Echoes of history

Will YeomanThe West Australian
The ruins of Glastonbury Abbey.
Camera IconThe ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. Credit: Will Yeoman/The West Australian

Whence comes our enduring fascination with dilapidated buildings, those “bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang”? Are they metaphysical marvels or merely thrillingly spooky? Evidence of the glories of empires past or merely their follies? I can’s speak for others, but no matter where in the world I find myself there’s nothing like a good ruin to salve the soul with sweet melancholy.

As children growing up in York, in WA’s Avon Valley, my brothers and I would play amongst the ruins of farm buildings on Ballardong Farm. Recently I returned to York and found the old drive-in we used to frequent as a family, the building which once housed the projection room, cafe and toilets a shell, the screen beyond nothing but a mass of rusty, twisted metal.

Driving along Lovers Lane on the way back from nearby Toodyay one fine spring day, I passed an abandoned stone cottage adorned with graffiti. Somewhat optimistically a “For Sale” sign stood out the front. I assumed it referred primarily to the land. But I would have bought it just for the cottage.

Landscape with ruin, along Lovers Lane Scenic Drive, outside Toodyay.
Camera IconLandscape with ruin, along Lovers Lane Scenic Drive, outside Toodyay. Credit: Will Yeoman/The West Australian

In Darwin are many ruins which are monuments to war and natural disaster.

In the centre of town there is the former Palmerston Town Hall, finished in 1883. In 1974 Cyclone Tracy started the building’s new life as a ruin; subsequent conservation work ensured its future as a popular public space for recreation and performances.

I also have a fondness for strolling around the remains of the World War II military installations at Darwin’s East Point. They stand like ghostly monoliths in a blasted landscape.

I remember once visiting the atmospheric ruins of North Yorkshire’s Whitby Abbey, where Bram Stoker’s 1897 gothic horror classic Dracula is partly set. For some time now Whitby has been a place of pilgrimage for goths, emos and other fey creatures of the night.

As a pale, wan vegetarian dressed in black, I was unfortunately mistaken for one of their kind. So I thought it best to curtail my twilight perambulations and repair to a nearby tavern before one of them tried to engage me in conversation.

World War II military installations at Darwin’s East Point.
Camera IconWorld War II military installations at Darwin’s East Point. Credit: Will Yeoman/The West Australian

The church and monastery of Glastonbury Abbey was formerly an enormous complex, rich in architectural detail and blazing in polychrome glory. The surviving Lady Chapel, a masterpiece of Romanesque architecture, is the size of a small church on its own.

Now, apart from the Lady Chapel and the Abbot’s Kitchen, little besides remains except the broken piers and pierced walls of parts of the nave, the north and south transept and the choir. The foundations of what was there can be traced in the grass, a ghostly footprint of the abbey’s former glory.

In her book in her book The Ruins Lesson: Meaning and Material in Western Culture, poet and essayist Susan Stewart writes:

“What we can learn of ruins necessarily comes from the legible and visible record of the past, but we might remember that ruins often are both steeped in and surrounded by absence. They invite quiet contemplation as much as response, and they immerse the viewer-listener in association and reverie.”

Quiet contemplation is underrated, especially when you’re on a busy travel itinerary. Ruins and abandoned buildings might be fragments. But they are as open-ended and pregnant with possibility as unfinished buildings. To pass them by is to miss an opportunity to learn something about not just the past but the future.

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