Sunday, 12 July 2015

Visiting Ghastwych Abbey


The following is taken from a guidebook published by the Friends of Ghastwych Abbey. Dated to some time in 2003, it is the most recent version of a booklet that has appeared in circulation since 1967. The Friends of Ghastwych Abbey cite no office or official meeting place, but emails directed to them still receive enigmatic responses from a woman named Mirrig. The author of the original document is unknown, as is the printing shop from which it has been circulated, but is thought to have been a local eccentric from Jarrow called Robert Oak, now deceased. The text reads as follows:

 In his book of 1737 Churches and Ancient Sites of the British Isles, the antiquary and polymath Thomas Heveringham gave the following instructions on finding the abbey at Ghastwych:

At dawn the thirteenth day in November, leave from the hill north of Ripon, that is known as the Wyvern's Back, and thence proceed as the stones direct you . By late afternoon you shall come to a village peopled by sullen denizens, to whom the elements and the rigors of consanguinity have not been kind. The town bears no name, or if it does, it deems not to speak it, for it is a wretched place. You shall know it by a large tower in its centre that once beheld a clock. There is an ale house on the square, behind which is a small stony path leading up into the woods. Follow it, and before night has fully fallen, you will come to the door of a church. If your faith endures, you will have found the abbey at Ghastwych.”

This is, and remains, the only accurate means of finding the Abbey. Roads do not go there, and it appears on no maps. Indeed, the name of Ghastwych has been unknown in the records of the neighbouring villages since 1549, when the cult of Saint Maldora was formally dissolved by the authorities of the Church.

Built some time in the mid 9th century, Ghastwych Abbey has ever been a forbidding place – small and squat, it is built of thick brownish stone, and has but a few small windows to allow light into the interior. Yet for all that, it is an imposing structure, and to come upon it in a clearing in the centre of a great wood, is to feel at once the strange potency with which the abbey is imbued. It is a place preternaturally disposed to isolation, which in its darker days, it has welcomed like a latent gift. With the ceasing of active worship at the site, and the banishment of its devoted congregation, it seems that the dense, trackless woods, which give the abbey its name, rose up to claim it as their own.

Those woods are central to the story of Ghastwych abbey, and loom large in the legend of that saint whose earthly remains reside in its ancient stone vaults – that is, Saint Maldora. Hers is a story of loss and rediscovery, three centuries apart – three centuries which seperated her life on earth, and her ascention to sainthood. Three centuries that she would spend consigned to obscurity in those great dark woods, waiting for her story to be told. That day would come when a young nobleman named Theofric Glendryd, guided by fate and inspired by divine revelation, happened upon the resting place of the unknown saint. That day was on the thirteenth day of November, in the year eight hundred and twelve.

Legend tells of how, riding alone through those woods, he beheld a shape amongst the trees, a queer outcropping of stone. Approaching, he saw that through the roots and ivy that had overgrown the monolith in its years of perdition, there was a face, carved into the stone, and so beautifully rendered and preserved that he at first took it to be a living being. He knew then that he stood before a tomb, a stone relic of some more ancient time. And it seems that, in that moment, the saint had deemed the young man to be pure of spirit, for a great silence fell upon the woods, and the stone face began to speak to him.

The writings of Glendryd, who would himself become a great visionary, are lost to the ages. Yet what has survived in secondary accounts tells of how Maldora, despite bring born into a world of Pagan barbarism, lived a life of perfect chastity and benevolence as befitting a Christian saint. Living as a hermit in the wilds of Northumbria, she would travel between villages bringing succour to those who suffered, and with her arts, giving healing to the sick and frail. Yet there were those who despised her purity – and defiled her name, calling her 'witch' and 'harlot', and a herald of misfortune, and silently, they plotted her undoing. She was approached one night by unknown assailants, by whom she was taken and cruelly murdered.

Christ bore five wounds upon the cross, and in like fashion, Maldora would suffer. The first was the killing wound - a spear thrust below her ribs that drew her final breath. The other four, however were much more methodical, and had an air of ritual about them. Her body was separated into five segments, and scattered throughout the wild countryside thereabout. Yet even in this darkest hour, there were those whom in life she had touched, and in repaying this debt, who would see to it her story did not end here. They set out to find the four parts of her body, and it is said that these were revealed to them by angels, who descended from heaven to aid them in their search. Uniting the five segments, they beheld what would be her first miracle. When joined, the flesh miraculously fused, and her skin flushed with new life, and were it not for the still fresh wound in her side, it would seem as though she merely slept. Those followers made for her a heavy stone sarcophagus, into which they carved the image of her face; and in secret, they took this deep into the woods that would come to be known as Ghastwych, to weather the darkness of that unenlightened age.

