This month I’m thinking about ruins: castles, abbeys, more humble dwellings – it doesn’t matter. As a writer of historical fiction, I have always known, as I’m sure you have, that a ruin can be immensely useful in a novel, both as a suitable location to test your hero or heroine, and for what it can add to the atmosphere.
I’ve just come back from a holiday in Northern Ireland where I saw a number of ruined monastic buildings. And the thought stuck me immediately that they’d offer ideal opportunities for hiding or pursuit.
Grey Abbey; the east wall - note the buttresses
Take Grey Abbey, a Cistercian abbey dating from 1193, overlooking Strangford Lough. What my novelist’s eye noticed at once, was that, at some point, part of the abbey had become unstable; you can see three buttresses propping it up along the east wall.
Looking from a doorway along the line of buttresses; note the deep shadows
Take a Regency heroine (let us call her Angelica); she is in jeopardy – naturally. We find her inside the ruined abbey, peering cautiously through a side door, desperate to escape from the loathly Sir Tancred . She spots the line of buttresses, their width and depth could be useful in concealing her. But, could Sir Tancred be hidden behind one of them? The abbey’s architecture allows your characters to play a deadly game of hide and seek amid the shadows.
Grey Abbey from another angle
It is evening, and the shadows begin to lengthen. In one corner, where plants grow in the crevices, there are some protruding stones going up the wall. Could that be an escape route? Angelica spent her childhood climbing trees but does she dare crawl over that huge arch?
Dog tooth decoration on the ceremonial arch at the west end of the church
Angelica freezes. The moon has floated out from behind a cloud and a dark figure has just stooped under the arch and there is a glint of a sword. Could it be Sir Tancred? But he’s too tall…
Struell Wells, the ruins of a medieval church and the beehive-shaped drinking well
However, ruins can also be useful in other ways. Take the complex of buildings at Struell Wells, once a healing centre, dating from at least the 8th century. St Patrick himself is supposed to have visited it. The buildings spread out over a field, and comprise the Drinking well, the Eye well, and two separate bathhouses for men and women, as well as a medieval chapel. A stream with exceptionally pure water runs through the field and connects them all. The historical evidence suggests that this has been a place of healing since pagan times. An 1831 map shows that a holy thorn also once grew in the field.
Close up view of the drinking well
Suppose your heroine (who needs a name change – Agneta?) lives in pagan times and comes from a long line of women healers. We all love proactive heroines, and pagan healing women were powerful and respected in the community. The arrival of Christianity brings problems to Agneta’s community, and St Patrick arrives to convert the holy springs and wells to Christianity. He is known to have spent hours in the Drinking well building, singing psalms.
And I don’t imagine priests at that date would have been keen on pagan women healers as guardians of Struell Wells, either.
The Eye well. Note the Men and Women’s bathhouses in the background.
The Eye well is a small rectangular building with a corbelled roof which is pyramidal in shape. Very little is known about it but this is an area which is rich in wild flowers and I don’t doubt that once special herbs were used to help cure eye complaints. Again, this could useful for a heroine. What Agneta actually does at the eye well is up to the author and you don’t need me to tell you that there could be much at stake… even her very life.
The Women’s bathhouse is small and poky compared with the men’s; you can just see a low ledge, perhaps for a bench on the right.
The Women’s bathhouse was once also known as the Limb well, and the Men’s bathhouse as the Body well. The current building dates from somewhere between the 13th and15th centuries. The men’s section is much larger; whether that was true originally, we don’t know. The water running (via a tap) in the Women’s bathhouse is silky smooth.
General view of the landscape around Struell Wells
Society continued to have problems with powerful women who were trained in anything – and accusations of witchcraft continued until well into the 17th century. Even midwifery underwent an attempted male takeover. (Would Princess Charlotte have died with an experienced female midwife, one wonders.) The notorious ‘witch finder’ Matthew Hopkins hanged sixty women in Essex alone in 1645. Agneta could be a healer anytime up to the 18th century, which gives writers a lot of scope.
So there we are. All the imagination needs are a few ruins!