At Bayham

The hours are different here

Indeed: the hours are different here. I spent some time last weekend trying to rewrite a poem about the ruins of Bayham Abbey in Sussex, but I suspect that its first line (above, and other fragments throughout) has more to do with now than anything else. My plan was to try and get to that sense of time out of time that I often feel wandering around the ruins where the hours are different in some way, whether that’s slowed or sped up or both, I’m not sure. But realising that this line might be as informed by our new situation in which time has changed I understand now the urgency I felt with making a small booklet for it, a bit of a challenge due to minimal materials being available and my own inept skills in this area. However, with some card from a thick envelope, an old bit of watercolour paper, yellow string from a line level, acrylic paint to cover up the address labels and a wool needle to thread it all together I managed to make something approaching a pamphlet. I’m a great gatherer of bits (or ephemera, which sounds better) and sometimes I still print out photographs too, so it was easier to find images with which to illustrate it. It’s more of a votive than anything else, a little vessel to hold an idea which at some point I’d like to translate into something a bit more professional looking.

As I arranged and rearranged images and wrote and rewrote text, I remembered just how important making something is as a way into connecting with it. Beyond understanding how to fold paper appropriately what the exercise offered was a chance to dive into something that has defined a large part of my life, about which I’m constantly wondering in one way or another and in which I have sometimes made a living: decaying Gothic architecture.

Open like a flower

Blunted by sun

And the reaching back as well as forward

Bayham Abbey is a ruined monastery of the Premonstratensian order or white canons. The ruins are chiefly of the thirteenth century and still feature many of the graceful touches of that era, from stiff-leaf capitals to hexafoils. The River Teise flows gently around part of the site and well-established trees frame roofless chapels, arches and weathered, golden, Wealden sandstone masonry. From every angle it is otherworldly and bears an almost exotic beauty, like a ruinous temple in the jungle or a submerged city where statues of ancient deities are surrounded by shoals of fish. Discovering places like Bayham in my teens I always wanted to just dissolve into them; I felt a love for these time-worn fragments and still do. I know a lot of people who write about ‘a subject’ feel similarly (and the gathering of knowledge parallels a growing awareness of how little we know, and probably ever will know; perhaps futility of the endeavour fuels the love). I’ve often wondered where this has come from. In King of Dust I explored it a little bit, looking at the late 1980s novels by Peter Ackroyd (Chatterton, Hawksmoor, First Light) which first made me consciously aware of the flexibility of time but it was probably just as much, if not more, the fault of records and record covers. In many respects, goth led me to the Gothic. Music came first.

I cannot move for old geometries flickering

In the smashed hexafoil

And the long-gone lead

The first record I bought was by Duran Duran. This in a time when things like that mattered, when things were tribal. However, as my teens wore on pop gave way to metal which gave way to post-punk or, as it became, goth. Bauhaus, Sisters of Mercy, Fields of the Nephilim. To my young ear this was music that flew closer to some of the things I felt and a thread of ruination ran through it. ‘Cities’ were ‘in Dust’ (Siouxsie and the Banshees); the rock cut buildings of Petra formed a backdrop for The Sisters of Mercy in the video for ‘Dominion’, and in the centre of the gatefold for the second album by the Nephilim was a photo of an abandoned and ruinous Gothic arch. I was in, and from there it was one church/graveyard/ruinous monastery after another, until eventually I wrote a PhD on the grotesque. Inevitable really.

Thirty years after I first visited Bayham, trying to make a booklet and write a poem about it makes me realise that I still feel the same. The 'Gothic' in its broadest sense, whatever it is (and much time can be spent trying to define it) but which is sometimes tethered to architecture and ruins and fiction and records and more, is something that exists out of time and in time too and can be found in these places and more importantly felt. Sometimes I think poetry is the best way in to opening that door, however briefly, to whatever it is that lives in the fragmented and broken. I imagine that that thing is us, in a more truthful and splintered form.

Some wilderness is stuck in the trickle of river

A carved head is lost in thoughts of mud,

Orbiting their shadows

Days are worn thin

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