Cleeve Abbey, Somerset

Set deep in the beautiful Washford Valley on the borders of Somerset and Devon lie the substantial remains of Vallis Florida, a 13th century Cistercian monastery. More familiarly known as Cleeve Abbey, the monastery was founded by the Earl of Lincoln's grandson in 1198, and colonised with monks from the Cistercian house that his grandfather had founded in Revesby over half a century earlier.

Cleeve Abbey never ranked as one of the great Cistercian houses and, even during the short period it prospered, only 28 monks lived at the monastery. During the 14th century Cleeve Abbey suffered badly from financial instability which, in turn, resulted in little additional building work, staffing problems, and a general lack of discipline amongst the Order. In the 15th century, when Abbot David Juyner was first appointed to Cleeve Abbey, the situation began to improve, and throughout his long rule much new building was undertaken. His successors, the most noted of whom was Abbot Dovell, continued this trend until Cleeve Abbey was eventually surrendered to the Crown in 1536.

Today the original abbey church is represented by little more than a ground plan marked out in stone, and a section of the southern wall adjoined to the claustral buildings. One of the most important architectural features to have survived at Cleeve Abbey is the Sacristy, containing some remarkably decorative 13th century wall painting, and a mosaic tiled floor created from fragments excavated during the late 19th century. The rectangular rib-vaulted Chapter House shows few signs of its original painted splendour but a close inspection will reveal some red colour detail on the ribs and in the window tracery. Probably the most amazing 13th century survival at Cleeve Abbey is the monks' dorter (dormitory) which, although divided into individual cubicles at some point, has been restored back to one large room, originally lit only by a series of small lancet windows. As a rare example of completeness, this medieval dormitory provides a fascinating insight into the lifestyle enjoyed by these early Cistercian monks.

When Abbot Juyner reconstructed the refectory (dining room) in the 15th century some of the earlier structure was incorporated into the high quality workmanship of the later period, but most was lost or buried. The crowning glory of the new refectory was the outstanding wagon-style timber roof embellished with deeply carved bosses and angels, and the sheer workmanship involved can still be appreciated today. From the same period a small upper chamber displays a fabulous wall painting covering one entire wall.

Again, during the 19th century excavations, a large section of the original tiled floor to the 13th century refectory was unearthed in excellent condition. Now fully exposed, the tiled pavement represents a magnificent arrangement of heraldic tiles that show the exacting skills of the craftsmen of the day. Following the Dissolution, Cleeve Abbey was converted for use as a grand house and some 17th century alterations are noticeable in the claustral buildings and the refectory. Subsequently it was utilised as a working farm for some 300 years, with much of the refectory range providing stabling and storage.

From the moment we entered the courtyard of Cleeve Abbey, and walked through the gatehouse passage into the inner court, we knew we were in for a special treat. The tranquillity of the location, the little mill stream running through the court, and the picturesque remains of the monastic buildings provide all the necessary triggers needed to enjoy the timeless beauty of this evocative site in the West Country.


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