HAP are currently working on a project called Understanding Dunkeswell Abbey Church. This Victorian Church, hidden away amongst the ruins of Dunkeswell Abbey in the Blackdown Hills, has a very unusual history.
It was built by a family of women who poured their time and energy into mastering the craft skills needed to create architectural fixings. Using a large drawing room at their home as a workshop they produced stained glass windows, altars, reredoses, a font, a pulpit, a reading desk, capitals, corbels and furniture reconstituted from antique carvings.
We’ve had lots of fun recently creating a series of Explore and Create videos for the Blackdown Hills AONB, aimed at families with children under 12. The videos showcase beautiful places to visit in the Blackdown Hills AONB and inspiring activities to help families engage with the landscape. All of the places explored in the video series are in the visitors section of the Blackdown Hills website.
The activities are easy to reproduce and involve everyday, or low-cost materials. Discover how to make simple frames to take on walks, a mini nature raft, a colour spotting chart, a nature loom, an Iron Age pot, nature-inspired patterns and how to use clay to collect bark and leaf pattern keepsakes.
Framing the Landscape at Culmstock Beacon
There are beautiful views at Culmstock Beacon – try framing the view to look at the landscape differently. Learn how to make some simple frames to take on walks using natural objects you find like twigs and feathers, or try your own personalised card frame using fun shapes and photos.
Crayfish in the River Culm
Explore the River Culm and meet the white clawed cray fish in this video. Learn how to make a nature raft using natural materials found on the ground – will it float?
Patterns in Nature at Castle Neroche
In this video Catherine explores Castle Neroche, a site occupied in the Iron Age and then later in the 11th century, looking at things close up with a magnifying glass. Families can discover how to use the shapes they spot on their walk to make colourful patterns at home.
Wildlife and weaving at Otterhead Lakes
This video explores Otterhead Lakes Nature Reserve and demonstrates how to make a nature loom using different items in nature. Moss, feathers, pine cones, seed pods and leaves woven into an easy-to-make loom create a beautiful memory of the walk.
Impressions of Nature at Staple Hill
In this video Catherine explores Staple Hill and explains how families can use a ball of clay to collect some of the patterns and textures they might find on a walk like this one. Once the clay has dried, painting the pressed clay creates some unique keepsakes from the walk.
Reveal the Iron Age at Hembury Hillfort
Hembury Hillfort has a long and fascinating history, dating back about 5000 years. It’s a great place to visit to explore the impressive Iron Age ramparts (banks and ditches) and you can see for miles! In this video discover how to make a Hembury-inspired pot using air dried clay. Some of the beautiful pots found at Hembury Hillfort on display at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum.
Beautiful Bark at Combe Wood
In this video Catherine explores Coombe Wood, a 10 acre area of woodland north of Honiton. There’s lots of beautiful bark and leaves at Coombe Wood and Cat shows how families can make a record of their walk by taking rubbings and then creating their own unique concertina book to hold their artwork in.
Colour Spotting in Hedgerows
In this video Catherine walks from Hemyock towards Owleycombe, exploring some of the many footpaths crossing the Blackdown Hills. Families can discover how to make a colour spotting chart to see how many colours they can spot in nature. Details of this walk can be found here.
Dunkeswell Abbey is a scheduled 13th century Cistercian abbey 2 miles north of the village of Dunkeswell. Some upstanding remains survive today and parts of the abbey church are incorporated into the current Victorian church constructed in 1841-2 by the Simcoe family. Dunkeswell Abbey was the ‘daughter’ of Forde Abbey, and was founded in 1201 by William Brewere. By the time of its dissolution in 1539 it was counted as one of the major monastic houses in Devon
Monasteries were an essential part of medieval life and acted as the centre of worship, learning and charity. Unlike many other monastic orders, the Cistercians sought seclusion and believed in living a very simple life, valuing hard work, study, prayer and self-denial. They were known as the ‘white monks’ as they wore undyed tunics to distinguish themselves from Benedictine monks who wore black.
The Cistercians would have chosen to build their Abbey at Dunkeswell because of its rural location and proximity to water, timber and other natural resources. The Cistercians were skilled at managing water and diverted local watercourses to supply the large fish ponds where they farmed fish. The earthworks of these fishponds are still visible today.
As well as monks, the community at Dunkeswell would have included many lay brethren who acted as ploughmen, dairymen, shepherds, carpenters and masons. Some masonry remains of the lay-brothers dormitory (which would have been on the first floor of the west range) can be seen at the site.
The site is now a Scheduled Monument and is currently on the Historic England Heritage At Risk register. The abbey is an important part of the Blackdown Hills historic landscape and helped shape the environment we see today.
