Abbotsbury Abbey, Dorset


St Catherine's Chapel
Wall of the abbot's lodging

Relics from a once large monastery near the Dorset coast; a tall wall fragment, a huge tithe barn, church foundations and the detached St Catherine's Chapel, scenically situated on top of a hill
Along Market Street on the south side of Abbotsbury (DT3 4JJ); the chapel is 0.3 miles southwest
Photo Tour (31 images)
The peaceful village of Abbotsbury in south Dorset was once the site of a major Benedictine monastery, established in the mid 11th century by a follower of King Cnut, and although relatively little is known of its history, the place seems to have flourished without any major incidents for nearly 500 years, until closed by order of Henry VIII in 1539, as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. In common with most similar places, Abbotsbury Abbey consisted of a large cruciform church adjoining square cloisters lined on the other three sides by subsidiary buildings, plus other structures nearby, including a chapel, tithe barn, dove cote and gatehouse, but unlike some more well-known sites the majority was swiftly dismantled soon after the dissolution, leaving only minor fragments.

Only the chapel and the tithe barn were spared destruction, being reused for secular purposes, and these were built relatively late in the abbey's tenure, in the 14th century. Other ruined remnants are limited to meagre foundations of the abbey church, in the graveyard of the more recent parish church, and one wall of the abbot's lodging, though parts of other outbuildings have been incorporated into more recent structures, still occupied. The barn is privately owned, and part is used as a children's play facility, so the only two significant, unaltered and publicly-viewable remains of the monastery are the wall from the abbot's lodging and the 14th century St Catherine's Chapel; this latter is by far the most photogenic part of the complex, perched on an isolated hilltop overlooking ten miles of the south Dorset coast.

The Abbey Buildings

Visitors to Abbotsbury are provided with a paid car park along the main street (Rodden Row, B3157), though free spaces are usually available elsewhere along the road. The abbey site is on the southern edge of the village, east of Market Street, and southwest of the parish church, which is accessed by a short driveway terminating in a group of cottages known collectively as Abbey House, some of which incorporate wall sections from the monastic buildings. The house is now a bed and breakfast. A handsome, partly ruined arch across the driveway might be thought to belong to the monastery, but in fact dates only from the 17th century; instead, the one significant ancient structure is the end wall of a tall, narrow building, originally part of the south cloister range - the abbot's lodging, built around 1400. The wall is supported by two diagonal buttresses at the corners and a smaller central buttress, while the inner face contains a rectangular fireplace and blocked doorway on the ground floor, and a smaller fireplace above. Faint remains of one wall (the north aisle of the nave) of the abbey church can be seen in the current graveyard, together with two medieval tombs. The tithe barn is 400 feet south of the abbot's lodge, on the far side of a mill pond. It was once amongst the largest barns in the country, 272 feet long and 31 feet wide, with 23 bays and two porches, both on the north side, and both including a look-out room above the entrance. Today the eastern half is ruined, and the porch is missing, while the western part is complete, housing the children's centre (Abbotsbury Children's Farm).

Mill pond
Mill pond

St Catherine's Chapel

St Catherine's Chapel was built by the monks around the end of the 14th century to provide a quiet place of worship, away from the busier monastic centre, and represents a rare example of such an outlying building. It sits on top of a rounded, grassy, treeless hill 270 feet high and just half a mile from the coast, overlooking the western end of Chesil Beach. The views extend to the Isle of Portland ten miles away, and over a large area of the inland hills. The chapel is reached by a walk of 0.4 miles, south of the B3157; down a lane and along a path across the surrounding fields. All is built out of locally-quarried limestone, rich yellow-brown in colour, and although disused, the building is undamaged, complete with intact roof (recently re-clad in clipsham stone), and it is open all year, during daylight hours. The chapel is 42 by 14 feet in dimensions, with thick, buttressed walls, porches to north and south, a barrel-vaulted roof, and an octagonal turret at the northwest corner containing a spiral staircase, which leads up to the parapet and a tiny oratory. The interior is illuminated by four windows - small openings to the west, north and south, and a larger, three light window to the east, retaining some of its original tracery. The interior walls contain several niches, one used as the piscina.

St Catherine's Chapel
St Catherine's Chapel