Nothing is more set in stone than the monuments of the past, and for the last century it has seemed almost sacrilegious to suggest that they might not always remain so. But as we reassess so many aspects of our lives, we must wonder whether parts of our landscape have become an impediment to progress.
Consider the 12th century Byland Abbey, whose ruins survive deep within the North York Moors. Of all the architectural wonders of North Yorkshire, none is more dramatic than this. The sight of it looming into view on the winding hill from Coxwold to Ampleforth is one of the wonders of the ages. It was once one of the great monasteries of England, and it inspired the Rose Window at York Minster.
So I can completely understand the concern of those who think that the last thing it needs, by way of improvement, is a dozen bell tents.
Yet that is exactly what’s being proposed there. The operators of the abbey tea room and B&B, who took it over from English Heritage last year, say their vision for “glamping” in the shadow of the ruins is entirely consistent with the National Park’s stated aim of attracting more staycationers to the area – and a lifeline for small businesses such as theirs.
North Yorkshire’s planners agree, and have recommended the campsite be approved. With the decline of so many pubs, they said, ensuring the long-term viability of such a business was vital. But Sir Nigel Forbes Adam, an influential former regional chairman of the National Trust, whose family runs the vast Escrick Park Estate on the other side of York, says he “despairs” at the idea and has “objected in the strongest terms”.
So will the needs of a changing future override our wish to preserve the past? Or is this a time to reappraise what is important to us?
It would not be the first time we have done so. Indeed, conservation is still a relatively new phenomenon. Until the First World War, it was commonplace for ancient monuments to be sold at whim, dug up and dismantled. Only by chance was Stonehenge saved from being taken away to America when an Edwardian philanthropist bought it for his wife instead of the new curtains she had asked him for. And in Victorian York, there was a general feeling that the City Walls should be torn down to let the railway pass through.
As for Coxwold, history does not record what the locals made of the Cistercian monks who pitched up 800 years ago. “Not another flipping monastery,” they may well have thought.
Byland is not the only part of Yorkshire in conflict over its architecture; it is merely the prettiest. In less prepossessing areas, a bigger reevaluation is going on over how we build the future, and that brings us back to Amazon and Jeff Bezos. His new world of e-commerce had destroyed the traditional High Street long before the pandemic, and this week it emerged that there are enough vacant shops in rundown town centres to provide half a million new homes. What’s more, said the Centre for Policy Studies think-tank, work on converting them should begin immediately.
Around four in 10 shops were redundant before last year, it said – presumably because their former customers preferred to spend their money on sending Bezos into orbit – and in the last year the picture has worsened. Why not reinvigorate such communities by encouraging people to make their home there.
Why not indeed? It has long seemed to me that incentivising councils to turn old department stores into blocks of flats, and ugly, 1960s shopping precincts into attractive housing developments, would not only bring town centres back to life but also save the thousands of acres of green spaces across Yorkshire that housebuilders would otherwise have to bulldoze.
The central question here is the extent to which we embrace changes to our surroundings as readily as we’ve accepted everything else the last year has thrown at us. And whether you like it or not, that applies to the minor repurposing of our medieval monuments as much as to the sacking of more recent ruins.
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