Having navigated as busy a week at work as the weather was throwing at the county I found myself, like my local area, at the weekend in need of some restoration. Sunshine, what there was of it, was on the forecast for the morning but offered sadly very little respite before Storm Jorge arrived later that day bringing more sleet and high winds. We’re getting used to battening down the hatches here in Appleby but the term tedious does come to mind.
I’d been taken with a recent article in The Guardian “Where did the weekend go? How work stole our Saturdays and Sundays” where Zoe Williams offers a spirited discourse under the heading ‘work-life balance’. I believe that Charles Dickens is credited with coining the term ‘weekend’ in 1879 but it didn’t become part of general working conditions until the 1930s. Intriguingly, a diverse coalition of trade unions, churches, temperance movements and commercial players won the weekend for us, partially based on the idea that ‘leisure time in daylight’ would encourage wholesome pursuits and conviviality. Only 6% of the working population still operate under the nine-to-five, five-day week; the rest of us experience a considerable variety of working patterns and, as a result, the weekend, in its traditional sense, is a dying facility.
It is a salutary read and, whilst we may be losing that particular collection of days for a variety of reasons, I also noted Zoe’s refusal to give in;
“We need to rediscover what we treasured in those regular 48 hours of untenanted time. We need to reanimate that strong separation between work and not work, which doesn’t end with turning your bloody phone off, but may well start there.”
With the temptation to use my forecasted wet and windy weekend to catch up with the housework and general personal admin, I began to wonder what state I would be in by Monday as a result. A colleague had recently complained of utter exhaustion and I had asked how they recharged their batteries. Having collapsed in a wine fuelled and TV entertained tired heap after a very wet drive up the M6 on Friday night, I found myself considering the same question. Map and weather forecast at hand, I chose to leave the drudgery and, the next morning, drove into a brisk and sunny day east of the Pennines.
The ruins of Fountains Abbey sit outside Ripon and I hadn’t been for a long time. The notion of a sunny stroll in a lovely place was something that, for me, came into Zoe’s treasured category and it seemed that I wasn’t the only one making the most of an early spring day. Couples and families walked and talked and played on well planned paths and glades and shot selfies and views.
Light danced on the water garden as the sun dominated occasional snow flurries tumbleweeding across the lawns. The abbey, bathed in the afternoon rays, glowed warm and settled in the valley, exuding peace and tranquility while the portents of Storm Jorge cloud wisped along the westward horizon.
However, as I explored the abbey and Studley Royals Water Gardens nearby, I did also reflect upon the gentle irony of my visit choice, aspirant as I was to a day of rest.
To consider the abbey as a place of calm and peace is a somewhat romantic fallacy. Begun in 1132, the Cistercian, or white, monks and lay brothers lived a frugal and demanding life with the day beginning after 2am and ceasing at 8pm. Running on just 6 hours sleep a night, the monks and lay brothers would pray eight times a day as well as work on the grange farms that supplied the abbey.
I sat on a wall under Huby’s Tower in the last of the sunshine nursing a very welcome coffee. I realised that, far from silence and stillness, the abbey would actually have been a hive of quiet industry.
And they clearly didn’t do weekends.
But they must have taken one day off a week if their role model God was to be followed. The Judeo-Christian tradition has it that Yahweh spent a very satisfying six periods of time pulling together a Creation which He deemed to be good. I can just imagine the Almighty, on the next day, standing in the garden of Eden, arms folded, taking it all in. It must have made such an impression on Him because He decided to repeat the experience each week. That seventh day would be set apart – made holy as God’s Me Time – and determined to be full of blessing.
Fountains Abbey was started by 13 disaffected monks from St Mary’s Abbey in York who sought a simpler and more devout life. They knew the blessing that allocating one day a week to share in God’s Me Time would bring.
What this original group wouldn’t have known is that their pattern of labour and rest also resulted in the Abbey being a leading producer and exporter of wool by the mid-1200s and generated one of the largest and most powerful religious houses in the country.
At a time when finding a healthy work/life balance and developing mindfulness are ways suggested by various specialists to combat stress and dysfunction, the loss of our hard-won weekends is a serious threat. However, if the monks are anything to go by, a proper day off, once a week, where the focus becomes all that is good and glorious, could be the answer to all our woes, and maybe our national economy.
Zoe suggests we start by turning off our phones. I had no choice.
At Fountains Abbey, the day of rest and holiness lives on in 2020 amongst the craftsmanship glowing in the golden stones; there is no mobile signal.
With no distractions I became part of the place, absorbing its story. Like others, I walked quietly and reflectively amongst the walls where worship had mortared the building blocks of labour in prayer and shepherding. It was beautiful to the eye and refreshing to the soul. I could imagine viewing the scene, standing alongside God, arms folded, and agreeing that it too was good.
I don’t know how God followed his seventh day. My return to the 21st century included the drive home through Storm Jorge’s blizzard and spindrift conditions in the dusk on Stainmore’s A66 and a house that needed cleaning.
But I felt truly alive.
I’ll be doing that again.