by Katie Isham.
When everything is busy and life is loud, there are few better places to go wander than around the walls of a thirteenth century monastery, especially when the roof is now cobalt blue skies pouring down from heaven to light your walk through the crumbling walls.
Netley Abbey is a treasured part of our city. It’s always incredible to think we have this piece of living history as part of our daily lives. It’s the sort of place that you’d spend a few quid on entry, more on a cup of tea and even more in the gift shop if you found this heritage site whilst holidaying somewhere. Instead, we Sotonians can make the pilgrimage to the east of the city, right by the coast to soak up the hallowed atmosphere and enjoy the beautiful grounds for free, whenever we please. If the gates are open.
This is the only stumbling block to an abbey trip. The opening hours posted on the website and gates rarely match up to reality. Locals know to be prepared to stare wistfully through the black bars of English Heritage’s constraints before turning heel to find adventure elsewhere.
But on those glorious days when the gates have been flung open, a whole world is ready to be explored.
The abbey stands resolute on a swathe of green grass. It may have no roof and be missing many walls but it still cuts a striking figure, some may say more so with its jagged edges and open doorways enticing all across the threshold to a journey through time.
Founded over 800 years ago, it’s incredible to think about the history these beautiful bricks have seen. Reflect as you pass through entrances frequented by monks, servants, lords, romantics and (if you believe the rumours) the odd haunting spectre. Poke your head through windows that have viewed storms, near demolition and the creeping progress of nature in the days when ivy ruled the ruins.
Nowadays, the former church buildings shine in their shades of grey with mossy, green trimmings. Pick a bright, clear day to visit and the walls will pop next to the blue skies so much your eyes will water.
Look carefully at the stonework; atop even the highest perches, blooms are blossoming as spring unfurls. There are few openings or ledges without a sprig of greenery or a bright orange flower straining towards the light. It’s nice to think that the former residential Cistercian monks who were once so devoted to agriculture and the fruits of the land, may still have a hand in cultivating these wild window boxes. Gaze up in wonder at the colours of life finding its own way.
The monks of Netley were known for their austerity. They were never rich and never achieved anything “great”. What they were best known for was their hospitality. They provided a warm welcome, food and lodging for travellers; that must have been something more than great for weary wanderers. The monks may be gone, but let the walls welcome you in. Take a blanket and a picnic. Enjoy the hospitality. Sprawl out on the lush lawns and embrace this living, growing history.
Share this sacred space with children playing make-believe, amateur historians looking for clues, families playing catch and lots of dogs finding the best scents. Feel the past and embrace the present amongst the solid walls of Southampton’s long-standing love of welcoming those on a journey. As those first residents of the abbey laid out, all are welcome.
Cost: Free entry to the abbey grounds.
Accessibility: The accessibility to the grounds is governed by the opening and closing of gates that seem to follow no routine. Your best bet is a weekend. Once inside the grounds are mostly grass underfoot but without too much undulation and only a few steps in and out of the abbey that can be bypassed. Reach the site along Victoria Road in the parish of Netley in the east of the city on the banks of Southampton water.
Facilities: A small car park and a big abbey (remains of). Lots of green space. Follow Victoria Road down into Netley for refreshment requirements.
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