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Beeleigh Abbey Visit

About 60 members visited Beeleigh Abbey on 20 September 2003. David Andrews explained that much sensitive restoration work was in progress, but that it was to such a high standard that members would probably be unaware of it. The original abbey, a Premonstratensian house, had moved to this site from Great Parndon in 1180. The present house consists of the east range of the cloister containing the well preserved chapter house and calefactory of c. 1220, and a short stub of the south range which would have contained the refectory. Inside, dendrodating has revealed roof timbers of a similar date, reused in a later floor. The original walls were mainly in �pudding� stone with the easily worked (but poorly weathering) Reigate stone for the architectural details.

Medieval Roof

There is structural evidence that considerable alterations to windows and the internal layout were made in the early 1500s The other buildings were very thoroughly robbed down to the foundations after the Dissolution, and the site of the church was removed by 19th century gravel quarrying, leaving a rather attractive pond to the north of the house. The cottage opposite the house covers mediaeval foundations and is on the site of the west cloister range. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the abbey was a farmhouse, and was not restored until the early 20th century by the architect Basil Ionides. The gardens were laid out by Wykeham Chancellor in the 1920s.

Inside, the chapter house retains the typical double entrance doors and has a ribbed vault in eight bays, supported by three freestanding octagonal Purbeck marble columns. It has recently been paved with reused French limestone slabs. Excavation before laying this revealed little. The parlour adjoining is covered with a stone barrel vault with remains of 14th century wall painting on the upper walls. The next room, the calefactory or warming house, is also of eight bays and supported on Purbeck shafts, but these are of a simpler design, befitting a room of lower status than the chapter house. The chimney is a late 15th century insertion, with a gothic spandrel containing elements of classical decoration.

Medieval Doors

The Roof of the Library

Beyond the warming house is a timber framed extension of about 1624, externally striking with its brick noggin, but quite modest inside with unmoulded beams. Upstairs the library (formerly the dormitory) is covered by a spectacular timber barrel roof (extremely rare in Essex). The remains of an earlier seven cant roof truss was found in the end gable wall. There is other evidence of the early 16th century improvements here, with Tudor brickwork and windows in the east wall. It also appears, from several blocked doorways in the west wall, that the dormitory had been divided up into individual cells at this time, probably accessed from an external passage running over the roof of the cloister below. This would seem to be part of a move towards greater privacy.

Members then emerged into the autumn sunlight to look at the Maldon Archaeological Group�s excavations in the paddock to the west of the house. The new owner, Christopher Foyle, had intended to plant trees here but was keen to have an archaeological evaluation before starting. A geophysical survey showed buried features, and subsequent excavation revealed a substantial mediaeval house. Being so close to the abbey, it must have been associated with it, though it is far from clear what its function was.


Excavation Detail

Pat Ryan explained the features of the building exposed, a standard hall house with a parlour at one end and service rooms at the other. The timber frame (of which no traces remain) had rested on cills made mainly from courses of clay peg tiles (wasters or re-used material, as very few were whole), with occasional white bricks of the type imported from the continent in the 14th century (probably re-used, as very few were whole) and pieces of red brick. The hall has a central tiled open hearth, with a geomagnetic last firing date of 1470-90. Just to the north are the footings of the chimney which replaced it, a mixture of peg tile, mediaeval and Tudor brick. This is an early date for a chimney. Also in the hall are brick pads which would have been inserted under the aisle posts.

The parlour has a later inserted chimney, with a base of brick and peg tile, with a kerb made from very large red bricks (none whole, therefore probably re-used) similar to the type used in the Waltham Abbey gatehouse of about 1370. North of the service end is a tile hearth, almost certainly belonging to a detached kitchen, and east of that another hearth, not clearly associated with a building. The latter hearth has a last firing date of about 1250, so may belong to an earlier structure of which no other traces remain. Just north are several cills made from lapped peg tiles laid diagonally � as yet it is not clear what these were for. Finally the parlour end had been extended east and the cill walls here contained much more re-used building stone. This might date from the extensive alterations and improvements going on in the abbey in the early 16th century.

Excavation Chimney

The Back Aspect with Monument

The Society is extremely grateful to our expert guides, as well as to the owner, Christopher Foyle and his staff, for the visit to such an interesting and unusual site.

Michael Leach September 2003