Rupert Willoughby
Rupert Willoughby

When I cannot sleep I purchase plane, train, and bus tickets. Unable to escape my body in rest I seek control in flight, my preferred panacea for anxiety and looming dread. The destination names line my email inbox like prescription bottles: Bath Windsor Brighton York Edinburgh Hay-on-Wye.

It’s so easy, here in England. There are one-pound bus tickets and cheap rail lines and student discounts. I have spent hours poring over Megabus maps, checking timetables, manically planning each detail. It appeals to the analytical parts of my mind left somewhat dormant by months of words and words and words. My Princeton education has granted me this, at least: the ability to research, to obsess over specifics. My new education—my London one and, before that, seven months in India learning how to do nothing, overcoming the panic I faced when faced with no specific tasks—has allowed me to enjoy travelling, to reconcile my assiduousness with the understanding that a day spent exploring the world is more valuable than one spent in the library.

I came across Quarr Abbey during one such late-night travel research session. I gathered that it was a Catholic Benedictine monastery; crucially, it seemed like something I would have to experience rather than view as a photograph.

The Abbey is situated on the Isle of Wight, an island four miles off the southern coast of England. I took a train from London to Portsmouth, where I caught the ferry to Fishbourne, a town on the Isle.

The ferry to Fishbourne takes about forty-five minutes and I sit on the deck for most of it, watching ships pass and the wild Wight coastline come into focus. I disembark and walk down a tiny, silent asphalt road lined by cottages sporting tidy, perfect gardens. I spot the Quarr Lane sign and head up a dirt road. There are sheep to my right and left, and the early morning sunshine filters through branches hanging overhead. It is so absurdly beautiful that I laugh involuntarily. A couple passes by and gives me a strange look. I love London but there is something so still about Fishbourne, a stasis that suggests contentment.

Quarr Abbey comes into view, resplendent in rosy brick. The style appears Muslim at first, with minarets topping the brick buildings. In the front gardens is a pig-pen, which contains an enormous mother sow and eight red and black piglets. A group of tourists coo over them and offer apple cores that are lost to the mud. I recall my father’s stories about pig farms in Iowa, how they were let out on pasture like cattle or horses. How in the fall they were let to root the apple orchards for apples.

Small groups of tourists migrate towards the Abbey’s main buildings. There are two distinct types of people: families with young children, and the elderly. I belong to neither, and am allowed simply to observe. We roam around the complex, a confused amorphous blob, unsure of where to congregate. During the shoulder season, there are guided tours at the Abbey the first Tuesday of every month. No one seems to know where the tour starts, but no one seems very concerned, either.

Our tour guide comes to us, instead. He’s one of the monks, and does not give his name. “Is everyone here from the North Island?” he asks, meaning Great Britain. Everyone nods their heads.

“I’m from America,” I offer.

There are murmurs of approval. “Now there’s a good Catholic,” someone says, and the others laugh. They assume that I am making a modern pilgrimage. Perhaps I am.

Our guide over seventy, I think, and surprisingly, hip is the word that comes to mind. “You can take pictures of me, I don’t mind,” he says. He cracks jokes and uses modern slang and I am struck by this, by him, more than any part of the Abbey. I am listening closely not just to hear about the Abbey’s history, but because I want to find what is not normal about him. What would compel him to choose this life.

We start the tour in the courtyard of what was the original Abbey, a small manor house in stone. I’m surprised to learn that it’s the oldest part of the Abbey. The main church was completed in 1914, and designed by Dom Paul Bellot, who trained as an architect before becoming a monk. It is striking in red and yellow brick, with minarets and horseshoe arches. The Moorish effect is enhanced by the planting of several palm trees around its base. When we enter, our guide asks for silence. “This church is well-prayed-in,” he says, matter-of-factly. “You can feel it.”

He is completely serious. This is the departure, the trait that distinguishes him. Piety. Believing in God is alien to me. My attempt to understand this monk, his lifestyle, is ultimately a journey of faith. To comprehend not just why he believes, but why I do not. To see if I could.

I do not believe in God but I believe in churches, and Quarr Abbey’s is striking. It is spare compared to other Catholic houses of worship, the nave empty but for a few simple wooden benches lined against the walls. We approach the altar, which stands underneath an enormous tower, the Abbey’s crowning glory. We file underneath it, slowly, snapping pictures of the light coming through the thin vertical windows. I am dwarfed by it, utterly amazed.

And this, to me, is God: the construction of a place of worship whose primary occupant is simply space and light, whose primary purpose is for silence and reflection and ritual. Suddenly I see the church as a place to contain faith, to inspire worshippers and, by confining them, capture the power it holds. It does not matter if I believe in it; someone did, and hoped to convey that through a church. To the question, “Why do you believe in God?” the monks constructed a structure in reply. The only answer complete and complex enough to make us, the non-believers, understand.

