Period Property of the Month - April 2009
Mac Dowdy motors down winding country lanes in Norfolk to research some old monastic buildings.
Surviving holy disorder
Between 1509 and 1543 Henry VIII married six times. The manner in which he disposed of his wives appears to have had little effect on the mass of the population at that time, although in the past 135 years it has been given a prominent place in the nation's history lessons by schools, and in more recent times by Hollywood and the BBC. However, a more far-reaching act was his break from Rome and the dissolution of the monasteries and religious houses between 1536 and 1539. This caused devastating and long-lasting religious, social and economic upheaval throughout the land. Some monastic churches survived to become cathedrals, and a few schools were refounded, but the greater part of the former monastic properties and land were sold off.
A number of the monasteries lost their conventual (i.e. belonging to a convent) buildings, but their churches survived to take on a parochial role, but hundreds were sold off as complete sites. The purchasers were either the existing nobility or the emergent nouveau-riche, and some properties were demolished to become 'quarries' for building material, like Castle Acre in Norfolk, Rievaulx in Yorkshire, or Tintern in Monmouth. Others were remodelled, some quite drastically, into stunning stately homes, such as Burghley House, Longleat and Woburn; whereas there are many all over the country that can only be discovered by their name. Abbey Farm is one of those.
As ever, I get my 'kick of pleasure' when I make that unexpected discovery whilst travelling off the beaten track down some remote country lane, or peering at the passing countryside through the window of a train. Apologies for the unintentional touch of Betjeman. It really was an innocent Freudian-slip, but curiously I had been thinking of him, because he was a friend of my boss during my research student days, and the Great Man often visited us on sites we thought would amuse and interest him. He would have liked many of the features in this former abbey in deepest Norfolk: especially as there is a good traditional village pub close to hand.
Old Buckenham is classified as both a scattered and a green settlement. It is large, covering a great area with its farms and clusters of farmworkers' cottages, and little hamlets nestling where lanes might cross each other. The green is one of the widest and longest that I have ever seen; you cannot see the whole of it from end to end. Abbey Farm can with luck be discovered tucked away off one of the many minor lanes extending into the county's hinterland. Founded in the 13th Century by Augustinian monks seeking seclusion, it appears to have retained its isolation for over 800 years. At Henry's dissolution it was bought into a family for the use of its cadet members. It survived with modest improvements over the centuries until the 20th Century when it was purchased by a family who recognised its historic charm and have given it tender loving care ever since. The approach to Abbey Farm is down an unclassified road, but the immaculate appearance of that road, grass verges, ditches, fences and gateways, in 'house-style' liveried colours, gives the impression of entering private land. The farmhouse is L-shaped in plan, with two long, two-storied ranges with steeply pitched plain-tile roofs. There are no dormer windows. The walls are plaster-rendered and painted white. The upper part of the left-hand range is jettied over a brick-cased lower floor. The most startling, and very special feature is the gable end of the jettied range.
The brickwork in this gable end is essentially in English bond, the alternate courses of headers and stretchers. The bricks are expertly made in local clay, mixed with grog, pre-fired clay ground to a powder in order to prevent shrinkage and distortion when firing. The design of the elevation, with the slender turrets rising to conical heads, and the twin stacks, with decorative rubbed-moulding, rising at the apex is the work of accomplished craftsmen. There is work of similar quality close by in this region at Oxburgh and West Stow halls. The style suggests a date of circa 1480, which is within the monastic period. It must have been a building of importance within the abbey, possibly it was the abbot's lodging or guest accommodation. The present ranges of buildings are likely to be the surviving elements of a conventual plan of rectangular form that enclosed a cloister and a courtyard. There are no obvious earthworks.
Much of the interior of the farmhouse tells the story of continuous improvements over the years, like the introduction of a staircase in the long range in the 17th Century. This beautiful example of carved and turned wood would have, at that time, impressed visitors with the modernity of its style and craftsmanship. On the other hand, the jettied lodging must have added a historic surprise and delight for 300 years or more.
The upper chamber reveals a well-designed space of style and comfortable proportions. The timbers are terrific. They are well-formed and of greater age than the exterior brickwork. The tie-beam, with its curved braces, and the vertical studwork rising above it and the chimneypiece conservatively date to the early 1400s. However, the pièce-de-résistance has to be the snug garderobe (privy) that nestles next to the fireplace. The downside is the necessary outshot, seen like a loophole in the view of the gable end. Imagine. Incidentally, it was this feature that would have pleased John Betjeman.
If you'd like to talk to Mac Dowdy about investigating the history of your house, you can contact him on tel: 01353 665491 or write to him directly c/o Wolfson College, Cambridge CB3 9BB. Mac's fee is usually between £500 - £1,000 per house, but each case is treated individually.