Hailes Abbey is a ruin of great significance, framed with a backdrop of roaming hills and fields as far as the eye can see. As with most ancient landmarks, the place requires a lot of imagination to really appreciate its former grandeur. The cloisters are about the only distinguishable part left of the building, while remnants of pillars and walls outline other rooms and areas of the Abbey. Information boards which are dotted around the site help to piece the maze together and give a valuable insight into the lives of the monks that dwelled within.
The building has a legendary story of origin. It was the result of a promise to God, made by Richard, Duke of Cornwall when faced with a near-death experience out at sea in the 13th century. Having lived, he was given the land at Hailes by his brother, King Henry III, and set about building the devout Cistercian Abbey. But the Abbey’s greatest story takes place 50 years later, when a small phial said to contain the blood of Christ was bestowed upon the church in 1270. The relic earned Hailes a name of great repute and attracted pilgrims near and far who sought to pray to ‘the Holy Blood of Hailes’.
When accurately imagined, the scale of Hailes Abbey is impressive. It is as much a blueprint of the monks’ lifestyles as it is a place of holy reflection. The plot contains dormitories, a kitchen, a large dining hall and an infirmary for the sick. Clearly visible from ground level is the basis of the marvellous underground water system, where natural water from the surrounding hills was directed to areas underneath the building and used in the latrines and wash room. Some cupboards and shelves also remain intact within the Abbey walls.
Having filled your boots and your brains with the history of the Abbey, take a little walk further up the lane to find the Orchard Tearoom and Hayles Farm shop. It’s a 5-10 minute walk from the church and being on a slight incline, offers pretty views over the orchard and beyond. The tearoom has a range of simple but effective snacks and light meals, with ample seating inside and a few tables dotted outside during times of fair weather. If wanting more of an excursion, there are several meandering paths through the hills beyond the Farm shop. These are on the list for my next visit.
A bright day makes all the difference here. My favourite feature of the site has to be the Latin inscription found on the north wall of the cloisters, though I am unsure how far back this dates. Translated, it reads
It is good to be here. Here man more purely lives, less oft doth fall, more promptly rises, walks with stricter heed, more safely rests, dies happier, is freed earlier from cleansing fires, and gains withall a brighter crown; Saint Bernard
Now I am not in any way a religious person, but this is such a tranquil spot that is hard not to embrace the spiritual ambience of the place. While sitting in what is now effectively a nice little sun-trap in the centre of the cloisters, looking at the gracious hills around me and listening to nothing but the gentle baa-ing from the sheep in the next field, I certainly agree that this place is good for me.