Medieval structure found at Buckland Abbey

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A project to repair a wall in the 19th-century walled garden at Buckland Abbey, a National Trust property outside Plymouth, has uncovered a number of features associated with earlier phases of the site.

An archaeologist assessing the steps found behind the kitchen garden wall
Assessing the steps unearthed behind the kitchen garden wall at Buckland Abbey. [Image: ©National Trust – Alex Prain]

Buckland was founded in 1278 as one of the last of the Cistercian monasteries to be built in medieval England and Wales. During the dissolution of the monasteries 250 years later, many of the abbey’s buildings were destroyed, although, unusually, the church was retained as the key component of the house. The property is well known for being the home of two famous seafarers – Sir Roger Grenville, captain of the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s flagship, and Sir Francis Drake – after it was converted into a dwelling in the 16th century. Although fragments of the original building survive, it has undergone many modifications and many phases of refurbishment.

The stone retaining wall of the abbey’s Grade I-listed kitchen garden was recently determined to require repair work, as the uneven ground levels of the slope on which is was built had caused it to lean significantly. During the course of this work, overseen by National Trust Archaeologist Jim Parry, several discoveries were made that provide new evidence of the site’s medieval history.

It was revealed that the existing wall contains around 36cm of a wall belonging to a medieval building on the site, and although the two ends of the wall have been rebuilt, the central section (including a low arched opening believed to relate to a watercourse that once ran through the garden) appears to be original. Also discovered while excavating the wall’s foundations was a set of steps associated with a blocked doorway, still visible on the downslope side of the existing wall. The material used to infill the steps contained a 16th-century tripod pipkin or skillet, suggesting that it was part of the medieval monastic complex that was demolished during the reign of Henry VIII.

It is uncertain what the structure was, but the presence of a pair of garderobe chutes, associated with toilets which would have been within a projecting turret, suggest that the structure was part of a two-storey range of lodgings, roughly parallel to the Tower House.

Buckland Abbey is open daily, and visitors can see the work in action in the gardens. Visit for more information.

This news article appears in issue 358 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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