In time, Christianity would return to the British isles, and her people would finally be ready to welcome Maldora back into the light. Theofric set forth to spread the word of her sacred name, and would dedicate the rest of his life founding the abbey on the site of her discovery. And though Theofric's writings are gone, her story can still be read through images, carved into the stone about the chapel. On the mantle above the door are carved the leaves of magwort and wormwood, which were used by Maldora as part of her healing arts, and from these emerges a hand, its fingers crossed in a gesture of benediction. Proceed further, and you will see foxes and deer cavorting between the pillars and alcoves: these were her sole companions during her years in isolation. There too, are the butchers knives that made her a martyr. Here, also, are the angels that aided her reassembly. They can be seen in the ceilings above the altar in the form that Theofric described in his visions: Headless, with wings arching forth out like great tree branches above their empty shoulders, their feet lost in the endless streaming tendrils of their long, ragged, and strangely animate robes. Beneath them can even be seen the tiny forms of men, splayed out as if in agony. These, it is said, are her murderers, struck down, as if by divine retribution.

It is not clear when Maldora was canonised as a saint, but sources suggest it came some time in the reign of Pope Gregory IV. Even so, her worship would continue for over five hundred years, until a mysterious bout of mania amongst her closest followers would bring the cult of St Maldora into disrepute. Over time, her following would be corroded further, with some even doubting the truth of her canonisation when it transpired that the letters of Pope Gregory, purported to confirm her sanctity, were found to have been devoured by rats. In time, the reformation would make saintly cults a thing of the past. History would draw a veil over the story of Ghastwych, and in time, it disappeared, lost in those great dark woods. Some say it was destroyed by tremors, or razed to the ground by agents of the church, others that it was merely lost in trackless wilderness. Some even attest that they saw it one night, consumed as if by mysterious green flames. Either way, it is gone now, but perhaps not entirely.

November the 13th is The Feast of St Maldora, and on that day, and every one since the time of her banishment, small bands of the faithful have made furtive pilgrimages to the small chapel in the woods of Ghastwych. On the hill north of Ripon, that which Heveringham calls the Wyvern's Back, there once stood two stones, and it is said that at dawn on that day, the sun would shine between them, and its beam would pick out the path that leads to the abbey. The stones are gone, but follow your shadow and you will find your path just as well.

History can only tell us so much, and its truths are vulnerable to the distortions of liars and wicked men. To know Ghastwych truly is to do as Heveringham instructs, and go there oneself. To walk that path is to walk in the footsteps of Theofric Glendryd, and know the world as he knew it on that strange day in the year eight hundred and twelve. The path is only clear to those who have faith, and to the blessed visionary Glendryd, the wet, dark, green abyss of tangling vines and sprouting thickets of wormwood and murkthorne was pierced by a blinding light that brought him thence to the woodland shrine of the blessed Maldora. Walk the path, and place your hand upon the heavy stone that marks the threshold, and the truth shall be reveal itself to you.

Men are mortal, but saints are eternal, and churches are the portals by which the past, present, and future are bridged. With her sainthood consigned to the darkness of the distant past, Maldora resides now only in that which shall be. But she will come again! She will come when her sacred name is spoken once more in reverence and awe, and the lies that curse her soul are stricken from the pages of history. Until that day is come, she resides in another place. It is not of this world, nor is it paradise, but exists beyond the very substance of the divine cosmos. Visionaries have seen it in their dreams, and they call it the Vale of Gal Migen. Here, the church sits not within a wood, but on a desolate rocky shore, by a great viscous green sea that its denizens know as Ghaal. Under a great black pall of noxious clouds, she dances endlessly upon the shale with her angelic kin, until one glorious day each year, when Saint Maldora comes back to us, as she did once before. On that day, the thirteenth of November, her church shall re-materialise back upon this plain, and the forest will open up to let her followers venture forth in adoration. This endless cycle is fated to repeat itself each year as this world turns ever faster on its axis towards Armageddon.

Until then, venture as one might to the centre of the thick woods of Ghastwych, and one may perhaps alight upon a clearing. In it, you will find no church, for this gift was taken from us when humanity turned its back on the saint. All you will find is a small gathering of stones, and a few strangley unsettling tumuli, and you will feel the chill of a place whose substance is not quite of this world.

This pamphlet was brought to you by the Friends of Ghastwych Abbey. If you are interested in becoming a Friend, or would like to find out more, visit www.ghastwichabbey.geocities.com, or email Maldora_eternal@ntlworld.com



2 comments:

  1. This post is quite interesting as well as spooky and I could not sleep at night after reading this post. I will definitely read more about ghastwych abbey.

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