Living here in North Yorkshire I have a pretty fixed idea of what it is like to visit an abbey. We are spoiled for impressive stone ruins set in beautiful open green landscapes. Two of the nation’s stunners – Fountains Abbey and Bolton Abbey – are less than 30 minutes drive from Harrogate.
Fontevraud Abbey Heritage
I wish that I had cleared my head completely of these pre-conceived notions before visiting Fontevraud Abbey in the Loire Valley. It was a bit of a culture shock. Bear in mind, the French didn’t have Henry VIII so abbey ruins are not de rigueur. You would think that is a good thing; am I right? Not having a petulant monarch knocking down institutions and nicking treasures? Funny how things turn out after a few centuries have gone by.
L’Abbaye Fontevraud is enclosed by the local town and has been kept in use over the long centuries. The stonework is all carefully repointed and the floors have been re-tiled. The gardens were redesigned at some point and little things that have worn out have been replaced. To my eyes, the amount of restoration was extreme, but I suppose they had to maintain it if it was kept in use. Sadly the work done has affected the character and made a lot of the building quite sterile.
Modernised Plantagenet Burials
At Fontevraud the big attractions are the royal Plantagenet tombs or effigies. This is the burial site of English king Henry II and his formidable queen Eleanor. Here lie also Richard the 1st (the Lionheart ) and another former English queen, Isabelle who was wife of King John. These beautiful ancient tombs hold pride of place in the nave, just in front of the lofty, columned altar area. But they are mounted on naff stone tiles raised above a matching floor, and surrounded by a nasty aluminium railing which reminded me of a municipal swimming pool. Whilst the medieval effigies have been retained, any other heritage from their environment has been obliterated by a poor interior redesign.
There is a lot more to Fontevraud Abbey and we spent a long time seeing over the whole site. There were cloisters, a few ancient frescos, plenty of historic outbuildings, a restaurant, caves and an art gallery. Every last bit is “maintained” or “restored” so if you decide to make a visit, I suggest you brace yourself. You might get a more authentic heritage experience at one of the many chateaux nearby.
I did manage to get some nice photos and I think my favourite is the columned nave with my children behind the altar. There were plenty of photographic opportunities to show light and dark, views through arches and perspective using the cloisters. The light in the abbey is pretty good as the stone is pale grey which reflects natural light quite well. Arched windows let in the daylight. Contrast was difficult so I did edit most images to reduce that and lift some detail out of shadow a bit. Which do you like? Do let me know in the comments.
N.B. I am going to plan a new blog series about learning or improving photography and I would love your suggestions of what you want to read about. Please send me lots of ideas by commenting on this blog or contact me by email email@example.com. You can also tweet me or contact me using Facebook (my social media buttons are in the bar at the top of the blog). Don’t be shy, get in touch!