Over the past few years I have had the pleasure of living in some truly great places; making memories to last a lifetime and friends whom I will forever cherish. After spending four years studying in Birmingham and then a few months working in Seville; I have spent this year so far back in my home town of Farnborough, Hampshire. It has been a good opportunity to save some much needed money as I prepare for the hugely exciting prospect of moving to London this summer – which I’m sure will open up a whole new world of adventures. I have of course enjoyed the lack of high rent payments, but being back in Hampshire has given me another chance to enjoy some adventures a bit closer to home.
A recent post by the brilliant Voluntary Exile talked about being a tourist at home, and this past weekend I left the house with this attitude in place as I went to meet my girlfriend to visit one of Farnborough’s key historical landmarks. This home town of mine holds the distinction of being the site of the first powered aeroplane flight in Britain (albeit by maverick American aviator Samuel Cody) but it was not this bit of history that fascinated us this time. Farnborough is also home to the exquisite St Michael’s Abbey – founded by Empress Eugénie of France in 1881 as a mausoleum to her late husband Napoleon III and her son Napoleon, Prince Imperial.
I have always been proud of this fascinating piece of imperial history, and decided that with only a couple of months until I leave Farnborough once again it was time to finally visit the abbey. The entrance for visitors opens mysteriously/electronically just before 3pm every Saturday to allow members of the public to join a tour. A small community of Benedictine Monks call the site home and I was absolutely fascinated to see it (and grateful for their allowing us in). The quiet opening of the gate and picturesque walk up the hill to the concealed abbey really fuelled my curiosity and it was easy to imagine myself as medieval traveller looking for shelter as we approached the impressive building. Architecturally the abbey is stunning – reminiscent of the magnificent Notre-Dame Cathedral but on a smaller, more intimate scale. The lesser height of the structure makes it possible for one to really take in all the splendid details of the flamboyant Gothic style with my favourite element being the gargoyles.
Inside the design is just as beautiful and features a number of innovative features, such as the lack of a peak on the columns which instead blend into the roof – making the interior appear to be far higher than it really is. Forgive my lack of correct architectural terminology! The imperial crypt itself is a touching tribute to Napoleon, The Prince and Eugénie herself, who chose to spend her last years in Farnborough. Outside the crypt was a detail that I found incredibly beautiful. Eugénie had a doorman who quietly devoted much of his working life to maintaing the security of the crypt, who towards the end of his life asked of Eugénie a simple favour. He wished to rest outside the door he had always guarded and this request was more than enthusiastically granted; his simple grave continues to watch over Eugénie’s door.
I adore history, especially little stories like this that fit so gorgeously into the wider tale of the world. There is always something to be found close by, wherever we may be living, that will allow us to get giddy with excitement and really get a sense of the place in years past.