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At Abbey Wood

September 12, 2022
by the gentle author

Tickets are available for my Spitalfields tour throughout September & October



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 new Abbey Wood Elizabeth Line 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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5 Responses leave one →
  1. Saba permalink
    September 12, 2022

    Autumn finally seems to at least promise a return, and wandering romantic woodland paths can be a very good plan for a respite from summer’s heat.

    GA, you did not take a vacation this year! I do hope that you receive the rest and respite that we all need.

  2. September 12, 2022

    A magnificent discovery.

  3. September 12, 2022

    Thanks for taking us along on this contemplative walk. Well-timed.
    I was so fortunate to visit the Abbey of Dulce Cor (or Sweetheart Abbey) near Dumfries in
    Scotland; when I arrived in the region to give an art workshop. The quiet meditative walks around the grounds and the graveyard were the perfect way to catch my breath, before diving into the
    happily-frenzied art experience with artists. The hospitality I experienced there remains unmatched. A glorious place + incredible people = Wonderful memories.

  4. G.E. Stinson permalink
    September 13, 2022

    Beautiful. Living in Los Angeles seeing ruins this old is magical. Thank you.

  5. Ian Silverton permalink
    September 13, 2022

    Hi GA, long time no read, nice too read my return journey here of somewhere used too walk my Dogs, following the very paths you picture here,from the Olde Leather Bottle pub,now sadly demolition b y developers in their wake, always was a lovely walk,through the woods, and around the ruin of the Abbey, never ever in my years their did we ever see any other walkers. Thanks for the Memory, stay well.

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