The Century Numbering Mystery

Arch of Titus, Via Sacra, Rome

Arch of Titus, Via Sacra, Rome

The photo above shows the Arch of Titus, spanning the Via Sacra near the forum in Rome, taken by me while on holiday there in 1978. Although the arch displays several Latin inscriptions commemorating the achievements of the Emperor Titus, nowhere in those inscriptions are any numeric year dates provided.

Historians believe that the arch was built in 82 AD, where AD (Anno Domini) is of course a reference to the supposed year of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, but at that time Rome was not Christian, so obviously they would not have been numbering years “AD”. How then did the Romans, and other early civilizations, number the years?

What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?

Given that so many aspects of our civilization can be traced back to the Classical times of Greece and Rome, it’s reasonable to assume that our system for numbering years would have Roman origins. However, thanks to an attempt to “Christianize” the Roman system, our current system has some strange quirks that continue to cause confusion.

Recently, during a news report, I heard the announcer state that an event that had occurred during the 1920s took place in the “Nineteenth Century”. In fact, as most people know, the period from 1901 through 2000 was the Twentieth Century, but exactly why is that? Why aren’t years from 1900 through 1999 referred to as the Nineteenth Century, and why did the Twentieth Century start in 1901?

I’ll answer those questions here, but I’m afraid that the answers may be rather uninspiring!

Trick Questions

When I was growing up, I used to spend quite a lot of time watching quiz shows on TV. (Well, we only had two channels, so there wasn’t much to watch!) Most of these were “trivia” contests, where the participants were asked questions to test their knowledge of a wide variety of subjects.

I’m not sure how educational those experiences were, but I do recall one type of “trick question” that was often asked on these shows. The quizmaster would ask something like, “What is the first year of the Twentieth Century?” The correct answer is 1901, but the anticipated wrong answers would be either “1900” or even “2000”.

These oddities sparked my curiosity, leading me to ask the questions listed above. I asked my schoolteachers about it, but they seemed unable to give a rational answer. Eventually, as an adult, I discovered that the reason for this mystery is, in part at least, ancient ignorance!

Year Zero

Our current “Common Era”/”Before Common Era” year numbering system (abbreviated to “CE/BCE”, and previously called the “AD/BC” system) is one among several systems that have been used during the past few thousand years. Some other systems are still in use now.

A common feature of all these systems is that the starting year is completely arbitrary. Some systems attempted to number years from the supposed creation of the Earth, but their estimates of Earth’s age were wildly inaccurate, so in effect the starting year was still arbitrary.

In fact, it may be just as well that we do have an arbitrary datum year, and that we don’t attempt to number years from the date of Earth’s creation. According to the latest research, Earth is about 4.54 billion years old. Every time you sign a check or contract, would you want to have to write out the year as something like “4,542,311,018”? I don’t think so!

The Years AUC

When Romans in the West wanted to provide a numeric year date, they sometimes numbered the years from the supposed “Founding of Rome”, which they named Ab Urbe Condita (AUC).

This date again was arbitrary, in the sense that there was no independent confirmation that Rome had really been founded in that year. In our current CE/BCE system, the year 1 AUC corresponds to 753 BCE.

The AUC system was not used consistently, and such dates may have been added in surviving literature.

The Years AM

The Byzantine Empire (which was the development of the Eastern Roman Empire) used a year numbering system known as AM (for Anno Mundi), which supposedly numbered the years from the date of Earth’s creation. The Year One AM was from September 1, 5509 BCE, to August 31, 5508 BCE.

This also illustrates the point that, even in our own calendar, the start of a year hasn’t always been on January 1st. This fact makes it more difficult to align year computations in different calendar systems.

In about 525 CE, a Christian monk called Dionysius Exiguus was once again engaged in an attempt to determine the age of the Earth from the Bible, and this led him to develop the CE/BCE (or AD/BC, as he called it) year numbering system that we now use.

Ancient Blunders

Frankie Howerd in a Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Frankie Howerd in a Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

My illustration above shows Frankie Howerd performing in the stage play version of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. His expression seems appropriate in this context, because some details of the CE/BCE system seem like something that Howerd’s Roman slave character might have concocted!

