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Driving home from a short break in the English Lake District, which is only about a two hour journey for us, we decided to turn off the motorway and take a more scenic route home.
We left the motorway at Gretna Green and drove along the coast of the Solway Firth to the village of NEW ABBEY.
It doesn't take a modern-day Sherlock Holmes to deduce that there's a fair-to-middling chance that a village called new Abbey might possibly have some connection to the monastic way of life. And indeed it does.
In 1273, a Cistercian abbey was founded here by Lady Devorgilla in memory of her late husband, John Balliol.
Lady Devorgilla's claim to fame is that she kept her husband's embalmed heart in a casket and carried it with her until her own death in 1289. When she died, she was buried, together with his heart, near the altar of what was then known as New Abbey.
The Cistercian monks chose the name 'Dulce Cor' or SWEETHEART, in her honour.
Lady Devorgilla was a bit of a philanthropist. Among other acts, she also endowed Balliol College in Oxford in 1282. I suppose she could afford to as her son was the John Balliol who became King of Scotland (with a little help from King Edward I - who, as he giveth, so he taketh away. When Balliol didn't meekly submit to his whims, Eddie-boy stripped him of his regalia.)
Edward I, the (The Hammer of the Scots) stayed at the abbey in 1300 but unlike most of the other abbeys and buildings in the Borders, it was left relatively unscathed by English invasions.
The religious and political upheaval of the Reformation saw the death-knell of the abbey as a place of wor
ship - the last monks were forced out in 1608. Under the strict Calvinistic presbyterianism of the time, the Lords of the Congregation ordered the building and its 'Papish Idolotry' to be destroyed but the local land-owner, Lord Maxwell, refused. Unfortunately, the cloister was later
used as a quarry while the church, rather carelessly, lost its roof.
Some local gentlemen acquired the abbey in 1779 and prevented further damage before the building came under state ownership in 1928.
Despite all that the ravages of time could throw at it, a fairly substantial part of the abbey still stands, including the nave, choir, bell tower and the great east window (minus the glass!). It also has the most complete precinct walls of any Scottish medieval monastery.
The site of Sweetheart Abbey could not have been more perfect for the Cistercians - solitude and seclusion reigned supreme. It lies on rich and fertile land in the shadow of Criffel, an imposing granite mountain, and alongside New Abbey Pow (a stream) close to where the river Nith flows into the Solway. Lots of fast-running burns provided drinking water, water for fishponds, and power for mills.
Although it's a peaceful and secluded spot, it's very easy to find and is well signposted - just follow the A710 from Dumfries for 5 miles south to New Abbey, then through the village to Sweetheart.
The first thing that strikes you is the red sandstone that the abbey is constructed from. It's an almost coral-pink colour and looks magnificent when caught in the sunlight, especially at sunset. It's actually quite a common building material in the South-West of Scotland (indeed, most of Glasgow's Victorian tenements are constructed of it) but it's quite unusual for such an a
t building, and especially one in such good condition as this stone is pretty soft and erodes fairly quickly.
Ironically, most of the domestic buildings which have long since vanished were constructed of granite.
The outline of the Cloister is well defined, but is no longer enclosed - the buildings which housed the brother's accommodation to the west, and the kitchens to the south having long since gone. It's still possible t
o sense what it was like to some degree though.
To the north are the ruins of various buildings, such as:
* The Warming Room - the only room which had a fire for purposes other than cooking. The monks were allowed to gather for a short time each day.
* The Parlour - the only room where the monks were allowed to speak informally with each other.
* The Chapter house - where the brothers gathered to confess their sins and discuss business.
* The library - self explanatory.
From here you enter into the main building through the SOUTH TRANSEPT which is where you'll find the restored tomb of Devorgilla. There's also an effigy of the Lady holding her husband's embalmed heart. Sadly, it's quite badly damaged.
THE CHOIR is the holiest part of the church and contained the High Altar -it's possibly the best preserved area. The bar tracery on the east wall here is quite spectacular. It must have been impressive when the building was still intact and resplendent with stained glass - it's impressive enough yet. A modern stone marks the position where Devorgilla was interred.
The NORTH TRANSEPT held several chapels and a spiral staircase led to the bell tower.
THE NAVE was
for the u
se of the brothers attending services and was divided from the Choir, and the monks, by a screen.
The whole abbey complex was enclosed in a walled precinct amounting to some 30 acres. The southern boundary being a deep, water-filled ditch, with the remaining three sides being built with granite boulders which were probably cleared from the site prior to the abbey's construction. these walls were 9ft high and much of them still remain.
* Opening hours *
April to September:
9.30am-6.30pm Mon-Sat, 2pm-6.30pm Sun
October to March:
9.30am-4.30pm Mon-Wed and Sat
9.30am-1pm Thurs, 2pm-4.30pm Sun.
* Admission *
Adult £1.20, Child 50p, Conces
Parking is free and there are toilet facilities in the car park. It's suitable for disabled visitors, although there are a couple of areas where there are steps.
We were there at the end of March and practically had the place to ourselves, with only a group of half-a-dozen Italian tourists for company. There were people arriving as we were leaving, and as the car park was fairly large, I expect it gets quite busy in the summer.
It's worth spending a little time in the village of New Abbey itself. It's a delightful, picturesque little place with a few shops and eating possibilities. There are two pubs - the Criffel Inn and the Abbey Arms, and there's a restaurant next to the Abbey car park which also serves light snacks.
THE NEW ABBEY CORN MILL, at the opposite end of the village, is an attraction in itself. Although the present mill only dates from the 1700's, it's built on the site of an earlier mill which was used by the abbey.
for demonstrations throughout the summer and, as it's also owned by Historic Scotland, a joint ticket can be purchased.
For more information about this corner of Scotland, go to:
Thanks for reading