Cerne Abbey, Dorset


★★

Abbot's porch
Guest house

Limited remains of a Benedictine monastery; an elegant porch in wooded surroundings (once the entrance to a great hall), a guest house and a barn
Management
Private ownership; visitors usually permitted
Entry
£2 donation
Location
At the north end of Abbey Street, Cerne Abbas
Cerne Abbey, a Benedictine institution, was one of the largest of the ancient English monasteries, and was founded relatively early, probably around 987 by a nobleman named Aethelmaer, a junior member of the Wessex Royal house. The abbey flourished for over five centuries, suffering only one major upheaval, early in the 11th century, when it was partly destroyed by Canute from Denmark, though upon obtaining in the English crown (in 1016) he was moved to become a benefactor, and assisted in its rebuilding. The subsequent years were largely uneventful, until the abbey was closed in 1539 by order of Henry VIII, as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries; the closure was given more legitimacy by various reported instances of bad behaviour, of the abbot (Thomas Corton) and some of his monks.

Most of the monastic buildings were completely demolished soon after the dissolution, and very little is known of their size or design; the general position is evident merely as low, overgrown ditches and mounds. Only two major components survive intact, both constructed towards the end of the monastery's tenure; a guest house from the late 1400s, still in use today as a lodging facility, and, the most interesting structure, the three story abbot's porch, an elegant tower with a fine oriel window at the front, originally the gateway to a grand hall. The porch now stands isolated in the middle of a garden behind the guest house, shaded by tall trees. Also in the vicinity is a large, 14th century barn associated with the abbey, modified and converted to a house in the 18th century.



Location


The abbey is located towards the upper end of the valley of the River Cerne, surrounded by rolling, grass-covered chalk hills, one just to the east bearing the famous figure of the Cerne Abbas Giant, overlooking and named after the village that grew up around the monastery. Nearby are the remains of an Iron Age hill fort, though the giant is thought to be relatively recent in origin, probably made in the 17th century. The abbey lies a quarter of a mile east of the main road through the valley, the A352, at the end of a short residential road (Abbey Street), which has a small amount of parking space. The site is not a major visitor attraction, is not signposted, and all is privately owned, though open to visitors on most days, upon payment of a £2 pound donation, deposited into a box on the wall in front of the buildings. The western part of the monastery site is occupied by Abbey House, built after the dissolution and incorporating a few surviving fragments including part of the gatehouse. The guest house stands on the east side of the main courtyard, with the porch in the gardens to the north. Further east is a graveyard, associated with the now vanished abbey church, while beyond are open fields, where most of the monastic buildings once stood, but no trace of any masonry elements survive, not even buried foundations.



The Buildings


The porch was the entrance to the abbot's hall, built by Abbot Thomas Sam around the end of the 15th century; it formed the northwest corner, as shown by short surviving lengths of the hall wall extending south and east. The ground floor has a vaulted entrance passageway, beside a small room and a spiral staircase that accesses the upper two stories. The interior of the building is locked and inaccessible, however. The front wall is reinforced with two diagonal buttresses, extending all the way to the flat, battlemented roof, while above the entrance is a two floor oriel window, partly restored, supported by a multi-tier corbel. The guest house, a place of residence for visiting pilgrims, has two stories, and is clad in alternate rows of flint and sandstone. Original entrances are in the middle of the north and east walls, and both floors are illuminated by a number of original, two light windows. The house is also not open to the public, but can be rented as holiday accommodation. The other monastic remnant, the barn, lies 400 feet northwest of the guest house; a seven-bay building, now a private residence. The south side of the graveyard adjoins a tree-lined pond, fed by water from St Augustine's Well, a source that supposedly formed spontaneously during a visit here by the saint around 600 AD.

Frontage of the abbot's porch
Frontage of the abbot's porch