I have been fascinated by this ruin, ever since I saw a photo in one of my books about Norfolk. We were never quite sure how to find St Benet’s Abbey, on the Norfolk Broads, but over Christmas we visited a church that had a map on how to reach the ruins…….that was the next stop. After making our way down farm tracks, we found ourselves in remote farmland, really quite desolate, but very beautiful.
We parked our car and walked along a track, which came to the ruins, strange ruins of an 18th century mill that seems to be growing out of the Abbey Gatehouse, like some giant tree stump. I have a love of ruined gateways, because normally, they lead you to somewhere ancient and wonderful. From one small ruin you can build a whole site, so we went to explore.
You cross onto the ‘Holm’ which is a low mound of sand and gravel, and lies in the valley of the river Bure. The origin of the religious use of this site is obscure, some say that the site was occupied by a group of Saxon recluses, and a chapel was dedicated to St Benedict. This could be true, but there is no evidence to support the legend. More reliable is a Benedictine community was established on the site in the early 11th century.
In two 13th century documents, there is reference to sending monks and artefacts from St Benets to found the abbey at Bury St Edmunds, but again there is doubt about this. But whatever manner the abbey of St Benet at Holm came into being, it is reported as possessing 28 churches by the time of Edward Confessor, By the compilation of the Domesday book it had grown significantly, there were…..manors, plough land, rents, sokes, serfs and commendations.
In the 1300’s the abbey lands spread over an area, reaching some 20 miles from the abbey to the north, east and south. In 1020 a stone church was began and completed in 1064. The photo below is all that remains of this church.
Abbot Daniel in 1051 buit a new chapter house, a dorter, and a hospital of St James outside the monastic enclosure. The building is still there, but its on private land at Horning Hall, just before you make your way down the farm track.
In the 13th century a Great Hall of the Guest House was built, and a new presbytery was completed before the end of that century. Later a license to enclose the abbey with crenellated walls was obtained. There is a small amount remaining, but there is enough for you to imagine the wall that would have surrounded the abbey for some 14 hectares and at this time the substantial two-storeyed gatehouse was built.
A picture emerges of a significant Benedictine abbey, well endowed with extensive holdings, The abbey church was large and there were substantial other buildings within the enclosure. The records of visitations at the end of the 15th century and into the 16th show that all was not well, there was debt, irregularities, laxity, ignorance and the abandonment of the commitment to the religious life. On top of all this, many of the building were in a dilapidated state and the community had shrunk, with only 16 monks plus an abbot in residence.
By 1539 the site was abandoned, a survey in 1548 reported that the site was ‘utterly ruined and wasted’ and by 1575 most of the buildings had been pulled down. The land was leased to farmers, and one remaining building, believed to be have been the abbots lodging, was leased to fisherman. Unfortunately the building which had been used as dwelling and riverside public house was destroyed by fire at the end of the 19th century.
The land surrounding the abbey was drained and a precinct ditch was used as one of the drainage channels. A drainage mill was erected in the early 18th century, but was replaced towards the end of that century by a new mill, using the abbey gateway as a foundation. At this time the second storey of the gateway was removed to allow the sails to turn. By the time the Broads were being discovered as a recreational area at the turn of the 19th & 20th century, the windmill was still in use as a drainage mill. With the ruins of the gatehouse, it became a much photographed and painted feature of the Broads, often identified as St Benet’s Abbey, despite the fact that the minimal ruins of the Abbey lie at least a hundred yards to the east.
What is interesting is that the abbey, prior to the Dissolution. was all ready abandoned, and the building was beginning to be demolished. As you stand and look around, it is so very hard to believed that this was such a bustling busy place, there is so little left, but what is left……. just gives you a glimpse into the past.