Netley Abbey, built in the 13th-century, is the most complete surviving Cistercian monastery in southern England. It was home to Cistercian monks who came to England from France in 1128. After the Dissolution (1536), it was given to a nobleman who converted it into a great Tudor mansion. Two hundred years later, it lay in ruins – grand, glorious ruins – and became a place of inspiration for the great Romantic writers and poets like Thomas Gray, author of Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard. Jane Austen visited Netley Abbey (she lived in the area), and so did England’s notable artists Turner and Constable, who each painted its stunning landscape views. Netley Abbey, owned today by English Heritage, still draws visitors; I was one of them last week-end. Tea connection? Wait and see.
For nearly three hundred years, a very small group of monks, brothers, officials, and servants called Netley Abbey home. The monks were of the Cistercian order. Walter Daniel, writing in The Life of Aelred in 1166, described them:
“…these remarkable men, famed for their religious life, were known as White Monks after the colour of their habit, for they were clothed angel like in undyed sheeps wool, spun and woven from the natural fleece. Thus garbed, when clustered together, they look like flocks of gulls and shine as they walk with the very whiteness of snow. ”
Cistercians lived a very simple life: study, prayer, and manual work. They rejected wealth and the wearing of undershirts and trousers, were vegetarians, and followed strict rules of silence. To avoid worldly temptations, Cistercian abbeys were built in remote locations. Although a bit hard to imagine today, Netley was at that time very isolated and surrounded by dense woods and heathland, so the perfect place for the White Monks.
The monastic community at Netley were highly respected by their neighbours. They were never known for scholarship, wealth, оr particular fervour, but they did have a reputation for generosity tо travellers аnd sailors, аnd fоr the devout lives they led. Contrary to some of the things we hear about the modern church, reports indicate that the abbey hаd а peaceful аnd scandal-free domestic life.
At the suppression of the monasteries in 1536, Henry VIII granted Netley to Sir William Paulet, who turned the buildings into a great Tudor courtyard house. After the Civil War, it belonged to the Earl of Huntingdon who turned the nave of the church into a tennis court, the choir into his private chapel, the chapter house into a kitchen, and other parts of the Abbey into stables. Grand Designs would have loved this!
In 1704 the owner of Abbey Mansion started selling off bits and pieces as building material. Can you believe it?! Early on, when one of the demolition workers was killed (making way for what they called “The Curse of Netley Abbey”), work quickly stopped and the structure was left alone to fall into, well ….. ruins.
The Romantic writers, painters and poets of the day, always in search of picturesque inspiration, were deeply attracted to Netley Abbey. It’s not difficult to see why. But not everyone who visited Netley Abbey in the 1700s was there for the scenery.
“The ruins are vast, and retain fragments of beautiful fretted roofs pendent in the air, with all variety of Gothic patterns of windows wrapped round and round with ivy … they are not the ruins of Netley, but of Paradise.
Oh! the purple abbots, what a spot had they chosen to slumber in!”
- Horace Walpole, from The Castle of Otranto
‘Pregnant with poetry … one need not have a very fantastic imagination
to see spirits at noon-day’ but was it all imagination’
– Thomas Gray, poet, describing Netley Abbey
Tea in mid 1700s England was all the rage – everyone wanted tea. But its popularity, coupled with an exorbitant tax, meant that tea was prohibitively expensive, available to only a few. The demand for affordable tea simply could not be met by legal means. The answer? Meet the demand by illegal means – smuggle it in! Tea smuggling was so effective, that virtually all the tea consumed in England at that time was black-market, smuggled tea. The south coast of England became a smugglers paradise, and Netley Abbey was a known location for stashing contraband tea.
Was tea hidden in this nook?
A hundred or so years later, Netley’s tea tradition took on a more genteel character when the abbey became a popular place for local people to come for tea, dancing and music. There was even a Rondo for piano-forte written by William Sheppard entitled “Netley Abbey”. Large events called Fetes Champetres (basically, a chic garden party) were being organised here on a regular basis. A description of the event in the 1840s records:
“On Mondays, the Fountain Court presents a singular scene of gaiety. It has long been the custom for people from Southampton and the neighbourhood to meet at the Abbey on that day, and to hold a kind of festival. Tea and other provisions are furnished by the inhabitants of a neighbouring cottage, and this is followed by music and dancing.”
This was my first visit to Netley Abbey – but it won’t be my last. My dream would be to arrange a beautiful summer afternoon tea here, accompanied by the reading of Netley Abbey poems by the Romantics, and the Netley Abbey Rondo playing in the background. Surrounded by the ghosts of 12th-century monks, 18th-century poets, 19th-century Victorians, and perhaps a personable smuggler or two, I can’t think of a more tantalizing tea party.
(For more pictures and related information about Netley Abbey, visit the Tea in England Facebook Fan Page.)