Quarrantine

by robertmcnicol

Nope, I really have no idea what I’m on about either.

As you may well or well not know, I have just spent the soggiest weekend of my entire existence on the Isle of Wight. Which was nice. I did, however, manage to persuade my companions to take a minor detour to see some ruins of a Cistercian Abbey called Quarr, between Fishbourne and Ryde on the North of the island. Well, it turned out that the ruins aren’t much; there’s a nice-looking house that uses what one presumes to be some of the leftovers (I think in situ, but I’m no expert) from the dissolution of Quarr in 1536 but apart from that not much remains (nicely-cut stone would be a valuable commodity). Anyway, it looked a little like this:

It is a nice old building, and the quality of the stonework is obvious. The colour of the stone is also rather nice; grey, yes, but varied enough not to be too cold. I do like the uneven fluted sides to the gables (in the corner on the upper storey) but the corrugated iron roof leaves a little to be desired.

Nice view, though.

Anyway, that isn’t the main attraction at Quarr. A little history. During the French Revolution monasteries in France were largely dissolved and the Abbaye de Solesmes, near Le Mans, was no exception. In the 1830s a locally-born priest moved in with some chums and they revived the Benedictine order in France, including rediscovering and popularising Gregorian chant. However, the French government in the late Nineteenth century weren’t desperately enamoured of the teaching of the nation’s youth being in the hands of the religious houses and so made a decree in March of 1880 that effectively dissolved the monasteries. Again. The Benedictines at Solesmes became wondering troubadours for a while, eventually settling on the Isle of Wight around the turn of the Century. And there they built a rather lovely abbey:

Apparently there was a big house there already (I guess this is part of it):

which they moved into. Handily, they had an architect with them. Dom Paul Louis Denis Bellot had trained at the Ecole Des Beaux-Arts in Paris before joining the order and put his training to good use.

The abbey, completed in 1914, is mainly constructed of a variety of warm-coloured bricks, mainly pinkish, which give an instantly warm, homely feel. Its facade is unadorned – no statues, no frescoes, no fancy tiles or plaster or gilt work. The only decoration is provided by the brickwork itself or rather the shadows and sunlight that play on them: the pointed crenelations that jut up along the roof line; the corbels underneath; the lances arrowing up into the stepped gable above the main (West) door; the deep grooves up the bell-tower.

There are a whole host of influences here. Those stepped gables remind us of Dutch townhouses; the tall residential building, with its unequal windows, looks a little like a large Jacobean house or, possibly, simple Chateau; the use of short stubby octagonal or square turrets on all corners lend a Tunisian or Moorish feel; the bell-tower, with its wide drum and round spire and off-centre placement echoes a minaret from a mosque or maybe an Italian campanile (as would be appropriate for a catholic establishment). There’s a defensive feel, with the size and weight of the structure, but also a welcoming one – the door is wide and obvious, the Gothic arch not too pointed, the cross atop the tower a modest one.

No one influence is predominant; it feels cleanly modern (so much so that I had difficulty dating it – my initial feel was that it was a Thirties or even Fifties building, though I wasn’t sure quite why); its mix of styles and lack of ornament make it rather timeless; its blockiness and weight – I mean the spread of the entrance-way and height of the tower and blankness of the West end of the nave – the way everything’s a bit too big perhaps – give it a Lutyens-esque feel.

As a whole it’s almost fairytale or fantasy, the English cottage gardens notwithstanding. It is certainly, appropriately, a place of escape – but it works. And I think it’s quite the most wonderful church I’ve seen in a long time.

Bellot went on to build a whole host more churches and monasteries on the Continent and in Canada, though sadly nothing more in the UK.

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