Popularly known as the ancestral home of Lord Montagu, and the place where the National Motor Museum can be visited, Beaulieu was once the site of a large Cistercian monastery. Situated in the heart of the beautiful New Forest, Beaulieu Abbey was founded in 1204 on land gifted to the monks by King John. It took some 42 years to complete the abbey church, one of the largest Cistercian churches in England. With an overall length of 336ft (102m), some 186ft (56.4m) wide across the transepts, and containing an apsidal chancel surrounded by a ring of ten chapels, it must have been a most glorious sight. Sadly, the only evidence remaining of that splendid structure are the south aisle wall of the nave and one wall of the south transept.
In the early part of the 14th century the monastic complex, built on the standard Cistercian plan, was finished with the addition of the Great Gatehouse. Unlike the abbey church and the claustral buildings, which were virtually demolished at the Dissolution in 1538, this imposing gatehouse, together with many of the domestic ranges were later converted and re-used.
Consequently, there are some fine examples of the original medieval architecture to be found in the grounds of Beaulieu Abbey. The triple arches, once forming the entrance from the cloister to the Chapter House, have been restored, the monks' dining room was transformed into the parish church after the Dissolution, and other buildings along the western range are now used to provide visitors with refreshments. A rare survival at Beaulieu Abbey is that of the lay brothers living quarters. This 'Domus' was positioned on the western side of the cloisters to keep the working monks separate from the dedicated choir monks. Presently just half its original size, the Domus has been extensively restored and now houses the Beaulieu Abbey Exhibition.
Hardly recognisable now, the great gatehouse was restored, extended, and rebuilt over three centuries to become the grand mansion known as Palace House, and the seat of the Montagu family. Despite the many alterations, there are still quite a few reminders inside the house of its monastic beginnings, and really has to be included as part of the exploration of Beaulieu Abbey. To enjoy the total experience of Beaulieu, from monastery to ancestral home to the motor vehicle museum, do allow yourself a whole day. The atmosphere is relaxed, the scenery is gentle, and the treasures from eight centuries will surely entice you back to this idyllic location many times.