The ruined remains of the west range with the Victorian Church behind
Aims of the Discovering Dunkeswell Abbey Project
Start Date: 2019-04-12 End Date: 2020-04-30
Although the abbey is an important part of the Blackdowns historic landscape, it was not well known or understood in the wider community. Very little of the abbey survives today and a lack of signage or interpretation information at the site made it difficult for the community to connect with or understand the layout and significance of the abbey complex.
The aim of the project was to raise the profile of the abbey and to help the community connect with and understand the site through a community archaeology programme, multi-generational community engagement activities and interpretation material on-site. There was a focus throughout the project on enabling volunteers to learn new skills and on increasing well-being.
Programme of learning with schools and community groups
School education packs
Tours and activities during Heritage Open Day
During the project HAP worked with more than 30 volunteers on research fieldwork and learning opportunities. Volunteers worked alongside professional archaeologists learning skills and gaining knowledge about both Dunkeswell Abbey and the techniques being used to further understand it.
New Discoveries: Our Community Archaeology Programme
The volunteer programme gave our volunteers an enriching and enjoyable learning experience and helped them discover more about the abbey complex.
During the river walking survey volunteers helped to recover medieval floor tiles, peg tiles and building materials. At least one of the decorated floor tiles represented a previously unknown design. The discovery of tile wasters revealed completely new evidence for the production of plain peg-tiles (used in roofing) on the site, supporting emerging evidence that the parishes around Dunkeswell supported a major ceramics industry in the medieval period and in the 16th century.
Floor Tile Fragments
The results of the earthwork survey at Abbey Mill Farm suggest that the earthworks represent the remains of part of the inner precinct boundary of the abbey, with the remains of two building platforms which may be the sites of service buildings for the cloisters.
The geophysical survey explored four areas around the abbey ruins to try and further understand the nature of earthworks previously identified during aerial surveys.
Geophysical survey with volunteers
Following on from the geophysical survey, two test pits were excavated in an area identified as a possible furnace/extractive site, targeting a linear earthwork and putative slag deposit. The excavation revealed large quantities of dumped metal working waster: iron smelting slag, fragments of clay furnace lining and possible iron ore. The possible in-situ remains of a clay structure, potentially a smithing hearth bottom, were also discovered, suggesting on site iron working production. A sample taken from a sealed burnt layer had the potential for radiocarbon dating, so with a grant from the Blackdown Hills AONB, the material was processed and a radiocarbon date extracted. The radiocarbon determination for charcoal recovered from the sample returned a date in the late Roman Period.
Volunteers were involved in all of the archaeological investigations, as well as sessions with heritage experts and a trip to the Devon Heritage Centre.
Dunkeswell Abbey on Tour
As part of the project we worked with local primary schools and community groups to share the results of the community archaeology programme. In addition to this, an open day was held at the abbey during the Heritage Open Days 2019. More can be read about that here.
Heritage Open Day at Dunkeswell Abbey
Reconstructing Drawing of the Abbey
Before the closure of Dunkeswell Abbey following the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. it would have acted as a centre of worship, learning and charity, full of activity, industry and life. To try and help visitors understand how the abbey might have looked, historic buildings specialist and illustrator Richard Parker was commissioned to create a reconstruction drawing of the abbey.
Reconstruction drawing of Dunkeswell Abbey (for a labelled version see leaflet attached below)
“The Discovering Dunkeswell Abbey project was very much welcomed by Historic England as an enabling project to test and develop the levels of local and wider social engagement at this relatively remote and unknown but nationally important site. The outcomes have been excellent, the HAP team have sought ought and brought together interested local people and individuals as well as people from further afield. It was really impressive to see the commitment and dedication demonstrated by the HAP team being ably communicated to volunteers and local people, some of whom have continued to work on aspects of research and conservation at Dunkeswell Abbey even after the project closed.” Charlotte Russell, Heritage at Risk Projects Officer, Historic England
The Discovering Dunkeswell Abbey project was funded through the Heritage Lottery Fund, with additional funding from Devon County Council and the Blackdown Hills AONB.
The project was supported by:
Dunkeswell Abbey Preservation Trust
Parts of Dunkeswell Abbey are open to the public and interpretation material is now available to view in the red phonebox near the entrance to the Holy Trinity Church. There is also an interpretation board and leaflets inside Holy Trinity Church, located on the site of the Cistercian abbey church.
