalink
    July 25, 2020

    Simply delightful, gentle author…….. The story, the lavender, the stones chipped away at so very long ago…………….. This post brings amazing peace, as the rain falls here in Queensland Australia.

  18. Shelley Stubbs permalink
    October 31, 2020

    I moved to Waltham Abbey 31 years ago and have visited the Abbey and gardens many times, it is both thought provoking and beautiful. Since March myself, my husband and my friend have cycled along the Lea regularly as far as Hoddesdon and the peace, tranquillity and wildlife have been wonderful to enjoy. Such beauty often gets overlooked these days and going back to what felt like our youth on the cycles has brought out a new fiund love of two wheels and our surroundings.

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