Sewage and the Infirmary at Lacock Abbey

Sorry to have to mention this but there has long been a problem with sewage at Lacock Abbey.

Looking north. Lacock's 2008 south park and monastic church resistivity survey in action . Meg and Tony are standing on the church site which became a Tudor garden beneath Fox Talbot's ornate 19th century windows.These windows were built into the monastic church cloister wall. The T junction of paths in the photo can be seen as blue bands on the resistivity plot (next image). The narrower path leads through a door beneath the smaller window into the cloisters.

Looking north. Lacock’s 2008 south park and monastic church resistivity survey in action . Meg and Tony are standing on the church site which became a Tudor garden beneath Fox Talbot’s ornate 19th century windows.These windows were built into the monastic church cloister wall. The T junction of paths in the photo can be seen as blue bands on the resistivity plot (next image). The narrower path leads through a door beneath the smaller window into the cloisters.

We thought it had been sorted out in 1995 (and there was good archaeological recording then) but the River Avon often floods in winter and at such times the system isn’t up to the job. When the Abbey was built in the 13th century…. it was a lovely setting beside the river but to be honest it’s too low lying. The people who built the village on the higher ground knew that. When Ella Countess of Salisbury came to build her nunnery, the locals may have shaken their heads…good meadow land but don’t you know it’s on a flood plain!

Our resistivity plot is full of detail. Top is north and the blue upper edge of the image is the Abbey with other unsurveyable paths and walls as parallel bands of blue. To orientate you to the last photo, the doorway to the left of Meg leading to the cloisters is the narrow vertical blue line top centre. Below this across the broader blue path is a circular feature,once a 17th century cut at its lower edge by the early 18th century garden wall, a very thin blue line with the Tudor garden paths and boundary wall, now under parkland grass visible further down the plot. The old London Road is the wide feature running from right to left across the bottom of the plot. The sewage pipe route ran along right edge of the plot and curved to run along the bottom edge. It was routed to avoid the detail of the Tudor garden and run along the road but found a Tudor culvert and clipped the corner of the garden wall beside the London Road.

Our resistivity plot is full of detail. Top is north and the blue upper edge of the image is the Abbey with other unsurveyable paths and walls as parallel bands of blue. To orientate you to the last photo, the doorway to the left of Meg leading to the cloisters is the narrow vertical blue line top centre. Below this across the broader blue path is a circular feature,once a 17th century fountain cut at its lower edge by the early 18th century garden wall, shown as a very thin blue line with the Tudor garden paths and boundary wall, now under parkland grass visible further down the plot. The old London Road is the wide feature running from right to left across the bottom of the plot. The sewage pipe route ran along the bottom edge skirting the parkland tree(which is the small blue hole in the lower left of the plot) and then curved round to the right to run along the edge of the plot . The trench was routed to avoid the detail of the Tudor garden.

One of the wonderful things about Lacock is that so much of the medieval structure survives. William Sharrington, who got the Abbey after the 1530s Dissolution, didn’t need the great monastic church so he knocked it down but he kept the cloisters and incorporated much of the dining room, dormitory, chapter house etc. in his new grand home.

The start of the pipeline on the east side of the Abbey where the old sewage works were. A medieval carved stone marking the point were the infirmary wall and drain were found.

The start of the pipeline on the east side of the Abbey where the old sewage works were. A medieval carved stone marking the point were the infirmary wall and drain were found.

The infirmary’s gone though. There’s just a passage from the cloisters into the east park with its name on. This was where the sick and the elderly nuns were cared for somewhere near the site of the modern sewage works.

So, in linking the Abbey sewage plant on its east side, to the village on the west, the new trench had to cross the park and follow the east and south sides of the Abbey. This was a minefield of archaeology ..and one does ones best to avoid cutting through it.. but the trench was bound to hit something.

We knew about the infirmary on the east and William Sharrington’s Tudor garden on the south. Both areas had been surveyed using geophysics and using this and all other available evidence Nathan plotted the route. Closer to the Abbey to avoid the Infirmary and swinging further south to skirt the garden.

It was bound to hit something, Lacock’s archaeologists Jane and Tony watched the work as it progressed and halted the excavation when necessary to record everything that came to light.

Lacock from the south west the trench skirting the parkland tree, the corner of the Tudor garden was just clipped by the trench before the pipeline continued round to the east skirting the 18th century bastion wall which separates Abbey and Park.

Lacock from the south west the trench skirting the parkland tree, the corner of the Tudor garden was just clipped by the trench before the pipeline continued round to the east skirting the 18th century bastion wall which separates Abbey and Park.

I visited before backfilling. Holes in the ground…if they can’t be avoided, are great opportunities to see and touch the story of a place and Lacock’s story is a fine one. A morning walk along the trench from the village and then to the south. Quiet along the line of the old London Road and then cutting behind a parkland tree the trench curved towards the east and clipped the very edge of the SE corner of outer Tudor garden courtyard. Nicely built, it gave reality to the ornate plan we had revealed by resisitivity in 2008. Just beyond this, the digger had clipped the lid of a deep 16th century culvert heading south from the Abbey. I turned the corner marked by the stone wall of the early 18th century garden bastion and followed the trench along the east side.

The corner of the Tudor garden exposed on the south side of the Abbey a couple of weeks ago.

The corner of the Tudor garden exposed on the south side of the Abbey a couple of weeks ago.

There were Jane and Tony in the distance, most of the trench had exposed debris… waste picked over and discarded, that Sharrington had spread out across the park and garden during his great alteration from a religious institution to a grand country home.

Tony showed me the infirmary wall, a wide, fine ashlar stone structure. Here there was much medieval pottery, oyster shells and bones from meals that had once been eaten by the monastic community. One metal object was decorated with curving lines inlaid with silver, perhaps a pendant but Jane is looking for comparisons.

A copper alloy decorated 'pendant' found close to the Abbey Infirmary.

A copper alloy decorated ‘pendant’ found close to the Abbey Infirmary.

Beside the wall, there was another stone structure. To lay the pipe, the top stones had to be moved but there was enough space to send a camera down. It was a beautifully made drain…¬†presumably nobody had glimpsed its interior for 700 years.

Photo along the the 13th century monastic drain revealed beside the infirmary. The last person to see this was probably the medieval builder.

Photo along the the 13th century monastic drain revealed beside the infirmary. The last person to see this was probably the medieval builder.

I went on to the Lacock meeting. I was late.. looking down holes Martin they said. Take the opportunity, I encouraged them, it’s a great hole.

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