Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether summer clothe the general earth
With greeness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

Monday, June 22, 2009

A Ruined Abbey and A Dovecote Part One

The Abbey

The day after my visit to Wimborne it was grey and damp once more, I'd decided to go in the opposite direction this time so headed up to Shaftesbury. This is a very ancient Saxon town set on a hill top and was founded in the 9th century by King Alfred the Great and, thanks to its great Abbey,it was a place that attracted great numbers of pilgrims. The photograph shows the statue of King Alfred that now stands among the ruins of the Abbey that he founded. It's a modern piece commissioned in 1989 and I really like it.

I started off by walking down Gold Hill which is famous for being featured in a well known nostalgic UK advert for Hovis bread. I was standing at the bottom of the hill looking up and the thick stone walls on the left are the remains of the Abbey precinct wall - since the Abbey was destroyed in 1539 these walls must be at least 800 years old. It was raining when I took the photograph so it looks rather less appealing than it does in the golden light of the advert!

Even in dull light this ancient water pump makes an attractive picture.

I took this photo because it was like suddenly stepping back into another age, it's rare these days to see anyone using a sickle but this elderly man was obviously an expert and was cutting back the growth on the hedgebank in the same way that his ancestors would have done for centuries past. You will need to click on the photo to see the sickle clearly. I have one just like it in my kitchen that is around 100 years old.

This is Edwardstow in the oldest part of Shaftesbury, the centre part of the house predates the Dissolution of the Abbey in 1539 and it is the oldest house in Shaftesbury. If you enlarge the photo of the cottage you will see the blue plaque on the far end.

Shaftesbury Abbey was a large and wealthy Benedictine nunnery with vast land holdings and its first Abbess was King Alfred's daughter Aethelgifu. The Saxon King Edward the Martyr was buried here in 978AD and his shrine attracted great numbers of pilgrims including royalty. King Canute visited the Abbey frequently and died here in 1035 though he isn't buried in Shaftesbury, his body was taken to Winchester which was the capital city of England at that period. The Abbey grew and prospered until March 1539 when the nuns were forced to leave, the Abbey was stripped of its treasures and the church and Abbey precincts destroyed. Then in 1985 a group of people formed a Trust and bought the grounds and some inspired soul had the idea of turning it into a garden with a small museum attached. It has been superbly done and although there are discreet information boards around the ruins the area remains both tranquil and beautiful. The photograph(which will need clicking on) shows the nave with the nave altar, which would have been used by townsfolk and pilgrims, nearest the front. Just behind it is a line of stones where the screen would have been and only the nuns and their priest would have been allowed in that area behind there. The mounds of stone at intervals on either side were the pillars that supported the arcades which led to the north and south aisles.

One of the information boards which shows an artists impression of what the interior of the Abbey church would have looked like.

The remains of four steps to the High Altar, on the site of the altar is a 14th century wayside cross which originally stood in the town. During services the altar would have held chalices and other items made of gold and decorated with precious stones which were part of the Abbey's great treasure store. Legend has it that Elizabeth Zouche, who was Abbess at the time of the Dissolution, arranged for the treasures to be hidden in a chamber that was dug in one of the tunnels that are supposed to exist under the Abbey so that Henry Vlll wouldn't get his hands on it. An elderly priest was in charge of the digging and led the blindfolded workmen to the site each day. Finally the chamber was completed and the priest put the treasure inside and locked the door. As he hurried to tell the Abbess where the chamber was he collapsed and died of heart failure and the secret of the treasure's whereabouts died with him - so it must still be there somewhere under the Abbey ruins!

The crypt and the steep stone steps that lead down into it.

This is thought to be the site of the shrine of King Edward, Saint and Martyr. He inherited the crown from his father King Edgar in 978 at the age of 16 and was murdered by his step-mother so that her son Aethelred could become king. After his burial there were stories of miracles occurring and in 1001 he was canonized and became St Edward the Martyr - the pilgrims flocked in and the Abbey's future was looking good.

One of several Purbeck marble coffins that were found during excavations. It is in the South Aisle and they think it contained the remains of Abbess Juliana de Bauceyn who died in 1279. The remnants of a veil edged with gold thread were found here.

This is my favourite part of the whole place, King Alfred's statue stands in the centre of Aethelgifu's Herb Collection which is absolutely fascinating - to me at any rate:) Monasteries and Abbeys were the main providers of medical treatment in Saxon and Medieval times and all would have had extensive herb gardens and there would have been at least one member of the order who was an expert in the uses of herbs for healing - think Brother Cadfael here. This is a collection of the herbs that would have been in use in Anglo Saxon times not only for medicines but for strewing, insecticides, dyeing and many other things. There is also a collection of orchard fruit trees growing at the back against the wall.