The CE/BCE system also has an arbitrary start year; in this case the supposed birthdate of someone who may never have existed (and if he did exist, probably wasn’t born in that year)!

If you’ve learned about the history of arithmetic, then you’ll know that the concept of zero was introduced to Europe during the Middle Ages from the Arabic world, and was previously unknown to Western civilizations. Dionysius Exiguus apparently wasn’t familiar with the concept, so he omitted it from his year numbering system.

As a result of that ancient ignorance, there is no Year Zero in the CE/BCE system. The year numbering goes straight from 1 BCE to 1 CE. This is part of the reason why century numbering in this system seems so confusing.

The system also has no concept of a “Zeroth Century”, either BCE or CE. Thus, the years from 1 CE through 100 CE are the “First Century CE”, which accounts for the correct answer to that “trick question” about why the years from 1901 CE through 2000 CE are the Twentieth Century CE.

Below, I’ve created a table showing how the years AUC, CE and BCE align with century numbering. This should be a helpful reference, at least for people like me, who are more visually-oriented.

Centuries BCE and CE

Centuries BCE and CE

The general algebraic formulae for the centuries are as follows:

The Nth Century CE runs from [(N-1)*100 + 1] CE through N*100 CE

The Nth Century BCE runs from N*100 BCE through [(N-1)*100 + 1] BCE

Of course, as I mentioned above, years didn’t always start on January 1st, so this table is only a rough guide. There have also been date adjustments over the centuries, such as when the Gregorian calendar superseded the Julian calendar, so, before asserting the exact equivalence of two dates, further checking would be wise.

Arch of Titus, Via Sacra, Rome

Arch of Titus, Via Sacra, Rome

Flying North Again

Tatra T87 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art

Tatra T87 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art

The photo above shows a preserved Tatra T87 automobile, which, in my opinion, must surely be the ultimate “Art Deco Car”. Designed in Czechoslovakia in 1936, this particular example was built in 1948. The swooping lines and graceful curves of the design are highlighted in this case by the gleaming silver paintwork.

I’d have expected to find a car such as this on display in a prestigious European motor museum, so I was quite astonished this week when I visited the Minneapolis Institute of Art, in the Midwest of the USA, and found it there.

The reason for my visit to Minneapolis was simply because that’s my wife’s hometown. We went there to visit her family, most of who still live in or around that city. We had a great visit with everyone, but I must confess that, as I get older, I increasingly prefer the comforts of my home, so I was glad to get back!

Far Away is Close at Hand in Models of Elsewhere

Many years ago, during the 1970s, there was a famous item of graffiti that appeared near the approach to Paddington railway station in London, which ran:

Far away is close at hand in Images of Elsewhere

The first inkling that I ever had that there existed a place called the “Midwest” was when I was about 7 years old. In 1967, the Trans-World Model Railway opened at the Corner Café in Scarborough. This was a gigantic OO/HO scale model railway, which included inter-connected sections depicting Britain, France, Germany, and, via an “Atlantic Bridge”, the USA and Canada.

One of the US sections was captioned “The Midwest”, but of course I had no real idea where it was, nor did I ever expect to visit such a place, and I certainly never imagined that I might one day marry someone from there!

Having been married to Mary for some 27 years now, I’ve traveled with her to Minnesota on many occasions. We try to visit different places during each visit.

The Inland Beaches

As you might guess, the Midwest is far from either the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans, so there’s no ocean frontage to be found there. Nonetheless, given that Minnesota is the “Land of 10,000 Lakes”, there are still beaches within the state. The photo below shows one: Thomas Beach, on Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis, with the skyscrapers of downtown visible in the distance.

Thomas Beach & Downtown Minneapolis

Thomas Beach & Downtown Minneapolis

As a girl, my wife lived in an apartment that’s behind the trees on the far side of the lake, and she used to swim at this beach.

A Cultural Center

I realize that the Midwest may not generally be thought of as a center of culture, but in fact (probably thanks to its industrial wealth) Minneapolis has more than its “fair share” of cultural attractions.

