Bayham Abbey, East Sussex

Standing on the Kent and Sussex borders, this Premonstratensian monastery was founded by Robert Thornham at the turn of the 12th century, and was one of only two houses in England coming directly under the dependency of Premontre (the mother-house in France). Constructed from the golden-coloured local sandstone, Bayham Abbey displays a richness of decoration that was unusual in Premonstratensian churches. The outstanding quality of the carving is also something of a mystery in what was a relatively modest foundation.

To provide access from both counties, there were originally two gatehouses at Bayham Abbey. The Sussex gatehouse has disappeared without trace, but the fašade of the early 14th century Kentish gatehouse was retained to present a 'romantic' feature in the grounds of the later Old Abbey House. The church was extensively re-modelled within the first 100 years of it being built, resulting in the construction of two new transepts and a polygonal apse at the east end. An abundance of richly carved stonework and ornate clustered columns are still very much in evidence, along with many beautifully decorated corbels. Dominating the east end today, stands a magnificent old beech tree clinging by its tangle of knarled and knotted roots to the remains of the stone wall.

During the 15th century the original nave was replaced, and a long, narrow nave was achieved by rebuilding the west end and north wall of the abbey church. Although the south wall was retained, tall perpendicular windows were inserted, supported by great buttresses that straddled the cloister walk. Remarkably, three of these graceful arches remain standing to full height. Before the end of the century a new sacristy had been erected, adjoining the south transept. Little else remains in a recognisable state, apart from sections of the vaulted chapter house, a wall of the undercroft beneath the monks dorter), and fragments of the living accommodation.

When Bayham Abbey was suppressed in 1525, Henry VIII leased the estates to various dignitaries but on the accession of Elizabeth I most of the Sussex land was sold off. Subsequently, the estate passed through several hands until it was purchased by Sir John Pratt in 1714. It was his grandson that built the 'Gothic' villa in the 1750s, which was later extended and refaced. It was during this time that the monastic site was landscaped to give the effect of a 'romantic ruin', some parts of the old foundation being deliberately buried to enhance the garden aspect.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Bayham Abbey today is the incredible peacefulness of the site, situated as it is in one of the busiest areas of south-east England. Maybe I am a little biased, as I lived for many years with Bayham Abbey almost on my doorstep, but I can think of nothing more relaxing on a warm day than to spend a few hours exploring this idyllic site. Admire the fine detail of the medieval master craftsman, investigate the different building styles, and ponder the lifestyle followed by the canons who occupied this secluded valley some 800 years ago.


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