Thursday, 31 July 2014

Denny Abbey And The Farmland Museum (3)

So at last we get to "The Abbey" though that's a name that might lead you to expect something rather more grand, but which also only hints at one aspect of this building's fascinating history.

Even at first glance the Abbey poses some interesting questions. 

  • Why are so many windows bricked up? 
  • How come there are two more modern looking windows?
  • What on earth is the purpose of the door at first floor level?
  • Why so many different building materials?
  • The gable ends - one is finished with wooden boards, one has no overhang at all and a third is a sloping 'mansard' roof - why?
  • Surely the foundations in the foreground are too substantial for a garden wall.

Round this side there are arches which are reminiscent of a church or abbey on the right of the building while the left-hand end looks more like a substantial farmhouse. And the bit in the middle can't seem to make up its mind what it wants to be! Better look inside....

This is not what you expect when you visit a building in the care of English Heritage. Usually places are restored to something like their former glory or, if ruinous, are tidied up with neatly clipped lawns surrounding the remains. This is more like entering a building site!

The visitor is invited to play a kind of architectural detective game to piece together the history of the building, the outline of which is as follows:

                  1159 AD    A Benedictine Priory was built here and this was their church.
                  1170 AD    The buildings passed to the Knights Templar who used it as a sort of 'retirement home' and hospital.
                  1308 AD    The Knights Templar were suppressed for alleged heresy and the building became disused.
                  1327 AD    It was gifted to the Countess of Pembroke who made part of the building into a comfortable home while the rest became a convent for the order of Franciscan nuns known as The Poor Clares.
                  1538 AD    The dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, though nuns were still recorded as living here several years later.
                  1544 AD    The buildings became a farm.
                  1947 AD    The farm began its long evolution into a museum.

In places the brickwork has fallen away to reveal the columns and arches of the earlier buildings. The different shapes of the capitals of the columns give vital clues to the various periods of building.

This is the great fireplace from its days as a farmhouse.

Upstairs there was even a device to supply warm water for washing....

A fragment of old mosaic flooring has been unearthed....

Everywhere there are puzzles to be solved by the architectural sleuth, though there are also information boards to supply the answers to the befuddled.

And these two scary chaps lurk in a hidden corner to surprise the unwary visitor. They are of course wax models, which seems to suggest that English Heritage might one day be going to present a more conventional tourist attraction.

Nearby a building which has long been used as a barn turns out to be the nuns' refectory. This is how it looks now.....

And here's an artist's impression of how it might have appeared in its heyday....

I really don't know what the long-term plans are for these fine old buildings. I rather hope that they don't go down the route of complete restoration with a tourism-friendly make-over. I enjoyed seeing the unadorned bones of the structure revealing its intricate history but leaving the imagination free to fill in the details. It seems to me to be a superb educational resource just as it is.

Take care.


  1. peeling an onion-so many layers of history. Wonderful that it has survived this long.

  2. How intriguing, with many mysteries to be solved. It certainly has had a long life and any incarnations. It's a place I would love to visit.

  3. John, is it just me or did someone close their eyes and place windows randomly?

    1. That's exactly the kind of question that historians have to ask - and then come up with explanations!

  4. A lot here to stir the imagination - fascinating.

  5. I agree wholeheartedly with your closing paragraph. But I think we are of the minority in this thought.

  6. England to an Italian lover like me
    this is all very fascinating, story within a story.
    Love Suzy x

  7. I like your timeline of the changing uses. Such an interesting place. Thank you.

  8. Same here on your last paragraph. Another very interesting post John, thank you!

  9. Thank you for a very interesting history lesson. Very well presented. It must be very difficult for the restorers to decide on when to restore it to.

  10. I find this a great post. Since I was young I have been an architectural and materials detective. Love it when you can examine the bones -- the bones tell much of the history of old buildings. Some museum sites in the U. S. leave historic buildings unrestored. Also, as you might know, there is a photographic movement in the U.S. to document old ruined buildings with bones. Enjoyed this post -- barbara

  11. Many thanks John for taking us on your exploration of this building with its fascinating history. Those columns revealing earlier construction times are marvellous. (Thank you, too, for your encouraging comment on my blog). Wishing you a wonderful weekend.

  12. It seems spooky to me. I wouldn't want to be there alone on a dark and stormy night.

  13. Oh I think they should just make it safe and leave it exactly as it is John, so that people who are really interested like yourself can wander around checking all the nooks and crannies without having to fight off the hordes who really only want to find somewhere different to have tea and scones :) It's a glorious old building, I'm still smiling at the nuns being called 'the poor Clares' :)

    1. St Clare was a well-to-do young woman who, at the age of 18, ran away from home and came to the monastery of St Francis of Assisi, having been so inspired by his teaching and example. Her parents tried to take her back but the monks realised her dedication to their cause and arranged for her to join a nearby convent. She later went on to form her own order who renounced all wealth and therefore became known as The Poor Clares.

  14. Thanks to everyone who commented on this post.

  15. I am in total agreement with you about restoration & not over doing see that so often in France & to me it is sad to see.

  16. I would agree that this rather strange structure be maintained in a way that exposes the various incarnations of its architecture--a fascinating place.


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