We sat at the wrought iron gates, peering in, waiting for them to open onto the impossibly green mossy lane winding up and out of sight towards who knew what?
Drive up to the gates and wait patiently for ten to three, the instructions read. Don’t ring the bell: the monks grow weary of trigger-happy tourists. Just wait, and when the time is right, the gates will swing magically open, like something out of a Roald Dahl novel.
Which they did.
And then out of the mizzle, there it towered: something which Bram Stoker would have profitably used for one of his settings. A tall fortress with straight unscalable walls and thin, tall windows, crafted with geometrical hewn stone, clothed in dark luscious ivy. And a man in a blue hoodie was ambling past, on his way down the drive, out into the secular world.
“Excuse me,” my friend said. “Is it all right to park here?”
Was it the overwhelming power of suggestion, the knowledge that this place was an old place of God, that gave the young man an otherworldly aura of peace when he answered that, yes, of course we could?
Probably. He pottered off out of sight, and we craned our necks up at this strange, counter-enchanting place; the stuff of Grimm. Or MR James. Or Stoker.
The tall fortress was just the beginning. We were here to see Farnborough Abbey: a building with theatre written all over it, Large. It is not, by the standards of this country, old; but it was founded in 1881 by a heartbroken Empress.
The Empress Eugenie – a close friend of Queen Victoria – was not strictly an Empress any more, but they still called her by the title of her glory days, before the third Napoleon, nephew of the first, had been forced into exile from France. Her husband died, still incredulous that he had gained and somehow lost an empire, in January 1873, and her son was killed in the Zulu Wars in June 1879. The Empress upped sticks from Chislehurst and bought a house and land at Farnborough; and employed an outrageously fashionable French architect to build her a chapel and mausoleum to honour the two people she loved most in the world.
Gabriel-Hypolyte Destailleur came from a line of great architects. His style was gothic, yes: but not mediaeval-gothic or Italian Rennaisance gothic. He took the most flamboyant aspects of French chateaux and cathedrals, and brought them to a field in Farnborough, and built a strange citadel far from the madding crowd.
It must be owned, this is a very happy monastery. Four monks live, and work here, a remnant of the French Benedictine community invited by Eugenie more than a century ago; and I am assured they are very busy.
No shy retiring gargoyles here: they crane menacingly from the tops of buildings, fit to unsettle the dead in the churchyard below. The lines are those of a cathedral: bold, sweeping arcs of symmetry, adorned with clever florid stone and exquisite tracery. The whole thing has more than a whiff of steampunk, it is so theatrical. It boasts an elaborate dome: but fills its towering windows with bottle glass, so that light floods through the small circular discs and into the old citadel. Astonishing place. Extremely odd.
The mausoleum is perfect to house the undead. It has a certain Citizen Kane splendour: three great, sheer marble stone tombs dominate stage left, right and centre. Eugenie’s sits high above the altar: she is in charge in death as she was in life. The place is a sanctum of whispers and shadows, a place where ghost stories lead.
Oh, to sit silently, and listen for wraiths.