By SHUKBURGH ASHBY.
MUCH OF GOWERSBY, now claimed by the sea, and its great ABBEY ruined in the Dissolution of the Monasteries, was formerly an important port. Situated on a promontory jutting into the North Sea, the town once commanded a panoramic swathe, ideal for both trading and defence. Lucius de Mowbray in his Annals describes the “bleak lands and stern folk” of Gowersby, and little seems to have changed.
THE VERY EARLIEST parts of the Wealtheow’s famous nunnery are the remnants of a limestone church in the Romanesque style of c.650 called St Peter’s Stangifu. Little remains, though a few stones of the chancel arch were incorporated into the abbey. Its founder is unknown, though Bede guesses at Centwine or Byrhthelm. These candidates seem unlikely given their dates. It was not until Abbess Wealtheow’s leadership, about 890, that the abbey grew rapidly. At this point, in marked contrast to double-houses like Whitby, Gowersby Abbey became solely for nuns; many monks were moved to Jarrow.
Of the full complex, all that remains is the abbey church itself. The structure of the building remains, though it is a shell. This means that in terms of ARCHITECTURE it remains rich, but is sorely lacking in anything in the way of FURNISHINGS. The only MONUMENTS that remain are those in the crypt. A fire was lit during the Dissolution, killing those nuns who chose to remain inside, and gutting the building.
Gowersby Abbey has a coherent history of expansion and rebuilding. Under Wealtheow, the first church, St Peter’s Stangifu, was drastically lengthened, widened, and heightened. A church of thirty feet, it became one of nearly a hundred. The roof was raised and west tower and stair-turret erected, similar to those at Brixworth, though predating them by perhaps a century. These are now completely hollow, the stair-turret containing no stairs, which were salvaged after the Reformation and the fire. About the end of the C10 the roof and west tower were raised even higher, and the clerestory added.
The eight bays of windows of the abbey reflect the chequered economic history of Gowersby. Prosperous from the time of Alfred to the Conquest, there were originally eight Romanesque windows on either side of the clerestory, built with salvaged Roman brick from nearby forts. Of those clerestory windows on the south front, only four were re-done as EARLY ENGLISH in limestone about the turn of the C13; four remain Romanesque, in brick rather than stone. The abbey was c.1350 remodelled in the DECORATIVE style; of those four EE windows, two were not made Dec. The great east window is the highest of high Perp, and thus we have a medley displaying the full history of medieval English church architecture, from Anglo-Saxon to Tudor. Tragically none of the glass remains, made by the nuns themselves, and once said to have been England’s answer to Sainte-Chapelle.
In terms of the INTERIOR, there is little to say. The arcades date to the remodelling of c.1350, though severe damage means that any decoration to the capitals can hardly be discerned. Some traces of foliage remain. The columns retain their Norman dogtooth. All of this is blackened. Though the wind and rain and grass do not get in so easily as at Malmesbury or Whitby, the building is nonetheless more ruin than church. The flooring is mostly made from the repurposed tombstones of nuns, the earliest of these Saxon (“Aelfrith”), the latest dating right up to the 1530s.
FURNISHINGS. The pews are from the C15, though few survived the fire.
MONUMENTS. A formerly magnificent pair of statues in marble, depicting local landowners, Sir Hubert and Lady Margaret Campion dates to 1521. Margaret holds a rose and a handkerchief, for love and devotion, and Hubert an open book and crucifix. They are gently connected by the touch of their foreheads. Both now blackened.
THE HOME OF the Campions for over four hundred years, the history of Theake Hall is difficult to trace. Variously Tudor, Baroque, and austerely Neoclassical, what remains of the enormous present building is mostly in the late Victorian ‘villa’ style of the ’80s and ’90s. The second Sir Hubert (d.1560) became one of the richest commoners in England, dealing in gunpowder. His wife, Jane, was said to be ferociously learned, and hosted proto-salons for local gentlewomen interested in the arts. She was the final great benefactor of the ABBEY before its destruction, paying for glass, monuments, and sundries. THEAKE HALL fell into the hands of various rakes of the Campion family throughout the C17, C18, and C19, who led undistinguished and profligate lives of gambling, hunting, eating, and womanising. After successive generations of excess, the Neoclassical building of c.1760 was sold to Warren Rocksmith of New York in 1878, who knocked down much of the structure, converting it into the turrets-and-gables fantasy found today.
Contemporary plans show that the Tudor building was slightly less spectacular than the grand prodigy houses, but still suitably extravagant as would have befitted the local grandees. It had three storeys, and an imposing great hall. The windows, which were saved, display the Campion arms in stained glass: a lance separating three hares and harts. As the family fortunes diminished but fashions changed, Sir George Campion had it remodelled about 1760. This classicalisation was a failure, and for over a century THEAKE HALL was an eyesore. Warren Rocksmith brought money but not taste. His efforts produced an uneasy blend of Gothic, Neoclassical and Tudor: each of the house’s former styles. Yet in appealing to history, William Maxwell, his architect, failed at anything satisfactory. The “ghastly make-believe” of the present building has been variously described as infantile, immoral, and ludicrous.
Owing to floods and fires, THEAKE HALL now has few windows and no INTERIOR worth discussion. What remains are fourteen towers, each with steep conical turrets. The dining hall, modelled on Oakham Castle, was slotted uncomfortably on the side of the east wing. The protruding oriel and bay windows, porches and gables, result in two facades of complete incoherence. Though vaguely rectangular, the house has so many additions as to be shapeless. There are five grand entrances, two dull stable blocks, and three Gothic follies. A huge wooden garage dates to 1917 where Rocksmith stored his vast collection of automobiles. The main house of limestone, with brick, marble pilasters, and sandstone pediments. Copper and slate roof tiling.
The grounds, shaped by a follower of William Kent*, are now bare of trees. The river has dried up and is overgrown with reeds.
THE BLACK LION, Gowersby Road. A hearty timber-frame building of the C15. Unusually large for what was then a small village. Oak corbels under the eaves particularly fine, depicting merry drunkards; curiously these are all women. The wattle-and-daub covered with a handsome yellow limewash. Many of the windowpanes original. Above the doorway, the bizarre addition of an C18 marble of Aphrodite, with doves and roses.
THE COURTHOUSE, Market Street. The structure survives mostly intact, with an unusual loggia of eight arches to the lower half.† With much-splintered oak timbers. The upper storeys now flats; the lower floor a betting shop.
* One potential candidate is Samuel Mann of Leicester, famed for his gardens and the murder of his wife, Sarah.
† Guy Glazier contends that it dates to the 1580s, which seems sensible from the patterns in the brickwork.
Shukburgh Ashby is a writer and former academic. He taught architectural history in West Bengal and Cairo. He now lives in York, England, where he is employed as a gardener. A ‘puzzle fiction.’ he writes, ‘is a form where meaning can be found on two or more distinct levels: generally, this shows itself in a more obvious narrative, ostensibly the “main” one, and a separate, subtler level revealed only with hints, and left for the reader to decipher. Therefore it can be seen as a mix of both “passive” and “active” forms of reading.’