In the past, I’ve visited the Walker Art Center, and various local museums, but I’d never before been to the vast Minneapolis Institute of Art. Hanging above the lobby of the Institute is a large glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly, as shown below.

Dale Chihuly Exhibit, Minneapolis Institute of Art

Dale Chihuly Exhibit, Minneapolis Institute of Art

Inside the Institute, many substantial collections are on display, covering all time periods from the Stone Age to the present, and spanning all continents.

Amid the collection of Twentieth Century artwork, there’s one painting by Piet Mondrian, whose art and beliefs I discussed in an earlier post. The photo below shows a closeup of his initials at the bottom left of the painting, to prove that it’s really his, rather than some simulation that I cobbled together on my computer!

Mondrian's Initials

Mondrian’s Initials

There’s also a large collection of Impressionist works, three of which are shown below. The painting on the left, Notre Dame de Paris by Maximilien Luce, sold in 2011 for $4.2 million, a record amount for an Impressionist work.

Some Impressionist Works

Some Impressionist Works

It’s impossible to do justice to the scale of the Institute’s collections in this short article, and I would encourage you to visit this amazing museum yourself if you’re ever in the vicinity.

The Scandinavian Diaspora

Many of the early European settlers in what’s now Minnesota came from the Scandinavian countries; Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Apparently, circa 1900, about 25% of the population of Minneapolis consisted of Swedish emigrés. Thus, it’s perhaps not surprising that Minneapolis is home to the American Swedish Institute. We visited this Institute too, and took the tour of the Turnblad Mansion, which was built in 1908 by the proprietor of a Swedish-language newspaper. The mansion is shown in the photo below, seen from inside the modern extension built next to it.

The American Swedish Institute

The American Swedish Institute

The ASI also has an excellent restaurant, FIKA, but it’s an understandably popular lunch venue, so you may have to wait for a table!

Flying Home

We returned to San Francisco airport directly from Minneapolis. I took the emotive photo below from my seat, as our Boeing 737-800 was descending to land in San Francisco. Our flight left Minneapolis at about 6.30pm, so we were “chasing the sunset” back to California as shown in the photo.

Boeing 737-800 Landing at Sunset

Boeing 737-800 Landing at Sunset

The circumstances of my flight reminded me of the lyrics of Thomas Dolby’s song Flying North, which was popular in the early 1980s when I was first traveling to the US. Part of the lyrics are:

Metal bird dip wing of fire

Whose airlanes comb dark Earth

The poles are tethers we were born in

Now I’m back in the London night

On a bench in a launderette

I’m staring right into my face

And I’m drawn out like a plot

And I’m flying North again

Tonight

These days, I’m no longer flying home to London, of course. Instead, we just had a wonderful dose of Midwest culture, and now it’s great to be back home in California!

Tatra T87 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art

Tatra T87 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art

The Last Day of Steam at Agecroft

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Last Day of Steam at Agecroft: Locomotives 1 and 2

The image above shows two steam locomotives that, on the day that I photographed them, were just being retired from active commercial service. On the basis of that description, you might think that this must have occurred some time during the 1940s or 1950s, but I’m not that old! In fact the date of the photo is Saturday, 12 September, 1981.

I mentioned in an earlier post that, during the summers I spent as an apprentice at Ferranti in Manchester, I was always on the lookout for interesting local places to visit at the weekends. These days, of course, such places are easy to locate—you just do a web search—but back then it was more difficult and more haphazard.

At some point during my first summer in Manchester, I must have spotted a notice somewhere advertising the Last Day of Steam at Agecroft Power Station. I didn’t have a car, which made it difficult to visit places that were not well-served by public transport. Fortunately though, as I learned from my A-Z street map, the power station was in Pendlebury, not too far from where I was living in Middleton, so I went along on the advertised day to see what was happening.

The map excerpt below, which is from a later 1992 edition of a Manchester street atlas, shows the location of the power station, near a railway line and a canal (for deliveries), and the River Irwell (for cooling water). The nearby Agecroft Colliery was the source for the station’s coal. The general appearance of the power station is shown in this BBC photo.