Horsemint was apparently eaten to cure dry skin and the juice was taken mixed with wine for worms in the ear! Happily this unpleasant sounding affliction seems to be a thing of the past now - at least, I've never come across it I'm glad to say.

Plantain was one of the nine Anglo Saxon sacred herbs and was very highly esteemed. On one of the herb courses I've done it was used with other herbs in a soothing ointment for cuts, small burns and insect bites. The Anglo Saxons used the bruised leaves to relieve sore feet too.

Here are spurge which was used for catarrh, sweet woodruff was a strewing herb and moth deterrent and the opium poppy which was used as a sedative. If the weather had been better I could have spent much longer exploring all the herbs, the Museum shop had a super little booklet listing all the herbs and their uses, there are over one hundred herbs listed and I was surprised at how many of them I have growing in my garden. Shaftesbury Abbey is well worth visiting if you are ever in the area. The town itself has a jolly good cafe too just at the top of Gold Hill where I had sausage,pea and mint soup on the recommendation of the waitress. It sounded odd but tasted delicious. This is getting rather long so I shall divide it into two parts and do the Dovecote in part two.


Piecefulafternoon said...

Oh that I were a bird or a fairy - I would flit right over there and visit. This was one of the most charming visits I've ever had.

Kate said...

Very interesting post! Much was destroyed in the dissolution of the monasteries. They've done a nice job of providing a peaceful garden spot - I really enjoyed your description of the herb garden.

Diane said...

You do find the most wonderful places to visit Rowan - even in the rain! The old chap with the sickle reminds me of my Grandad. He wielded a scythe with such precision! He had been a woodcutter in his younger days. I wish I had kept his tools. xx

PG said...

I used to live in this area when I was a teenager, it was obviously completely wasted on me! Another place we will be putting on our to-visit list, I hope the chap cutting the bank is still around then! A wonderful photo.

Gracie said...

Thanks again for another interesting virtual visit. The old man with the sickle reminds me of my grandpa, he used things like that when I was a kid and visited him in the countryside.
I've always enjoyed visiting old churches and monasteries, these are places of such a great peace and a magic atmosphere!
Gracie at

Thimbleanna said...

Wow -- thanks for all the great information Rowan. I love visiting the Abbeys in the UK -- it's so sad that they were all destroyed. The statue of King Alfred is so interesting -- from the pictures, it looks like it could be old.

Roy said...

Another interesting post Rowan, I have walked up and down Gold Hill quite a few times in my life.
Ahm! I noticed you said you walked down it?? {:)

Rowan said...

That made me laugh Roy - I only walked down because that was the way the leaflet told me to go {:) {:) I certainly wouldn't have wanted to push or ride a bike up it as the boy in the advert did though.

Roy said...

In wet conditions it probably wouldn't have been advisable as its very slippery. I have this memory of Ronnie Barker doing it in one of his TV sketches.

Poppy Cottage said...

Thank you for coming to visit me. You have reminded me there are bits of our lovely Dorset that I must visit!!

Rosie said...

Fantastic post, Rowan, vey interesting. Shaftesbury looks a wonderful place and the ruins of the Abbey and the herb garden sound wonderful. Could do with some of the plantain for sore feet after my day in Cambridge yesterday:) The photo of the man with the sickle is wonderful - so timeless - thanks for sharing your travels with us:)

Sheila said...

Another lovely post Rowan.
I love the legends that grow up around these historic sites. Perhaps you could suggest Time Team visit and have a look for the
Long lost Treasure chamber..!

Derrick said...

Hello Rowan,

Either you have a marvellous memory or a very full notebook! Lots of interesting information and photos to match. The more I read of your posts, the more I realise I yet have to see in UK!

hippymummy said...

i love visiting your blog Rowan, there's always something beautiful to see and interesting to learn. Thankyou for that xXx

Julie said...

I, too, was taken aback by that photo of the older man and thought it must have come straight out of the pages of "Lark Rise to Candleford." Days past, indeed!

Val said...

Ive lived in Dorset since 1975 and only just discovered Shaftesbury Abbey ruins. Arent they wonderful, so peaceful and calm. And the views from that high hilltop town are wonderful, but I wouldnt like to live their in an icy winter, the roads up to it are treacherous!