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At Waltham Abbey

August 16, 2023
by the gentle author

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I cycled along the River Lea to Waltham Abbey. On my approach, 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, emerging from the shadow of the pandemic and accommodating to our country’s divorce from Europe. I cycled from Spitalfields to Waltham Abbey as a respite from the times, 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 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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9 Responses leave one →
  1. Greg T permalink
    August 16, 2023

    A very good friend was married in the Abbey – his memorial service was there, as well ….
    Sun Street has a remarkable stretch of houses dating back to the 1600’s or even earlier ( Though you might not realise it )
    Don’t forget “King Harold Day” later this year on Sat 15th October & for laughs .. the world canoeing championship opening 17th September (!)

  2. David Bishop permalink
    August 16, 2023

    I love this post! Thank you.

  3. Juliet Jeater permalink
    August 16, 2023

    Is there an Eleanor cross there?

  4. Bernie permalink
    August 16, 2023

    Thank you for this visit, which helps to make up for the opportunities not taken when I lived in Stoke Newington, 1933-1952. Now too old and far away to visit, but not too old and insensitive to appreciate what I missed.

  5. Milo permalink
    August 16, 2023

    I can’t think of anything nicer than cycling up there on a sunny day. Hope you didn’t run down John Rogers on your way.

  6. August 16, 2023

    Every time I encounter a depiction of a person holding a structure, I am enthralled. This statue
    of Harold cradling the Abbey is a perfect example. There is a touching/surprising reversal of scale,
    but mostly I think it just provides a visual reminder of How We Love Our Homes. How our homes provoke a feeling of protection, warmth and gratitude.

    A lovely quote from Mark Twain, about his deeply-loved, remarkable home in Hartford CT:
    “It had a heart, and a soul, and eyes to see us with; and approvals and solicitude and deep sympathies, it was OF us, and we were its confidence and lived in its grace and in the peace of its benediction.”

    We have visited this unique home many times, and each time we expect the Twain family to come into the rooms; caught up in laughter, discussion, and mirth. I expect Twain himself to look over, catch our eye, and sweep his arm toward us. “Oh, ho — You’re here. Well, let’s sit and have a story or two.”

    Thank you for taking us along to the Abbey. How I would love to open those wooden doors with the crests. Just lovely.

  7. August 16, 2023

    Funny old thing history, full of whispers. I read Harold had escaped the battle to become a hermit and died in Chester!

    Thank you for the article.

  8. Irene Lilian Pugh permalink
    August 16, 2023

    Thank you for highlighting the history of Waltham Abbey and her history. I have passed the Abbey many times by car when travelling from Essex to Palmers Green. I regret not taking advantage of visiting the Abbey and Harold’s grave.

  9. Gillian McMullen permalink
    August 18, 2023

    I enjoyed this article very much, but I thought your comment about “credulous” pilgrims was uncalled for. They believed deeply in what they were doing. Whether the relics were genuine or not is immaterial. They deserve our respect.

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