AgecroftPS1992Map

A Coal-Based Operation

As is well known (in the UK at least), British Rail had phased out steam traction in 1968, but that change didn’t apply to other users of steam locomotives in Britain. The locomotives at the power station were owned by the nationalized Central Electricity Generating Board, and, since the station was itself coal-fired, it made some sense to keep the locomotives in operation for as long as possible.

Three locomotives were being retired that day, and were giving joy rides to the public, as shown in these photos. They had all been built by the famous firm Robert Stephenson & Co., in 1948, so by steam locomotive standards, they were still relatively new. Locomotive No. 1 was painted red, and Locomotive No. 2 was blue. Those locomotives are both visible in the heading photo.

Locomotive No. 3 was painted green, and is shown steaming in my photo below.

tr17-15Cright

Last Day of Steam: Locomotive 3

My photo below shows a more general view of the Power Station, with Locomotive No. 2 hauling joyriders in a set of yellow carriages.

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Joy Rides at the Power Station, 1981

Unfortunately, my photographs are all somewhat too dark, so it’s difficult to see the locomotives well in them. The sky that day was very showery, so lighting conditions were changing rapidly, and my camera had only manual controls. Such concepts as High-Dynamic Range photography were unknown to me in those days, and in any case not available with the equipment that I had.

Fortunately, someone else called Dave Dixon took much better photographs of the same event, and has made them publicly available on Flickr here.

What’s Left Of It All

Not surprisingly, following their withdrawal from CEGB service, all 3 steam locomotives were bought for preservation, so they all still exist. The same cannot be said for any part of Agecroft Power Station itself, which was closed in 1993, and demolished in 1994. The entire site was redeveloped and is now the location of a prison.

My presence at that historic event was very much a matter of chance. It was another of many Manchester locations that I visited, but which have now completely vanished.

Last Day of Steam at Agecroft: Locomotives 1 and 2

Last Day of Steam at Agecroft: Locomotives 1 and 2

California’s Petrified Forest

"The Queen": a Live Oak growing through Fossilized Redwood at the Petrified Forest

“The Queen”: a Live Oak growing through Fossilized Redwood at the Petrified Forest

The photo above, which I took during a visit to California’s Petrified Forest, shows the interesting juxtaposition of a live tree growing through the trunk of a fossilized tree.

I mentioned in an earlier post that, before I ever visited California, my ideas of the state had been seriously distorted by representations in British media. As a result, I thought that the Napa Valley must surely be a desert with rows of vines growing arbitrarily in it! Similarly, my view of a “petrified forest” was that it must be a group of blasted trunks standing in an arid landscape.

As you can see in these pictures, the California petrified forest, which is situated in the mountains between Santa Rosa and Calistoga, bears no resemblance to my naïve expectation. On the contrary, the petrified trees are in the middle of a living forest.

The land in which the forest is situated is privately-owned, but can be visited at specified times, and on purchase of tickets. Full details of the forest’s history can be found here, at the owners’ official web site. The fossils were created by what must have been a devastating volcanic eruption of Mount Saint Helena, about 3.4 million years ago. The remains of Mount Saint Helena are still plainly visible from the forest’s location, as shown below.

Mount Saint Helena, seen from the Petrified Forest

Mount Saint Helena, seen from the Petrified Forest

Many of the trees caught in the eruption were species of redwood, which is historically interesting because redwoods are not now to be found so far inland. It’s unclear whether the change was due to altered climate, or to a change in the actual position of the California coastline. The photo below shows a closeup of a living oak tree, growing through the fossilized trunk of a redwood known as “The Queen”.

"The Queen": trunk of Fossilized Redwood

“The Queen”: trunk of Fossilized Redwood

Many other species of tree have been discovered in fossilized form among the redwoods, including one pine tree, oaks, alders, spruces, firs, and so on. The photo below shows living manzanita bushes (with red bark) growing among the moss-covered stumps of fossilized trees.

