Hidden steps revealed at Buckland Abbey

A £54k project to repair Buckland Abbey’s Grade 1 Listed Kitchen Garden wall has started this winter, uncovering new evidence of Buckland’s medieval history.

Buckland Abbey is a medieval National Trust estate nestled in the Tavy Valley on the edge of Dartmoor. Since the Cistercian Monks lived and worked the vast estate, the Abbey’s walled kitchen garden has been cultivated for centuries. The surrounding walls are believed to be seventeenth century; certainly the pear trees growing on them date back that far. In historical text, the area is referred to as the Pair Garden (Sic).

Over time, rainwater had washed out the original mortar in the old wall, the stones had dropped, and the wall was suffering from serious subsidence. Historic England granted Scheduled Monument Consent for a major repair.

AC Worth Builders have been rebuilding the wall under the supervision of South West Archaeology. This painstaking work, overseen by on-site archaeologist Jim Parry, involved excavating the foundations. This revealed hidden steps and some very neat stonework with holes either side of the steps. Jim is still trying to piece together all the evidence including pottery found in the dig to give a clear idea of what the area was previously used for.

National Trust Archaeologist, Jim Parry said, “A new archaeological find is always exciting, and this recent discovery has uncovered tantalising new evidence of buildings probably relating to the sixteenth century monastery and its subsequent demolition after Henry VIII's dissolution and the redevelopment of the site as a residential domain. The jury is still out as to its full form and function which we will hopefully be exploring more fully in time.”

The conservation work has involved specialist teams using traditional techniques to repair the wall, meaning much of the wall’s original stone has been saved. Missing stones have been replaced using local stone sourced from Yennadon Quarry near Dousland, to achieve an almost exact match and to keep the beautiful old wall looking authentic.

National Trust Building Surveyor, James Whybrow said, “The remains behind the wall are medieval, altered in the seventeenth century as part of the works to the walled garden. Over the last few years we have carried out several repairs to the wall that encompasses the Kitchen Garden at Buckland Abbey. The section currently being worked on is the most challenging, but also looks to be the most rewarding. The wall is retaining the higher field and so our contractors have had to carefully dig out behind the wall before taking sections down.”
                                                                                                                                            
James continued, “This work has led to an interesting discovery of steps that have been covered up for many years, along with other abutments potentially from earlier buildings which we have no record of. We are still not sure what the square holes were for; none of the archaeologists have seen anything like it before.”

Buckland Abbey Head Gardener, Alex Prain added, “The Kitchen Garden remains open to visitors to watch the conservation work in action. Scaffolding has been erected to provide a work platform and protect the plants in the border below. We’ve had to remove some of the plants that have been lovingly trained to grow up the wall and cut back the pears quite hard in the hope they will revive next spring. If this doesn’t work, we will have an exciting opportunity to plant from scratch using local heritage varieties.”

The Kitchen Garden at Buckland Abbey is open every day. For winter and special Christmas opening times, please visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/bucklandabbey