In the Golden Valley of Herefordshire stand the delightful dark red remains of a Cistercian abbey church, dating from the 12th Century. Still used today as the local parish church, Abbey Dore now represents just a fragment of the original monastic building but is a pleasing combination of architectural styles ranging from the Transitional period through to the 17th Century major restoration. From a major excavation of the site carried out in 1895 it appears that Abbey Dore followed the standard Cistercian arrangement but with an unusual twelve-sided Chapter House. There is evidence of only one other Chapter House in Britain that followed this design.
On lands given to monks by the grandson of William I, the 'abbey by the stream' (as roughly translated from the Welsh word 'dour', meaning water), was founded in 1147. Whereas a large number of abbeys were colonised from religious houses already established in Britain, Abbey Dore was the only Cistercian monastery to be founded directly from Morimond in France. Building commenced some 30 years later and was substantially completed by c1275. Comparing the external architecture to the internal structure, there is a noticeable contrast. The Cistercians were well-known for their austerity and this was reflected in the stark, simplistic lines of many of the monastic churches.
At Abbey Dore the bold local sandstone, bereft of unnecessary 'fussiness', appears to follow the normal pattern, but once inside the church there is a sudden change of mood. Elaborate mouldings, foliated capitals, and richly carved corbels focus the eye's attention to the wealth of detail adorning this humble place of worship. A significant amount of early original decorative work can be seen in the ambulatory, and there are several examples of medieval objects, including some floor tiles that have been reset, that are worth looking out for throughout the church.
At the Dissolution in 1536, Abbey Dore was severely damaged and, in common with so many other monastic sites, huge quantities of stonework were quarried away for local building. During the next 100 years, despite several changes of ownership and the ruinous state of the church, some regular services were maintained, often in difficult conditions. In 1633 the owner, Viscount Scudamore, decided to restore what was left of the abbey church and convert it for use as the local parish church.
A tower was added, the interior was refurbished with a lot of magnificently carved oak, a fine Renaissance screen inserted, and many windows replaced with 17th Century stained glass. There are suggestions that Scudamore had a pang of conscience about inheriting church lands and felt he should give something back to the community. Whatever the reason, with the help of his friend William Laud (who later became an Archbishop of Canterbury), John Scudamore certainly carried out a lavishly designed restoration that in one way detracted from the original, skilful work of the medieval masons.
Further restoration was undertaken at the end of the 19th Century, under the direction of Roland W Paul, but it retains a real atmosphere of ancient calm alongside the feeling of pride at resurrecting such a monument from a close encounter with extinction. This perhaps explains the rather strange appearance of the church of Abbey Dore because what remains today is basically just the east end of the original structure, with the addition of the 17th Century tower. It is possible to identify where the nine bays of the old choir and nave stretched for some 137ft (41.5m) outside the existing church boundary, and the first arch of the arcade stands resolutely against the now external wall of the church as a constant reminder. Scattered fragments of some of the claustral buildings are also visible.