We sit on wooden chairs in the nave and our guide asks if we have any questions. “What’s a regular day like?” someone asks. It starts early and is filled with prayer and work and silence; a detailed itinerary, which I highly recommend, can be found on the Abbey’s website. I ask what kind of books the monks read during their free time at the end of the day; it’s a mix, as everyone has different tastes, he says. I’m a little disappointed with this answer; I want him to say Jodie Picoult or Stieg Larsson.

“How do you expect to keep this going?” one visitor asks. Everyone shifts uncomfortably. “There are five monks left,” he continues. “Then what happens?”

Our guide handles the question elegantly, saying that there are people who will visit and take care of the Abbey even if they are not members of the Benedictine order. Later I find out that in 2012 the Abbey received almost two million pounds from the Heritage Lottery, which probably helps a little.

The question I want to ask is personal and intrusive and perhaps rude and it is, Why. I want to ask, What was your life before this, and why did you give it up? Not in a condescending way, an accusatory How could you; rather, I think some small part of me wants to be convinced that this life—television and romance and capitalistic pursuits replaced by prayer and walks and a dedication to service—could be worth it. I want to believe in God, in something; I want to be convinced of anything, hold to a practice of stories and rites so strongly that my earthly anxieties are soothed.

Because my predilection for travel is an exploration of faith. I travel across the United Kingdom clutching four-pound bus tickets because I believe that somewhere, someone has it figured out. That I will find a location and say, This is where I can be happy, and stay there. Or maybe simply searching for a cure: one dose of Edinburgh, another of York, and I will stop worrying that I have seen nothing, that I am going to die having squandered my potential. While travelling is certainly an event that keeps me occupied, it requires no engagement with my own mind. A successful traveller is well-informed but blank and receptive, focused on the new place and its people rather than themselves. Even if my schoolwork is done and practicalities technically in order, I am still escaping something, uprooting myself so I don’t have to evaluate how successfully or unsuccessfully I grow.

It is hard to leave the Abbey, after this. I walk down past the gardens and towards the Abbey ruins. While the new Abbey church and buildings were built in the early twentieth century, the original Abbey was founded in 1132. Our guide was anxious to make this distinction; “Those are the ruins, and this is the Abbey,” he stressed. “Don’t go around telling people you visited the Ruined Quarr Abbey.” I won’t.

The ruins are in a large sheep pasture a few hundred yards down a footpath. There’s a gate and a fence around the field where the stone ruins stand, and I’m not sure if they are meant to keep visitors out. I wait several minutes to see if anyone passes by. Feeling satisfyingly alone, I go through the gate and stride quickly towards the ruins. Perhaps I was allowed to go inside, and my precautions were an overreaction. I refuse to look it up or ask; I like the idea of having explored forbidden territory.

There are some walls standing and what appear to be fireplaces or alcoves. A freestanding window rests under a weeping willow tree. I duck in and out of the partial walls and openings. Wildflowers grow between the stones. I sit in the pasture nearby—too wary of falling stones to rest beneath one of the half-standing walls—and look out onto the ocean. I know that this view, at least, has not changed.

I trek down to the beach, leaping down from the meadow’s ledge. The tiny strip of sand is rocky, lined with driftwood, and covered in green clay. I consider scooping some up and selling it as a facial treatment (four hundred dollars an ounce—maybe more for transport), but weigh the costs and deem it an unsatisfactory business plan. I realize that I have no idea if or when another path leads back to the Abbey, and decide to let this thought pass me by.

Eventually I scramble up the steep bank, tramp through the wild rose and underbrush, and find myself back on an asphalt road. Thus begins the second stage of my journey: the trip to Osborne House.

I’ve decided to hike to the House, which was a vacation residence of Queen Victoria. The walking directions I’ve found online are charming and assume prior knowledge of the island; many parts are devoid of distances or road names. “Turn left next to the youth club, which used to be a school,” one line offers, helpfully. I blunder along, tiptoeing through back alleys and dirt paths and neighborhoods that would appear typically suburban if not for the tremendous ocean view. The Isle of Wight is home to approximately 140,000 people and during my two-hour journey, I see almost no one. It is refreshing to get lost, to have no other task but walking. Taking advantage of my apparent isolation, I sing to myself; I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed it.

I arrive at Osborne House sweaty but deserving. I enter the gates and head down an endless drive before arriving at the ticket office. It’s housed in the same building as the gift shop, and a woman offers me samples of local flavored wines and liquors. They’re being offered in tiny shot glasses, and I go down the row, slow and civilized: ginger elderberry elderflower plum blackberry. Apparently my row of shots is not as discreet as I imagined; an elderly couple watches me, concerned. “Think you can make your way up to the house, missy?” the man asks, laughing.

