Heading south-west out of Wiltshire, along the floor of the Deverill valley. . and at Kingston, climbing out of the greensand, up, up onto the high curvaceous chalkland. The icy gloom giving way to bright skies with a first chance to see the potential of the developing day.
Not until the road came to the brink of the escarpment was it possible to appreciate what was unfolding. Over the brow of the downs, the land dropped away and as far as the eye could see… were flat-lands overlain by undulating mists. Networks of hedgerows were translucently visible but the isolated, conical Duncliffe Hill broke out of the fading milkiness high into the blueing sky.
Below lay the border town of Mere and beyond lay Dorset and….
At Lytes Cary we took the road to Huish Episcopi.
I remembered to turn left at the church tower and onto the level, hedge-lined road which led across the flats to Muchelney.
The winter of 92-3 was wet and my car had struggled here. The road was flooded. The builders had told me not to wait too long, the water was rising and the village was becoming an island again. I did the archaeology and thankfully made it back to the mainland that night.
The Priest’s House in January 2018
Returning after a quarter of a century to this little hill with its church and ruined abbey, it seemed hardly to have changed. A few scattered cottages and there was the Priest’s House. Everything silvered grey with frost..the sun here still only a glowing orb above the mist.
The National Trust has owned this place since 1911. Rescued by the Society of the Protection of Ancient Buildings with work carried out by Ernest Barnsley, a master builder of the Arts and Crafts Movement.
The Priest’s House after work was completed in April 1993
At the end, I had left it with its fresh yellow thatch ..but knew it in my time mostly as a scaffolded canopy, the skeleton of medieval timbers exposed for repair.
The medieval common rafters of the hall after removal of thatch. Looking through these you can see the horizontal timber known as the purlin which supports them and below and attached to the purlin can be seen the curving wind braces which demonstrate that the hall was open to the roof in medieval times as does the truss with its principal rafters which the purlin is supported on. This truss has an arch braced collar which was built to be seen as a decorative feature from the ground floor.
This was the early 14th century vicar’s house. The priest was a paid staff member of Muchelney Abbey and took the services in the parish church, serving the village community.
Quite a lowly cleric and the size of his house reflects his status… but he and his home survived Henry VIII’s religious upheavals of 1538-40. At that time most of the Abbey was demolished and the monks were pensioned off. The great Abbey church is just a pattern of stone footings now.
Muchelney parish church seen across the footings of the once much larger Abbey church. The Priest’s House lies just beyond.
This priest’s house is too far from Ham Hill. This is the edge of blue lias country, the walls are of this grey slatey stone, only the windows and doors are of golden Ham stone.. though it has fenestration way above its pay-scale. I suppose, once the great Abbey had been pulled down there were plenty of opportunities to upgrade from the ruins.
One of the large windows of the hall. Rather grand for such a small building.
One day the builders showed me 12th-13th century chunks of carved and painted stone they had found during the repairs. This was more re-cycled Abbey, reused as rubble to infill a redundant flight of stairs up to the first floor.
The Priest’s House had been built with a cross-passage with opposing front and back doors.
The medieval wattle and daub screen to the guest room under repair. This Tudor doorway was inserted into it when the the first floor was created over the hall.
Through the front door, on the right was a timber screen and beyond it the hall was open to the roof decorated with curving wind braces. Beyond the hall was the parlour with its moulded timber ceiling, a stair led to the solar or private room of the priest. Later, the hall was roofed to create a first floor above and a huge decorated stone fireplace was hauled into the room. Evidence of more of the Abbey salvaged from the ruins.
To the left of the cross-passage were the store rooms, the pantry for food and the buttery for drink and the now blocked stair which once led to a guest room above. The kitchen would have been a separate building. In medieval times it was thought sensible to keep the cooking fire from the main building in case of accident. In the builders’ trenches, I never saw evidence for this kitchen though it could have been a timber framed building which left little trace.
Examples of these medieval kitchens still stand at nearby NT places …Stoke Sub Hamdon Priory (‘Prayer for the Future’) and Treasurer’s House Martock (‘The Treasure beneath the Limewash’)… Their residents were grander than Muchelney’s vicar and could afford something more substantial.
Frosty Muchelney Abbey last week looking across the demolished cloisters towards the Abbot’s hall.
But it was now time to leave Muchelney. There were other places to visit.
We climbed back in the car and continued our journey south between melting frost-spangled fields and sleeping winter-bare orchards …deeper and deeper into cider country….Kingsbury Episcopi, Martock, Stoke Sub Hamdon..Montacute.