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Netley Abbey

ETLEY ABBEY is situated at a short distance from the eastern bank of Southampton Water, and about eight miles east of Southampton. The walk to it from Southampton is one of entrancing beauty, rich in all the charms of water and woodland. Only part of the walls of the Abbey remain, but the site of the ruin is of considerable extent. It is embosomed in foliage, oaks and other trees rising in thick clumps round it; while within the roofless walls trees of a lighter description have sprung up, and the blue sky shines down on the ruins through a tracery of green leaves, while luxuriant ivy clothes the grey walls and hangs in wreaths from them, so that scarcely a fragment of them can be seen till the visitor is close to them.

Netley Abbey stood, and stands, on a gentle elevation that rises above the bank of Southampton Water, Originally it seems to have been built as a square; but very little is left of the Abbey save the remains of the church, which occupied one of its sides. It appears to have been 200 feet in length by 60 in breadth, and to have been crossed at the centre by a transept of 120 feet in length. The walls can be distinctly traced, except in the northern portion of the transept Many broken columns still remain, and there are also windows in different parts of the walls more or less defaced, yet showing that the Abbey must have possessed uncommon architectural beauty The east end is the most entire, and has an elegant and elaborately finished window. We have stood also in the Abbot's kitchen, which is of great size; and in the refectory, which is conjecturally pointed out. Netley was once surrounded by a moat, of which traces are still discernible; and there are two large ponds not far from the buildings, which probably once supplied the brethren with fish; they are deep and full, and overhung by trees and underwood. About 200 feet from the west end of the church, and near the water, was a small building called Netley Fort, built by Henry VIII.

The South transept, Netley Abbey

On the turf in the church lie many fragments of the old roof, which bear mute testimony to an accident, of which a strange account has been preserved in the locality. The Abbey roof was entire up to 1704, when Sir Bartlet Lucy possessed the Abbey, With singular want of feeling or sentiment, the Earl of Huntingdown, its next possessor, actually sold the materials of the church to a builder. The following strange story is told of this purchase by Browne Walters, the antiquary:-

"The earl, it is said, made a contract with a Mr. Walter Taylor, a builder of Southampton, for the complete demolition of the Abbey; it being intended by Taylor to employ the materials in erecting a town house at Newport and other buildings. After making this agreement, however, Taylor dreamed that, as he was pulling down a particular window, one of the stones forming the arch fell upon him, and killed him. His dream impressed him so forcibly that he mentioned the circumstance to a friend, who is said to have been the father of the well-known Dr. Isaac Watts, and in some perplexity asked his advice. His friend thought it would be the safest course for him to have nothing to do with the affair, respecting which he had been so alarmingly forewarned, and endeavoured to persuade him to desist from his intention. Taylor, however, at last decided upon paying no attention to his dream, and accordingly began his operations for the pulling down of the building; in which he had not proceeded far, when, as he was assisting at the work, the arch of one of the windows, but not the one he had dreamed of (which was the east window still standing), fell upon his head and fractured his skull. It was thought at first that the wound would not prove mortal; but it was aggravated through the unskilfulness of the surgeon, and the man died."

The accident that befell Taylor was thought to have been a judgment of Heaven on him, and the Abbey was thus saved from demolition.

This story is told in the "History of Mitred Abbeys," and is quite intelligible. The instinctive reverence of the builder, struggling with his greed, undoubtedly caused his dreams, aided perhaps by his knowledge that the task of taking down the Abbey church must necessarily be a dangerous one. Happily, however, the walls still in great part remain, probably no one caring to take the risk of their removal.

Netley has no longer any architectural perfection to boast, but the loveliness of its position is unrivalled - the beautiful trees, the blue water, the distant view out nearly to the Needles, the sea breezes sighing through the trees, will always render its site attractive. Bowles has written the following lines on Netley, which describe the effect it has on one's mind very accurately:-

"Fallen pile! I ask not what has been thy fate
But when the winds, slow-wafted from the main,
Through each rent arch, like spirits that complain,
Come hollow to my ear, I meditate
On this world's passing pageant, and the lot
of those who once might proudly in their prime
Have stood with giant port; till, bowed by time
Or injury, their ancient boast forgot,
They might have sunk like thee; though thus forlorn,
They lift their heads, with venerable hairs
Besprent, majestic yet, and as in scorn
of mortal vanities and short-lived cares;
E'en so dost thou, lifting thy forehead grey,
smile at the tempest and time a sweeping sway."

The Abbey was founded by Peter Roche, Bishop of Winchester, in the thirteenth century. Its monks belonged to the severe order of the Cistercians, and were originally brought from the neighbouring Abbey of Beaulieu.

It was never a rich establishment, and at the dissolution of the monasteries it contained only an abbot and twelve monks, while its net revenue has only a hundred per annum. Moreover, it possessed only one book! - a copy of Cicero's "Treatise on Rhetoric." In 1537 the place was granted by the king to Sir William Paulet, afterwards the celebrated Marquis of Winchester, of whose valiant defence of Basing House, in the time of the civil war, the memory still exists in Hampshire.

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Picturesque England - Matthew Spong 2004