On Llanthony Priory
Two years ago, Julia got me hooked on the novels of Phil Rickman, a writer from the Border Country. His books are…weird. Often unnerving. Extremely intelligent. Layered. Containing multiple narratives. Spooky? Characters are spiritual, sometimes within the framework of established religion, sometimes not. There are hauntings, some of them psychological, some of them inexplicable. The books are musical, with bands and solo artists and sometimes Edward Elgar. The books are full of poetry, and history, and archaeology, and folklore. There are characters who flit between books, sometimes in major and sometimes in minor roles. There are stand-alones; there are books that might be pairs; there is a series. Thanks to Julia, I have been devouring them as quickly as I can lay my hands on them.
In December, which is perhaps one of the most unnerving of all Rickman’s novels, a group of musicians, who had worked together 14 years previously with disastrous results, reluctantly reunite to record again. The music label which coerces them into this uncomfortable situation arranges the recording to be done in a studio in the tower of a ruinous abbey in Wales, the place where everything went to hell for the members on the night of December 8, 1980. Just to see what would happen. Well, things do happen, and of course, in Rickman form, they happen cataclysmically.
Fast-forward to me. And Julia and Roger, in August, when I visited. I thought we could go to Llanthony Priory, Julia suggested casually. She knows how much I love ruinous things. Then she told me the tower formerly housed a recording studio. Oh. I got it. Of course, we had to make a drinks stop at the Skirrid Inn–the characters did in December, too, for sustenance before facing their ordeal. The oldest pub in Wales, first listed in chronicles in 1100, the inn is dark, low-ceilinged, heavy-beamed, and sports a noose hanging in the stairwell: hundreds of people
were tried and hanged there over the years of its existence, Julia told me. A dreadfully unhappy place. From the table on the cobbles out front we could see the mountain after which the inn is named, a high double peak which legend says split at the moment of the crucifixion of Jesus. Seriously atmospheric.
On to the priory. The roads were twisty and narrow–lanes, really, between high hedges. Yes, I could feel the possibility of the a car crash in the dark on the road into the ruins, just as happens in December. Even though the sun was out, the clouds were ominous, casting shadows over the high fields where sheep dotted the grass. The massive stonework rose up before us, and it was beautiful against the sky and the Brecons, and sad, and even haunted. We wandered through the chapter house, Julia identifying rooms now open to the air. Roger and I read about the history, the establishment, the de Lacys, the destruction, the abandonment. I wondered about the square tower, still intact; next to it, a much later building houses a restaurant, a bar, and rooms to let. Strangely, though: the Abbey of the novel seemed gloomier, more frightening than the actual Priory…but of course, it was August, not December. It was sunny, not snowing. And it was daytime, not after dark. I don’t know if I’d be more anxious if I’d taken a room overnight in midwinter; I’d probably be looking over my shoulder all the time for perverted ghostly monks.
Postscript: Julia, Roger and I did not have cake at the restaurant here. It was much too early.