PetrifiedForest2Cright

Manzanitas growing next to Fossilized Stumps

Following the volcanic eruption, the entire area must have been barren, but most of it is now covered with modern vegetation. However, some of the ash deposited during the eruption is still uncovered today, and little grows in it. Part of one of these “ash fields” is visible below.

Part of the remaining Ash Field

Part of the remaining Ash Field

The fossilized forest was discovered in 1870, and its fame soon spread. In 1880, the author Robert Louis Stevenson spent his honeymoon nearby (writing about it in his book The Silverado Squatters), and one of the fossilized redwoods is now named for him, as below.

The Robert Louis Stevenson Tree

The Robert Louis Stevenson Tree

You can take a docent-guided tour around the forest, or else stroll around at your leisure. The tour covers about half a mile, and it’s not particularly difficult, but it’s probably best to avoid taking it during the hottest or wettest weather!

If you’re ever visiting Wine Country, then the Petrified Forest is worth a visit. The site was closed temporarily for cleanup following last year’s fires, but is now open again.

London’s Post Office Tower: My First & Only Visit

Cover of my School Study, 1971

Cover of my School Study, 1971

At the age of eleven, I produced the illustration above for the cover of a “London Study” that we were required to write and illustrate at school. The study was created in connection with our school visit to the capital city, which had taken place in May 1971, just before I drew the cover.

As you may expect (given my interests), my cover drawing emphasized modes of transport. Additionally, I chose as the centerpiece a striking modern building to which we had paid a surprise visit during the trip, and which had substantially impressed me. Little did I know at that time that it would probably be my only opportunity ever to visit that iconic building.

The building in my drawing was the recently-built Post Office Tower (now known as the BT Tower). Even before that first visit to London, I was well aware of the existence of that structure, which was feted as a prime example of Britain’s dedication to the anticipated “White Heat of Technology”. In addition to its role as an elevated mount for microwave antennas, the Tower offered public viewing galleries providing spectacular views over Central London. There was also the famous revolving restaurant, leased to Butlin’s, the famous operator of down-market holiday camps.

The Tower and its restaurant began to feature prominently in the pop culture of the time. An early “starring” role was in the comedy movie Smashing Time, where, during a party in the revolving restaurant, the rotation mechanism supposedly goes out of control, resulting in a power blackout all over London.

In the more mundane reality of 1971, our school class arrived in London and settled into a rather seedy hotel in Russell Square. One evening, our teacher surprised us by announcing an addition to our itinerary. We would be visiting the public viewing galleries of the Post Office Tower, to watch the sun go down over London, and the lights come on! Needless to say, we were thrilled, even though we had no inkling that that would be our only-ever chance to do that.

There were actually several public viewing gallery floors, some of which featured glazing, while others were exposed to the elements, except for metal safety grilles. Fortunately, the weather during the evening that we visited was not exceptionally windy!

Concretopia

I’m currently reading the book Concretopia, by John Grindrod, which provides a fascinating history of Britain’s postwar architectural projects, both public and private.

Cover of Concretopia Book

One chapter of the book is dedicated to what was originally called the Museum Radio Tower (referring to the nearby British Museum). It provides detailed descriptions of the decisions that led to the construction of the tower, and reveals that at least one floor is still filled with the original 1960s-era communications technology.

Due to subsequent changes both in communications technology and British government policies regarding state involvement in such industries, much of the original function for which the Tower was built has now been rendered obsolete or moved elsewhere, leaving the building as something of a huge museum piece (ironically, in view of its original name).

The Once-and-Only Visit

In October 1971, a few months after my school class visit, a bomb exploded in the roof of the men’s toilets at the Top of the Tower Restaurant. Initially it was assumed that the IRA was responsible, but in fact the attack was accomplished by an anarchist group.

Fortunately, nobody was hurt in the incident, but it drew attention to the security vulnerabilities created by allowing public access to the Tower. The result was that the public viewing galleries were immediately closed down, never to be reopened, and Butlins’ Top of the Tower restaurant was informed that its lease would not be renewed after that expired in 1980.

