“we were struck dumb with admiration, and I wish I could write anything that would come near to the sublimity of it.” – Fanny Austen Knight
The UK town of Basingstoke is often noted as being the home of all things Jane Austen. She was of course born just outside of the town and indeed spent a lot of time there, but I bet you didn’t know that Austen also spent a lot of her life in Southampton, a city relatively close to my home town.
Netley Abbey was a place of huge interest to Jane and her family, and they often frequented the ruin, visiting by boat from central Southampton. It is situated close to Southampton water, and is said to have been the inspiration behind the house in Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey – her first to be written, though it was published posthumously.
The abbey itself is a true statement of medieval architecture, and now much easier to reach by car than by boat. It was founded originally in 1239 and is now the most complete surviving abbey built by the Cistercian monks in southern England, with the majority of it’s 13th century church and other monastic buildings still standing.
Later on it’s life, the abbey was converted into a fashionable Tudor home, but most of the changes made in this time were removed in the 19th century in order to restore it’s original medieval beauty and charm.
Since then, it has long been seen as a place heralded by the romantics and a place of inspiration and thought – much like it was for Jane Austen. Other writers such as Horace Walpole were also inspired by these walls, naming it the ruins of “paradise”, and it’s not hard to see why when you visit for yourself.
It really is breathtaking. As you enter you are blown away by the sheer size of the ruin, and the space in which you can walk around and explore. The frames of the medieval still windows tower high over you, especially in the main hall, and you can easily pass from room to room imagining what life was like in the abbey’s early days.
It is suggested that you do try to pick a sunny day for your visit though, as there is very little in the form of shelter and no path – only grass – and it can be fairly muddy on days like this. However, I think bad weather wouldn’t spoil it at all if you did luck out. Instead, rainy days transport you and make you feel as though you are part of your own Gothic novel, like Walpole, and it makes the place come alive in a completely different way.
I have to say that Netley Abbey is one of my favourite places to visit when I go back to visit my family. It’s the perfect space to take time out and be with your own thoughts. It also brings back a lot of positive memories for me from visiting when I was younger. I even organised a photoshoot there as part of my photography A-level with the lovely Alissa of Lissa Tissa Two Shoes, and I
hope think the way the pictures came out made up for her having to wear a vintage wedding dress in the cold all day – sorry Alissa!
It really is worth a visit just to be transported, like Walpole and Austen, and to experience a medieval ruin like no other; and best of all, it’s free!
All historical information and photos (unless stated) taken from English Heritage.