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At Abbey Wood

September 23, 2020
by the gentle author

Serving Hatch

Only recently did I learn that there is an abbey and a wood at Abbey Wood. Stunned by my own obtuseness, I set out to discover what I have been missing all these years. Visiting ruins was a memorable feature of childhood holidays, leaving a residual affection for architectural dereliction that has persisted throughout my life.

There is a familiar style of presentation in which the broken fragments of wall are neatly cemented in place while the former internal spaces are replaced by manicured lawns. This is the case at Lesnes Abbey in Abbey Wood, augmented with simple metal signs indicating ‘kitchen’ or ‘garderobe’ which set the imagination racing.

On leaving Abbey Wood station, my enthusiasm was such that I headed straight up the hill into the woods where I was overjoyed to discover myself entirely alone in an ancient forest of chestnut trees, filled with squirrels busily harvesting the chestnuts and burying them in anticipation of winter. Descending by a woodland path was perhaps the best way to discover the old abbey, situated upon a sheltered plateau beneath the hills yet raised up from the Thames and commanding a splendid view towards London.

Lesnes Abbey of St Mary & St Thomas the Martyr was founded in 1178 by Richard de Lucy, Chief Justice of England, as penance for the murder of Thomas A Becket. Richard retired here once the abbey was complete but died within three months. For centuries, the abbey struggled with the cost of maintaining the river banks and maintaining the marshlands productively. As a measure of how far it declined, it was closed by Cardinal Wolsey in 1525 as part of programme of shutting monasteries of less than seven residents, before the abbey was eventually destroyed in 1542 as one of the first to be subjected to the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

After demolition, the building materials were salvaged and the abbey was forgotten until Woolwich & District Antiquarian Society  rediscovered it, excavated the ruins in 1909 and the site became a park in 1930.

One of the last sunny afternoons at the end of a long summer was the ideal occasion for my lone pilgrimage. I stood to gaze upon the ancient ruins and lifted my eyes in contemplation of the distant towers of contemporary London, wondering where the events of our time will lead. Then I walked back up into the forest and it crossed my mind that I if I followed the woodland paths long enough and far enough, maybe I could come back down the hill and enter the time when the abbey flourished and witness it as it was once, full of life.

Stairs to dormitory

The burial place of the heart of Roesia of Dover, great great granddaughter of the founder of this abbey, Richard de Lucy

West door of the church

Four hundred year old Mulberry tree, dating from the reign of James I

Chestnuts at Abbey Wood

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18 Responses leave one →
  1. September 23, 2020

    Dear GA, what an interesting place, and I envy your access to these lovely ruins. It speaks of a splendid past in the face of our uncertain future. I hope to be able to see this in person – someday.

  2. Robert permalink
    September 23, 2020

    If you haven’t already done so. You should visit barking abbey which is a similar ruin. Unfortunately the setting has been recently degraded by a new high rise estate going up next to it.

  3. JohnB permalink
    September 23, 2020

    I lived 5 minutes walk from Abbey Wood Station for a good few years in the 80s. This parkland and abbey were very tranquil. You astonished me with the news that there’s a 400 year old mulberry there. I wish I’d noticed it. I live around 12000 miles away now, so I’ll probably not get the chance again!

    I’ve followed you for many years now, it’s nice when you take a trip out of the London area where I also used to work. Thank you.

  4. September 23, 2020

    Thirty years ago, when we lived in Bexleyheath, I used to take my children to Abbey Park for a walk on a Sunday afternoon. They played among the ruins, making up stories about the historical characters who’d been there centuries before. Thank you for bringing back happy memories

  5. Susan permalink
    September 23, 2020

    It’s rather poignant to see this. Richard de Lucy was one of my 25th-great-grandfathers.

    (I only know this because I have what genealogists call a “gateway ancestor” – Olive Welby, a Puritan who left England in about 1630 and went to America.)

  6. September 23, 2020

    You are indeed a gentle author! Thank you for sharing this little oasis jx

  7. Mary permalink
    September 23, 2020

    Finding another ancient mulberry tree must have been the icing on the cake!
    This one standing in splendid isolation looks better cared for than the poor Bethnal Green mulberry.

  8. September 23, 2020

    You must be one of a quill ions Londoners like me who had no idea …

  9. Jen permalink
    September 23, 2020

    Ah that was lovely. I can only enjoy ruins from afar. One day i will get back over the pond and see them in person.
    Ty for sharing.

  10. Pauline Taylor permalink
    September 23, 2020

    Thank you GA for another interesting story about a place that most of us just didn’t know existed, the photos help to bring it all to life for us, and in my case, make us very envious. We had an Abbey and a Priory in Colchester, but whilst the ruins of the Priory can still be seen St John’s Abbey, apart from its gateway, has completely disappeared. It is thought, by a historian who has written a fascinating book on the subject and others, that Richard, Duke of York, one of the Princes in the Tower, was actually taken to the Battle of Bosworth and was brought back afterwards to Colchester. I talked about this with my customer, the late John Ashdown-Hill, who was responsible for discovering the remains of Richard III, and he thought it quite likely. Fascinating.

  11. September 23, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thanks for sharing your adventures at Abbey Wood. It rather reminded me of Glendalough in County Wicklow – except one can see the London skyline in the distance. The property is so well kept.

    The site may be less bucolic in the future because “the Crossrail project will help to transform Abbey Wood, as the Elizabeth line will halve journey times to many central London destinations, and is already attracting new businesses and investment to the local area.”

  12. September 23, 2020

    GA, you’ve taken us along with you to some wonderful places……….and I think this is one of my favorites. (how interesting to note that you arrived there quite alone, having the whole place to yourself, and yet you brought your countless readers along on the excursion.) Sunlight and shade — those dappled wooded pathways, and the brilliant green lawns with outcroppings of
    lava-like stones. Goodness, those tiny arched windows! I am smitten.

    Thanks for shining a light.

  13. Jacqui Reid walsh permalink
    September 23, 2020

    Thanks again for this informative, lyrically written and moving blog. Reading the blog is a joy first thing in the morning .

  14. Jennifer Newbold permalink
    September 23, 2020

    Thank you for sharing your walk with us, G.A. One thing that I miss about living in the U.S. are the ruins of our ancestors’ lives, because here we don’t seem to value them. Anything that becomes derelict gets knocked down and built over.

    A few years ago on Easter holidays I visited Creake Abbey in Norfolk. It was a similar kind of experience… there were plenty of people visiting the fancy food halls that day, but most folks just ignored the abbey sitting there in the fields just beyond the shops. Perhaps if you see it all the time it loses its power to move you, but I hope not. I think if I lived there I would often take my lunchtime on a sunny day to sit and absorb the history of those old stones.

  15. September 23, 2020

    I didn’t know about the Abbey either!
    Thank you so much for the story and the lovely photographs.
    It’s now on my list of places to visit.

  16. September 23, 2020

    Wow. Amazing as always. Never knew it existed even though only a few miles away. Can we hear something about Shrodinger your lovely cat please sometime. Many thanks for your writings and articles.

  17. Ian Silverton permalink
    September 23, 2020

    Walked along those country paths leading from The Olde Leather Bottle PH on Heron Hill to the Abbey most weekends when staying in the Pub, it had Great views over looking the Thames Highest point it was said, great walk and very interesting at the time, remember never ever seeing anybody else doing the same on a Sunday afternoon back then, pub demolished, Abbey still as was,by these pictures, thanks GA. Stay safe London.

  18. Esther Wilkinson Rank permalink
    September 28, 2020

    Glad to see their mulberry tree is faring better than the one in Tower Hamlets. How nice they are protecting it!

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