Nonetheless, the Tower continued to appear in the media as an instantly recognizable icon. At around the same time, it was supposedly attacked by a particularly unlikely monster—Kitten Kong [link plays video]—in the British TV comedy series The Goodies.

My younger brother took the same school trip to London two years after me, but it was already too late; the Tower’s public viewing galleries were closed, so he never got to see the London twilight from that unique vantage point.

The Unexpected Technologist

On that first visit to London in 1971, I had no notion that I personally would ever be a participant in the kind of exciting technological innovation signified by the Tower. In my family’s view, such advances were just something that “people like us” observed and marveled at, from a remote state of consumer ignorance.

I never anticipated, therefore, that I would return to London as an adult only ten years later, to begin my Electronics degree studies at Imperial College, University of London. I had to visit the University’s administration buildings in Bloomsbury to obtain my ID and other information, and there was that familiar building again, still looming over the area. (The University Senate House is also famous for its architectural style, but I’ll discuss that in a future post!)

My 1982 photo below, taken during my undergraduate days, offers an ancient-and-modern architectural contrast, showing the top of the Tower from a point near the Church of Christ the King, Bloomsbury.

Post Office Tower & Bloomsbury, 1982

Post Office Tower & Bloomsbury, 1982

The Museum Tower

The photo below shows the Tower again, during a visit in 2010, now with its “BT” logo prominently on display. Externally, the tower looks little different from its appearance as built, and, given that it’s now a “listed building”, that is unlikely to change much in future.

BT Tower, 2010

BT Tower, 2010

For me, the Post Office Tower stands as a memorial to the optimistic aspirations of Britain’s forays into the “White Heat of Technology”. It seems that, unfortunately, the country’s “Natural Luddites” (which C P Snow claimed were dominant in the social and political elite) won the day after all.

Cover of my School Study, 1971

Cover of my School Study, 1971

A Californian in Manchester (or a Mancunian in California)

Manchester “Californian” type tram 765: August 1981

Manchester “Californian” type tram 765: August 1981

I took the photo above in August 1981, showing a “Californian” in Manchester, England. It’s not really Californian—of course—it’s just a “California style” tram that used to be operated by Manchester Corporation Tramways. Manchester abandoned its electric tramway system even earlier than most British cities, and this preserved car is the only surviving Manchester electric tram.

At the time of my photograph, the restoration of Car 765 had recently been completed, and it was giving rides to the public on a special track in Heaton Park. When riding that ancient tram, during a long-ago summer Sunday, I never even guessed that, within 10 years, I’d be riding modern trams (albeit called trolley cars) in the real California!

I described in a previous post how I accepted an offer of an apprenticeship in Electronic Engineering from Ferranti, in Manchester, and so moved there to start working for them in July 1981.

For all its (deserved) reputation as a grim Northern industrial city, Manchester nonetheless has a fascinating history, having been the cradle of an Industrial Revolution that massively changed the world. The city not only features many world-famous industrial landmarks, but was also the source of early reactions to the industrialization of society. For example, the German philosopher Friedrich Engels wrote his master work, The Condition of the Working Class in England, in the city in 1842-44. Engels met Karl Marx a few years later, and together they went on to promote Communism, which of course has had a substantial effect on the subsequent course of world history.

One among many “world’s firsts” located in Manchester is the oldest surviving purpose-built railway station; Liverpool Road Station, built in 1830 for the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, and shown below in my 1983 photo.

Liverpool Road Station, Manchester

Liverpool Road Station, Manchester

Things to Come

In those days, Manchester was still in the process of shedding its industrial past (as fabulized later in the TV series Life on Mars). Despite the fascination of its history, Manchester for me couldn’t compare with the opportunity to live in London (to where I moved when I began my studies at Imperial College that Autumn). I lived and worked in Manchester for three summers, and I look back on those days now as a boldly-taken but rather shaky stepping-stone on the way to everything that has happened to me since.

I admit that the title of this post is stretching the truth a little, because I’m not really “Mancunian” (someone from Manchester), but I did live there for a while, during an interesting part of my life!