The community archaeology programme was a key part of our National Lottery Heritage Funded Project ‘Discovering Dunkeswell Abbey’ (DDA). As part of the programme the HAP team, working with volunteers, made a surprising discovery. A test pit investigation on land near the Abbey revealed burnt material dating back to the late Roman Period.
Initial test pit layout and top soil removal
Dunkeswell Abbey was a Cistercian abbey complex founded in 1201 and was in occupation until its dissolution in 1539. The Cistercians would have chosen to build their Abbey at Dunkeswell because of its rural location and proximity to water, timber and other natural resources. A major strand of the DDA project was to extend the existing body of knowledge of the Abbey and its history, alongside engaging the local community.
Prior to the test pit excavation, a river walking survey was carried out near the abbey in June 2019 as part of DDA’s community archaeology programme. The discovery of tile wasters revealed completely new evidence for the production of plain peg-tiles (used in roofing) on the site. This discovery supported emerging evidence that the parishes around Dunkeswell supported a major ceramics industry in the medieval period and in the 16th century. Since the test pits would be targeting an area of suspected iron working activity, the team wondered whether evidence of another industry – medieval iron working – might also be discovered.
The two test pits were excavated in November 2019 about 250m west of the abbey, in an area identified as a possible furnace/extractive site, targeting a linear earthwork and putative slag deposit. The excavation revealed large quantities of dumped metal working waste: iron smelting slag, fragments of clay furnace lining and possible iron ore. The possible in-situ remains of a clay structure and potentially a smithing hearth bottom, were also discovered, suggesting on site iron working and production.
Excavating the test pit
A sample taken from a sealed burnt layer had the potential for radiocarbon dating, so with a grant from the Blackdown Hills AONB, the material was processed and a radiocarbon date obtained. The radiocarbon determination for charcoal recovered from the sample returned a date in the late Roman Period (230-380AD). This is considerably earlier than had been anticipated and is broadly contemporary with Roman iron working deposits recorded at Bywood Farm, located 3km to the southeast. The presence of a possible Roman quern stone is suggestive of additional associated settlement activity in the vicinity of the site.
Whilst the test pit did not provide a date for medieval iron working activity, the fact that late Roman iron working activity was taking place on the site was a very exciting discovery. Radiocarbon dates in the Early Medieval period have also been returned from metal working residues at Bywood Farm, so we know that there was also medieval iron working activity in the area. The test pit investigation was small scale but very worthwhile and has highlighted the considerable potential for further investigation.
Our display in the red phone box at Dunkeswell Abbey is now up! Here’s Catherine, giving you a preview of the display.
Here’s a close up of the new interpretation board, showing a reconstruction drawing of the abbey. There are also some leaflets available for people to take away.
The red phone box is located in the small car parking area next to Dunkeswell Abbey. The interpretation board and leaflets were produced and paid for as part of Discovering Dunkeswell Abbey, a National Lottery Heritage Fund project.
We had a great day at our Dunkeswell Abbey celebration event in September, organised as part of our Discovering Dunkeswell Abbey project (funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund). The sun shone and our volunteers turned out in force to help make the day a success. We’d timed our celebration event to run over the Heritage Open Days and had 50 people of all ages join us for tours, which were partially led by some of our fantastic Dunkeswell Abbey Ambassadors. Whilst everybody who came was local to the area (either within the surrounding villages or within Devon/Somerset), a surprising number had either never been to the abbey or had been but didn’t know anything about it.
We were lucky enough to have been given a tour of the abbey and tour notes in advance by Charlotte Russell from Historic England. This allowed our volunteers to feel more confident in assisting with tours of the abbey and talking to visitors about the abbey and it’s historic context on the day. Volunteers also participated in, and helped run, activities. Riley, one of our younger volunteers, helped with tile tracing and talked to visitors about the tile decoration, pointing out patterns and motifs.
We got some great feedback from participants:
“ Extremely interesting tour of Dunkeswell Abbey and environ by knowledgeable and enthusiastic people who were very happy to take time to allow questions and explore ideas. It would be great to find out more about the abbey and how it affected the countryside.”
“ I’ve lived here 3 years and didn’t know much about the abbey at all. Really interesting to find out more about it.”
“Really interesting morning. Knew the abbey was here but always wasn’t sure what there was to see. Also not clear which bits are accessible. So to be shown was lovely. All volunteers and staff so friendly and helpful.”
“ I found the tiles and their amazing drawings on them very fascinating – they are 800 years old!” – primary school aged child
One of our participants found the tour really informative and wrote about her experience and findings on Dunkeswell Abbey on her building history blog here.
Here’s a few more pictures of what turned out to be a really successful day. Thanks to the National Lottery Heritage Fund for supporting this community project.