Hailes Abbey is a strange one in that it has been owned by the National Trust for over 60 years but is now run and managed by English Heritage so the road signs that direct you to the abbey feature the English Heritage crenellated square rather than the NT leaves. The guidebook is also emblazoned with the English Heritage logo and both English Heritage and NT members can access the site for free.
The road to Hailes was very familiar to me as I travel along the Broadway to Winchcombe road twice a day for four days every year on the annual pilgrimage to the Cheltenham horse racing festival, a very different pilgrimage from the one that many people once took to see the phial of Christ’s holy blood at Hailes (later decreed by Henry VIII’s commissioners to be a mix of clarified honey coloured with saffron). As a result of my love of horse racing, I have seen the signs to Hailes Abbey many times but have never had the time to turn off the road to look at it. Today, though, I made the turn and drifted along a single-track lane towards the familiar line of hills in the distance. The road winds under a weeping willow and there is parking alongside an old boxy church, which actually pre-dates the existence of the abbey. A sign indicates that Hailes Fruit Farm – complete with a tearoom – is a further 400 yards along the road and although I didn’t check it out, other pilgrims in need of refreshment may well like to do so.
Well, what can I say about Hailes Abbey? First off, it’s a ruin. I have to say that straight away because ruins are generally a bit of a turn-off for me, hence the reason I’m a member of the National Trust and not English Heritage, which tends to specialise in buildings that aren’t quite all there. Still, I was determined to do the site justice, so I bought the guidebook and was given an audio guide to accompany my walk around the stones.
And it was a nice walk, that’s for sure. I probably only saw another four or five people in all the time I was there and it was incredibly peaceful, just wandering around with the morning mists over the hills and the odd burst of bright sunshine to light up the few cloister arches that are still standing. The tour takes you through the plot where the church once stood and in and out of many of the former rooms used by the monks. Unfortunately, much of this walk is across the grass so the bottoms of my jeans were quickly soaked with morning dew and my feet were slightly clammy in my wet boots for several hours afterwards.
The audio tour also seemed to take quite a long time, at least it felt that way to someone who isn’t particularly enamoured of ruins and can’t generate too much excitement about the lives of monks many hundreds of years ago. Others may appreciate the actors playing the part of former inhabitants of the abbey and the detailed descriptions of what was once there, but I admit I got a bit bored. Despite my very active imagination, I struggled to ‘see’ the views that were being described in such flowery terms on the audio and after a while I tended to wander ahead to get to the next information board before my guide told me to. The boards were actually quite interesting and unless you’re really fascinated by old abbey ruins, these would actually suffice to fill you in on the main facts.
Once you have finished walking the grounds, there is a museum alongside the shop, which gives some further information and exhibits some artefacts from the site. The most interesting items for me were the old tiles that would once have decorated the floors of the church.
A clear sign of my penchant for slightly more recent history is that, for me, the most interesting part of Hailes’ history is actually the demise of the abbey during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries! Ironically, it would seem that Hailes Abbey struggled financially for many years but was at its richest when Henry decided to dissolve the monasteries and pinch all their money. The last decades of the abbey’s existence were its most prosperous, just in time to make it a perfect target for the plundering king. Doh!
I guess we have to say that Henry had a lot to answer for and that Hailes Abbey could have been a beautiful part of the Gloucestershire countryside today. But I have to admit that even in its current state, it’s still a beautiful part of the countryside… just a pile of stones, but a very nice pile of stones to take a walk in on a quiet Wednesday morning in late-September.
PS: To continue a trend, this is the fourth property in a row to have had a visit from a queen, this time with her king, as Henry III and Queen Eleanor dedicated the abbey in 1251.
Highlights: A nice walk in peaceful surroundings