A planned trip to Exmoor for Esras birthday and a chance sighting of an English Heritage brown sign at the side of the road. That is the situation which led us to discover Cleeve Abbey.
One thing which perhaps isn’t obvious, is the amount of times you can pass from Dorset to Somerset to Dorset again along one of the many ‘A’ roads which criss-cross this area of the country. Coming from ‘oop North’ where the counties are large, it never ceases to amaze me how often you will see the signs ‘Welcome to Dorset’ or ‘Welcome to Somerset’ along a relatively short drive. It is for this reason, I do not feel guilty what so ever, for including many places in Somerset within my blog posts. I wouldn’t be surprised if you could stand at one of the places we visit and be situated in Dorset on one side of the field and Somerset on the other. So, that little rant over with, I will proceed to extol the delights of Cleeve Abbey.
The history first.
Founded in the late twelfth century the oldest parts of the Abbey were constructed in a very simple and unadorned style, however as time went on the later additions to the Abbey became more elaborate in both style and comfort. There is actually a large part of the Abbey buildings remaining, huddled around a traditional cloister or the square court at their centre. There is little information around the site to inform you of the rooms and their uses by the monks, this information can only really be obtained from a further purchase of the guide book for £2.99. However if you are avidly curious about the history, it is a very informative brochure with lots of beautiful photos and full descriptions, not only describing the life the monks would have led but also detailing the architectural elements of interest, drawing your attention to things you would probably miss on a simple walk around.
From my perspective there were three areas which were of particular interest to me. First was the refectory hall which was a later addition to the Abbey, constructed in the mid 1400’s. Situated up a stone staircase the first things that strike you are the amount of light pouring in through the large windows and the amazing carved roof. The roof is divided into ten bays by principal and then subsidiary trusses with each truss decorated with a carved angel. The workmanship involved is a wonder to behold and the roof structure itself a thing of beauty.
Secondly is the original refectory or first refectory which was constructed at the Abbeys original inception in the thirteenth century. It is now covered by a modern cedar clad building to protect what is remaining, namely a large tiled pavement. The tiles of the pavement are of particular historical interest and depict the royal arms of Poitou and Clare which were produced to celebrate the marriage of Edmund of Cornwall to Margaret de Clare. Then there are the double headed eagle of Richard of Cornwall (brother of King Henry III and Edmunds father) representative of his title as ‘King of the Romans’ and the three lions which represents the kings of England.
Finally I adored the amazing vaulted ceiling of the ‘warming room’ so called because it was the only place where the fire burned constantly. Lit on All Saints Day (1st November) it burned continually until Good Friday and would be a place where I imagine cold monks gathered to warm themselves.
The church itself is only an outline of rocky foundations in the ground, having succumbed to the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536.
The site is quite exposed and despite being a beautiful day the wind which whipped around site was quite chilly. We were very pleased to have found this little gem just off the beaten path and would recommend it as a ‘go-see’. Once we arrived at our hotel later in the day, we got chatting to some elderly ladies who were taking a short break together, we recommended that they visit, and the next day at breakfast they thanked us for the recommendation as they had truly enjoyed themselves.
It isn’t a busy site and there is plenty of free parking across the road in the car park. You will be greeted by a rather enthusiastic, almost over-enthusiastic gentleman on entry who I imagine would talk to you all day about the wonderful life of Cistercian Monks. Whilst you are there, do as we did, and pick up a lovely bottle of honey mead, its so delicious, you really won’t regret it.