“I’ll manage,” I say. I realize I’ve had nothing to eat today, and elegantly grab a pinchful of artisan crisps from an adjacent sample table before heading up to the house.

Quarr Abbey is vaguely Moroccan, but Osborne House was clearly inspired by Italy. The literature boasts that Prince Albert designed the house (with help from a professional, of course). I take a tour of the inside, which is somewhat underwhelming. Maybe it’s due to a phenomenon that my friends call “saturation theory”—that seeing many beautiful things in a short period of time leaves you desensitized to them.

Osborne’s interior is classic, standard Victorian. There are notable exceptions to this: first, Albert’s office, which Victoria kept exactly the same after he died; second, Victoria’s own office. They are fascinating because of the objects that litter the tabletops, the mundane notes. Too often historical sites are completely sanitized, and one forgets that someone lived here—that they spilled things on the carpet or had messy desks.

And then, of course, there’s the Durbar Room—after “durbar,” which is an Indian ruler’s formal gathering space. A giant reception room in an “Indian” style, the walls are covered in white wood carvings of Mughal and Hindu motifs. Victoria, Empress of India, was unable to travel to the subcontinent, so she brought it to Osborne House. It is staggeringly beautiful, but troubling—the British Raj started under her rule, and I remind myself that the British obsession with Indian design at this time was a result of colonialism and orientalism.

Like a good tourist, I forget about this troubling history by the time I reach the garden. Its beauty stuns me into giddiness. Many visitors skip the house and simply explore the grounds and gardens, which cover 342 acres. They’re in keeping with the Italianate style, with light gravel paths, an extensive terrace, and a stone pergola. I wander into the grass, which has a soft base layer of moss, and fall asleep for half an hour. 

I wake up and wonder if I have ever been happier in my life. From my grassy knoll I can see the back of the house, down to the gardens, across to the ocean. I sit for a while, watching families struggle up the slope with strollers, their children whining. I get a lot of looks from beleaguered fathers struggling with bags stuffed with children’s snacks and water bottles. They terrify me. Because I travel to far-flung places not just to see the art and gape at houses, but to observe the people. To see if I could imagine myself living how they live.

I walk down towards the beach, which is lovely and features an overpriced ice cream cafe in what used to be a bathing pavillion. A young couple, with their hands in each other’s pockets, stand on the porch and share a pistachio gelato. I’m not jealous of them so much as curious. Is this something I want? Could I love someone enough to spend six dollars on a mediocre ice cream cone?

I think about this often, especially as I take pictures. I walk through a giant yew tree, which feels like entering a circus tent—its branches touch the ground and form a woody canopy. It is impossible to showcase it with my camera.

And I realize that what I really want is to show this place to the people I love. I want my mother to admire the gardens and smell the lilacs mixing with tulips and have her tell me the Latin names of every weed we see. I want my friends to walk through the yew tree with me and climb the branches, feeling like children because we are dwarfed by its size and protected from prying eyes by its canopy. I want to walk through Osborne House and make inane comments about pieces of furniture, cornices, crown mouldings, and for someone to nod along and find my enthusiasm endearing. I want to show you this place, and I cannot.

Much has been made of Queen Victoria’s mourning over Prince Albert, and it’s often painted as a hysterical episode. Victoria was criticized for leaving Albert’s office supplies just as they were—but Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal to mourn his wife, so I’m not sure why saving dried-up ink bottles is seen as more of an overreaction. After Albert died, Victoria did not return to Osborne during the summer—it was too painful for her to remember being there with him. It’s just as much a church as Quarr Abbey, the “well-prayed-in” house of worship; Osborne was well-lived-in, well-loved, her husband’s hand present in every wall that he designed, the patch of carpet he wore down by pacing in his office, the bathing shoes that he’d forgotten at the beach.

We build shrines. With bricks, with half-written notes and paperweights; with my camera, with my words. This is my ritual. I carve a cathedral out of light and shape, and I sit there waiting for you.

Some have religion to tell them how to live, to tell them that they are good, to give them meaning. A lover tells me that I am funny, intelligent; he says that I will be successful. They are benedictions of as questionable a veracity as Bible verses. But the facts are not important; it is the shared belief that draws all worshippers together.

I’ve always liked the act of prayer, knowing even as a child that although God might never answer it was still valuable for a person to reflect. The practice of communing having value even if the one we speak to—God, a departed husband, the person I want to travel with and not away from—is of questionable existence. An act of devotion, of blind faith. You are an act of worship and I am still searching for the words to find you.