History of Dunkeswell Abbey
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.
The project was run by Heritage Arts and People (HAP) CIC, in partnership with the Blackdown Hills AONB.
The project ran for 1 year and involved:
- River Walking Survey
- Earthwork Survey
- Geophysical Survey
- Test pit excavation
- 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
Reports relating to Discovering Dunkeswell Abbey
Funders and supporters
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.
Land East of Burnsome Forde, Dunkeswell Abbey, Devon. Archaeological Test Pit Excavation [pdf] (coming soon)
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.
We’re delighted to be organising three guided tours of 13th century Dunkeswell Abbey on September 14th for Heritage Open Day.
Join volunteer ambassadors from the Heritage Lottery Funded Discovering Dunkeswell Abbey project for a guided tour of the remains of this important monastic site, nestled in the Madford Valley in the Blackdown Hills. The Abbey was founded in 1201 by William Brewere as a colony of the mother house of Forde Abbey in Dorset. By the time of its dissolution in 1539, it had a substantial estate and was a major monastic house. Today, the gatehouse and fragments of the west range survive.
This special Heritage Open Day tour will help bring Dunkeswell Abbey to life. It will give you an insight into what Dunkeswell Abbey would have looked like and allow you to find out what life was like for the Cistercian monks who lived there. The Holy Trinity Church, built in 1842 on the site of the Abbey, will be open with its 13th century medieval floor tiles on view.
Booking Essential due to very limited parking on site. Please book (free) tickets here.
If you intend to arrive on foot or by bike please contact us as we should be able to accommodate you on a tour.
We’re really pleased that we have Exeter archaeologist and illustrator Richard Parker on board as part of our Discovering Dunkeswell Abbey team. Richard worked for many years as an archaeologist with Exeter Archaeology. During this time, and since he went freelance in 2010, he has worked on a range of buildings, from churches and cathedrals to merchant houses and even 1950s and 60s town centres. Richard is also a talented illustrator and because of his background in historic building recording and archaeology he is able to base his reconstruction drawings on archaeological evidence and expert knowledge. His drawings are always full of both detail and personality, with monks, nuns and villagers going about their daily lives or celebrating special events a common feature in his drawings.
Here’s Richard during our recent site visit to Dunkeswell Abbey, examining the standing remains. Once we have carried out the surveys and investigations at Dunkeswell Abbey over the next few months Richard will be ready to start work, basing his illustration on the new information we will have discovered about the site.
Here’s an example of Richard’s work. We look forward to seeing what he comes up with for Dunkeswell Abbey!
Launceston Priory in around 1530
Read more about Discovering Dunkeswell Abbey, a National Lottery Heritage Fund project, here.