Warden Abbey, Uncovering the Lost Plot
Written by: Old Warden History & Heritage Society
To carry out a professional Geophysical Survey at the site of Warden Abbey (1135-1537), Old Warden, Bedfordshire; a non-intrusive geophysical survey applying both earth resistance and magnetometry techniques to encompass 20 hectares of specified precinct land. It aims to establish the full extent of:
- the claustral complex including abbots’ lodgings, infirmary and ancillary buildings,
- the main industrial complex to the east of the great vineyard to assess its manufacturing capabilities,
- and to identify the locations and extent of the; guesthouse, industrial area to the west of the abbey church (if one existed), St Mary’s Chapel in the hamlet of Warden Street.
To subsequently commission professionally prepared and researched reconstructive drawings / paintings to show what Warden Abbey would have looked like. Using the results of the survey, and other supporting material, at least two reconstructive drawings will be obtained.
To involve and engage the local community throughout the process and to disseminate findings by a variety of means including:
- opportunities for volunteering during the survey
- presentations using PowerPoint, and off-site displays
- electronic media, including a new website
- contribute to the Greensand Country Landscape Partnership Project by linking the outputs to other work strands.
The project achieved its major objectives in carrying out a highly successful, large-scale geophysical survey of the site of Warden Abbey as well as producing a detailed and thoroughly researched reconstruction painting showing what the abbey may have looked like in the late C14. A further painting of ‘the view from the vineyard’ is in production.
The results of the geophysical survey were very productive, revealing hitherto unknown structures such as the brewhouse, bakehouse and part of the abbey gatehouse. The sheer extent of the abbey church was also revealed, just slightly smaller than the mother house, Rievaulx Abbey. We were delighted to share the results of the survey with the landowner, Historic England, sponsors, local archives and museum, as well as other academics. We were also able to share the results with local people at various events, as well as engage with young archaeologists and schoolchildren, and a diverse range of people have been able to view our displays and discuss the findings with us at successive open days at Warden Abbey Vineyard which sits on the site of the abbey precinct.
The fantastic reconstruction painting by Peter Dunn was unveiled at a prestige event at The House, Old Warden Park, in July 2018 accompanied by a detailed presentation by our local researcher and Warden Abbey expert, Margaret Roberts. Since then we have displayed the painting at various events, with the geophys results, and the original painting is to form part of a new Warden Abbey display at The Higgins, Bedford in May 2021.
We are most proud of the survey results, the reconstruction painting, the new knowledge gained and most importantly being able to share all of this with a wide range of people and academics for who, until now, Warden Abbey hade either been unknown or a mystery. We feel proud that we have placed Warden Abbey firmly back on the historic map of Greensand Country.
Benefits to People
A range of volunteers were able to assist Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) in carrying out the geophysical survey, gaining hands on experience of laying out the survey grids, the technology behind the techniques and seeing the results at the end of the day. Volunteers came from the local community, people interested in the history of the site and of the vineyard, and local historians. We also engaged with the Young Archaeologists Club based at The Higgins, Bedford, and a school from Cambridge. Our own expert on the abbey provided numerous talks around the area to groups of people from a diverse background who may not be able to go to the site to see for themselves.
By holding some of our events at Warden Abbey Vineyard, feeding in to talks and tours delivered at the vineyard, and providing a History Tent at annual open days we have engaged the diverse range of people who visit the vineyard. The vineyard aims to provide horticultural therapy, learning skills and development and help for people into employment so those people also benefit form learning about the heritage of the site they are working on, and can now see the magnificent building which once stood there.
“I grew up in Old Warden and as a young child played with friends around the monk’s fishponds, and I was taken to see the 1960’s excavations which left me enthralled. Always being fascinated by history I deplored the fact that no extensive studies had been carried out, that there were no publications available and what was available was the same old stuff regularly being churned out. Now in my 60’s I know so much more about the lost abbey, I have helped to uncover what is underneath the ground, and I have at last seen what the abbey may have looked like. An immense privilege to be involved, but hard work for our small team in applying for the grant, maintaining returns, managing events.”
Benefits to Heritage & Landscape
Knowledge of the history and scale of Warden Abbey will be accessible to the diverse range of people who visit Warden Abbey Vineyard in years to come. The site of the abbey itself is privately owned and not accessible, but it can be viewed from the vineyard on open and volunteer days.
Challenges & Lessons Learnt
Probably the biggest challenge was completing the grant application form, however we were given coaching and advice which helped. It was also a challenge to reach out for more diverse groups who wouldn’t normally engage with heritage, but we have been assisted by linking up with Warden Abbey Vineyard and the diverse groups of people who go there. The rest of the management and organization of the project was hard work but so rewarding so I don’t count this as a challenge.
“Previous to the talk and unveiling of the Warden Abbey painting I had merely wondered about the site and life at the monastery. I now feel very much enlightened and am surprised how large the monastic complex was and its importance to the local community. I am amazed at how generations of people from the past interlace with life today despite the passage of many centuries. This project and in particular the details in Peter Dunn’s work together with the detailed explanation of the facts presented by Margaret Roberts were fascinating and memorable and truly justify its valued sponsorship. Thank you – what a lovely community resource we now have.”