Manchester “Californian” type tram 765: August 1981

Manchester “Californian” type tram 765: August 1981

Ruins of Yorkshire

 

Byland Abbey, West Front, 2010

Byland Abbey, West Front, 2010

The photo above, which I took during a visit in 2010, shows the still-impressive ruin of the West Front of Byland Abbey, in Yorkshire. Prior to its destruction, the most impressive feature of this facade would have been a huge rose window, the lower outline of which is still visible here. Apparently, that was the inspiration for a similar rose window in York Minster, which remains intact (although it narrowly escaped destruction in the 1984 fire, and required substantial renovation, as described here).

For my Yorkshire Day post this year, I wanted to draw attention once again to the remarkable assemblage of monastic ruins that exist in that county. There are, of course, also many military ruins, such as Scarborough Castle, but the religious buildings are perhaps less well-known.

Just to avoid any confusion regarding my intentions, I should make it clear again that I have no interest at all in religion. My interest in these buildings is and always has been architectural and historical.

I’ve mentioned my early experiences with these ruins in previous posts, and I must admit that I tended to take them for granted when growing up. I just assumed that there must be huge ruined churches lying around everywhere, and it was only later that I realized that this was a rare environment.

Illustrating the degree of integration of these ruins into the landscape, the photo below shows the modern remains of Byland Abbey’s gatehouse, the surviving arch of which stands over a public road.

Byland Abbey Gatehouse Ruin

Byland Abbey Gatehouse Ruin

A Long-Forgotten Social Disaster

The process by which all these huge religious institutions came to be abandoned and ruined is fairly well known, as the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which took place between 1536-40. The event occurred because King Henry VIII picked a fight with the Pope, over his desire to divorce one of his wives. The key to success, as he saw it, was to crush the power of the Catholic church in England. All the monasteries owed allegiance to the established church, so it seemed to him that abolishing them would not only be a way to reduce the church’s power, but also to grab the land and valuables owned by those institutions, and the income streams created by them.

As the extent of the remaining ruins suggest, the monasteries in Yorkshire formed a major part of the local economy and social organization, so their abolition and deliberate destruction must have been catastrophic. Although the King was able to seize the land and the monasteries’ treasures, his hoped-for income streams never materialized, because he had destroyed the organizations that were generating them! Henry sold off most of the seized land to his favored nobles, and then squandered the proceeds on his wars.

Rievaulx Abbey, also in Yorkshire, built one of the world’s first blast furnaces for iron, and it has been suggested that, if it had not been for the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Industrial Revolution would have begun in Britain a century before it actually did.

In State Care

Following the Dissolution, the institutions’ land and buildings passed into private hands, and stayed that way for centuries.

Many abandoned religious buildings that were close to settlements gradually disappeared, as they were stripped for building stone. It was probably the relative isolation of the Yorkshire abbeys that permitted the survival of significant portions of the structures.

At the start of the Twentieth Century, the British Government began to take an interest in preserving what was left of the ruins, and eventually took most of them into state ownership, by purchasing them from the private owners.

Fountains Abbey: a Spectacular Setting

While the ruins of Byland and Rievaulx Abbeys are impressive, perhaps the Yorkshire ruin with the most ideal landscape setting is Fountains Abbey.

The photo below shows the ruin of the church at Fountains, in its breathtaking setting in Studley Royal Park. This was taken during a visit in 1977, and the individuals in the foreground are my mother and her friend.

Fountains Abbey, 1977

Fountains Abbey, 1977

In those days, the visitors’ car park was at the Studley Tea Rooms, which necessitated quite a long (but pleasant) walk alongside the River Skell to the actual ruins. The modern car park is closer to the ruin.

Fountains was somewhat unusual in that it was not purchased by the Ministry of Works at the same time as most of the other sites. It remained in private hands until 1966, when it was bought by the County Council. In 1982, the estate was transferred to the National Trust, and is now maintained by English Heritage.

If you’re visiting Yorkshire, and if the weather is reasonable, then all these ruins are well worth a visit!