Decades ago, I visited the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire with an art historian friend. It was a mellow October afternoon, and the mossy stones and turning trees composed themselves into an English scene as lovely as any watercolour of the early 19th century. It was only when my friend said that he sometimes imagined a parallel history in which the ‘bare ruined quire’ in which we stood had evolved into a mighty and learned Baroque abbey that I first questioned the presence of monastic ruins as an inevitable feature of the English landscape. At that moment, two things changed in my mind: first, the whole remote, wood-smoke-scented valley glimmered for a moment with imagined domes and towers, like the setting of some great Bavarian monastery; second, I realised that this silenced place had once been full of the same charitable and genial life that I had seen at the Italian abbey in whose guest wing I had twice stayed with my parents.
In the light of these thoughts, Jane Whitaker’s Raised from the Ruins offers a fascinating but troubling study of a category of buildings distinctively English: those buildings and lesser structures created out of monastic ruins, a category that I have never seen treated in such depth and detail before.
The range of buildings surveyed in this book is remarkably wide. There are cathedrals and their closes, a handful of Oxford and Cambridge colleges, and a number of country houses which range from prodigy houses to more modest gentry houses and farmhouses. Among the great country houses the