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Cleeve Abbey: Visiting our piece of the past

PUBLISHED: 10:38 27 July 2018 | UPDATED: 10:38 27 July 2018

You can almost taste the history when exploring the site (c) Shaun Robertson

You can almost taste the history when exploring the site (c) Shaun Robertson

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Stephen Roberts explores one of the best preserved medieval monastic sites in Britain

What did Henry VIII do for us? Well, I suppose there was the Dissolution of the Monasteries. This wasn’t popular at the time with Catholics, travellers, poor folk, or monks come to that, but it has left us with some of this country’s most iconic ruins.

Cleeve Abbey is just such a place. Located near the village of Washford in Somerset, this late 12th century Cistercian monastery was closed by the King in 1536 and converted into a private house. After a period of decline and use as farm buildings the site was finally taken into state ownership in the 20th century and is now looked after by English Heritage. Although the church is no longer extant, the other buildings more than make up for this, for Cleeve is one of the best preserved Medieval monastic sites in Britain, with its living quarters certainly the most complete of any of our Cistercian houses. Today this is a truly inspiring place to visit, a place of peace where you can hear the bird song, yet also endowed with possibly the most impressive cloister remains you’ll find anywhere in the country.

The Bishop of Lincoln founded the abbey, with a dozen monks arriving from Lincolnshire to take up residence. The official name of the abbey was ‘Vallis Florida’ (Flowering Valley), but was usually known as Cleeve after a nearby village.

Building the abbey church took decades, probably not being completed until the mid 13th century. To the south of the church a cloister was laid out, with an arched recess for the abbot’s chair in the study ‘alley’. This was surrounded by various domestic buildings, including a chapter house and dormitory, plus a refectory that was almost 20m in length and therefore projected beyond the southern end of the church. One of today’s treasures is the medieval tiled floor of the refectory, which included expensive heraldic tiles, indicating both a completion date around the end of the 13th century and rising living standards at this time.

The monastery would have been surrounded by gardens, fish ponds and orchards and would have been defended by a water-filled moat and a stout gatehouse, which survives today.

The abbey is now a tourist attraction (c) Shaun RobertsonThe abbey is now a tourist attraction (c) Shaun Robertson

As the 13th century ended the monastery had grown to support 26 monks, as Cleeve did well off the back of the wool trade. The 14th century was not so prosperous, however, as the Black Death, an ‘economic downturn’ (where have I heard that before?) and poor administration led to a reduction in numbers and even accusations that the abbot had turned to banditry to make ends meet.

Although Cleeve was not as wealthy as the largest monasteries, and, in spite of the above travails, it appears to have been affluent enough for building work and improvements to continue right up until the Dissolution. Ironically the abbey appeared to be enjoying something of an ‘Indian summer’ as Henry VIII began flexing his considerable muscles.

The last work to be completed, within a quarter of a century of the end, was a remodelling of the abbey gatehouse. As late as 1534 the monks were busily renewing the cloister walks, blissfully unaware that they would soon be ‘turfed out’. This work was not to be finished.

Cleeve Abbey was one of the abbeys to fall immediately to Henry’s first ‘Suppression Act’, as many of the smaller abbeys were disposed of. The then abbot, William Dovell, and 16 monks were forced to give up their home on 6 September 1536. In a scene reminiscent of the ‘Beeching cuts’ there was talk of a reprieve, but it came to nothing and Cleeve fell, with the monks finally leaving in the spring of 1537. The abbot and his monks were treated fairly and received pensions.

One former monk, John Hooper, became a Bishop, both of Gloucester and Worcester, but was executed for declaring Protestant beliefs by Mary I (‘Bloody Mary’). Hooper, Cleeve’s most famous ‘son’ had been born in Somerset around 1495, converted to Protestantism, fled to the continent in 1539 for his own safety, but then returned to England a decade later thinking he would be safe under the more Protestant regime of Edward VI. The young King’s death and Mary’s accession led to the brave Hooper being burned at the stake in Gloucester on 9 February 1555.

The Medieval tiled floorThe Medieval tiled floor

The fate of the abbey was an equally sad one in some ways. The glorious abbey church was demolished and the remainder of the site converted into a fine mansion. By the early 17th century Cleeve was a farm, the dormitory, which had once housed sleeping monks, now converted to a barn. This may seem a sad episode, but in fact, use as a farm saved some of the buildings (chapter house, dormitory and refectory for example), that were all used by the farm.

It was when George Luttrell of Dunster Castle acquired Cleeve Abbey in 1870 that the site’s fortunes began to look up again. Archaeological excavations took place and the site found a new raison d’être as a tourist attraction. Cleeve Abbey was passed back to the Crown before finally becoming the responsibility of English Heritage in 1984.

I have visited many of the most impressive monastic ruins to be found in the UK, including Fountains and Rievaulx, but Cleeve took my breath away. Here can be viewed, at close proximity, some of the best-preserved monks’ living quarters anywhere in the country. The buildings around the cloister still have their roofs, so could be habitable and many buildings also have atmospheric vaults. Among the most important features are the exquisite chapter house, the extensive 13th century dormitory and the 15th century refectory with its magnificent timber roof. Then we have the mighty gatehouse, the Medieval wall paintings of the Painted Chamber and the beautiful medieval floor tiles, which have to be seen to be believed.

Wandering around the grounds of the abbey today it is easy enough to imagine the monks’ existence and it is almost a surprise not to have some suitably dressed medieval figure emerge from behind one of the ranges, such is the aura and timeless feel of this place.

The fact that the monks here were not always ‘good monks’ just adds to the human quality and feel. They ran themselves into debt and on one occasion were guilty of ‘apostasy’ (abandonment of the faith or vows).

The cloistersThe cloisters

Then there’s the story of an abbot tearing around the countryside engaged in banditry. They sound like an interesting bunch that would have enjoyed a pint or two down the local in the evening, possibly not finding their way home afterwards.

Today Cleeve Abbey is both a scheduled ancient monument and a Grade I Listed building and has been described as one of Somerset’s undiscovered jewels. How true this is. I was unaware of Cleeve Abbey until we stayed in the locality, but was delighted to learn of it, visit it and forever recall it. It is a beautiful tranquil spot, a place adorned with some of the most majestic ruins in England and somewhere the abbot and monks occasionally let themselves down and indulged in some errant, miscreant behaviour.

What more could one ask from a day out?

Visit the Cleeve Abbey website here.

Essential information:

• Arrive at Washford Station on the West Somerset Railway, a 10-minute walk away.

• See the exhibition and virtual tour, telling the story of the abbey and the daily life of its holy men.

• Learn about the conservation project to protect the medieval tiled pavement for the future.

• Picnic in the grounds whilst listening to the stream that runs through the site.

• Listen to monastic music (recorded) in the cloister (weekends, July-August).

• Try a story bag for families: a fun way to explore the abbey together.

• Visit the education room (try tile stamping and dress up as a monk!)

• Get married – Cleeve Abbey can now be hired as a wedding venue!

• Visit the shop (within ticket office), which also sells a selection of snacks.

• Cleeve Abbey is open from end March to the end of October.

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