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At Waterbeach

July 30, 2022
by the gentle author

“In the flesh, The Gentle Author is an even better storyteller, a magician of social history, who not only brings the past alive but reanimates the present.” Thank you to Patrick Barkham for his wonderful review of my tour in the August issue of The Oldie.

Tickets are available for my walking tour now

Click here to book your ticket for THE GENTLE AUTHOR’S TOUR OF SPITALFIELDS


I set out to visit the intriguingly named Waterbeach and Landbeach in Cambridgeshire with the object of viewing Denny Abbey. Built in the twelfth century as an outpost of Ely Cathedral, it passed through the hands of the Benedictine Monks, the Knights Templar and a closed order of Franciscan nuns known as the ‘Poor Clares’ – all before being converted into a private home for the Countess of Pembroke in the fifteenth century. Viewed across the meadow filled with cattle, today the former abbey presents the appearance of an attractively ramshackle farmhouse.

A closer view reveals fragments of medieval stonework protruding from the walls, tell-tale signs of how this curious structure has been refashioned to suit the requirements of diverse owners through time. Yet the current mishmash delivers a charismatic architectural outcome, as a building rich in texture and idiosyncratic form. From every direction, it looks completely different and the sequence of internal spaces is as fascinating as the exterior.

In the second half of the twentieth century, the property came into the ownership of the Ministry of Works and archaeologists set to work deconstructing the structure to ascertain its history. Walking through Denny Abbey today is a vertiginous experience since the first floor spaces occupy the upper space of the nave with gothic arches thrusting towards the ceiling at unexpected angles. Most astonishing is to view successive phases of medieval remodelling, each cutting through the previous work without any of the reverence that we have for this architecture, centuries later.

An old walnut tree presides over the bleached lawn at the rear of the abbey, where lines of stone indicate the former extent of the building. A magnificent long refectory stands to the east, complete with its floor of ancient ceramic tiles. While the Farmland Museum occupies a sequence of handsome barns surrounding the abbey, boasting a fine collection of old agricultural machinery and a series of tableaux illustrating rural trades.

Nearby at Landbeach, I followed the path of a former Roman irrigation system that extends across this corner of the fen, arriving at the magnificent Tithe Barn. Stepping from the afternoon sunlight, the interior of the lofty barn appeared to recede into darkness. As my eyes adjusted, the substantial structure of purlins and rafters above became visible, arching over the worn brick threshing floor beneath. Standing in the cool shadow of a four hundred year old barn proved an ideal vantage point to view the meadow ablaze with sunlight in this exceptional summer.

Denny Abbey, Waterbeach

Mysterious stone head at Denny Abbey

The Farmland Museum, Waterbeach

Tithe Barn, Landbeach

You may also like to read my other story about  Waterbeach

Alan Shipp, Hyacinth Grower

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Saba permalink
    July 30, 2022

    Denny Abbey arrives out of a dream, spirited my way through the myriad individual stories that filled its walls. Also, I loved the Victoria Bakery wagon and wish it would go by my house. Thank you, GA.

  2. Jane Williamson permalink
    July 30, 2022

    Thank you Gentle Author . Keeping the unique story of Denny Abbey and the Farmland
    Museum alive becomes increasingly important in a district whose whole character, economy and pattern of life has changed so dramatically over the past half century.

  3. July 30, 2022

    Indeed: a beautiful country excursion to unusual, mysterious buildings, as they are typical for England.

    Love & Peace

  4. July 30, 2022

    Thanks for coming to our neck of the woods again! The kitchen in the farmhouse is exactly like that of my grandparents when I was very young (though they didn’t live on a farm): never fails to take me back more than 60 years …

  5. Helen Breen permalink
    July 30, 2022

    GA, thanks for (what Achim said best) “ a beautiful country excursion to unusual, mysterious buildings, as they are typical for England.” Love the English countryside …

  6. Mary permalink
    July 31, 2022

    Lovely to get out of dusty London for a day!
    I love the graffiti, it makes the past seem more vividly alive.

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