Before Monday I’d never heard of Hailes Abbey. Owned by the National Trust, but managed by English Heritage, Hailes Abbey (or what now remains of it), is a 13th century Cistercian monastery, nestling under the Cotswolds escarpment, a few miles east of Tewksbury in Gloucestershire.
Having seen that the weather would be fine this week, we began to plan another day out. on Tuesday. Browsing through the Trust’s handbook for members it soon became clear that several properties we wanted to visit were not open on a Tuesday. That’s when I turned to a neat National Trust app on my new iPad mini. And that’s when I ‘discovered’ Hailes Abbey (and also a 14th century tithe barn in a village we would pass on our way home).
Founded in 1246 by Richard, Duke of Cornwall, son of King John, and younger brother of Henry III, I was surprised to learn that Hailes had been an important house in the network of Cistercian monasteries founded all over England, and certainly one to rival Fountains Abbey or Rievaulx Abbey, although perhaps not quite on the same scale.
But that’s actually quite hard to fathom, since so little of the original buildings remain, that were constructed from the local oolitic limestone. It is clear however that, from the dimensions of the church at Hailes, it must have been a pretty impressive community, like many others that were founded more or less around the same time. Of course, Hailes suffered the same fate as other religious houses under Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the early 16th century.
The monks gained much of their income from wool – supposedly they kept up to 4,000 sheep (the famous Cotswolds breed, perhaps). Also, the community had a relic of the ‘True Blood of Christ’ (and later on even a relic of ‘The True Cross’). Pilgrims apparently flocked to Hailes, and made donations for the privilege of venerating the relics.
Just a few walls are still standing today, and some of the surviving stone carvings have been removed to a small museum on site. Nevertheless, the dimensions of many of the buildings and rooms are still visible. And from the dimensions of the walls, and from what is still visible, it’s not too hard to imagine a grand church vaulting skywards.
On most days it would be an extremely peaceful site to visit, and in most respects it was. But the staff were busy mowing the grass, so for much of our visit there was the background drone of mowers and strimmers.
Just across the road from the Abbey is a small chapel, older than the abbey, and constructed in the mid-12th century, with some impressive frescoes still visible. I guess many churches were decorated like this before the Reformation. And behind the chapel is the site of a former castle, but no signs of it at all are visible today. Instead the fields are owned by a plant breeding company, and laid out to wheat variety trials.
Another medieval tithe barn
In August last year, we visited a tithe barn in Bredon. Just a few miles upstream, at Middle Littleton (just northeast of Evesham and south of Bidford-on-Avon), is another 13th century tithe barn. It’s certainly an impressive structure, and although we were there for only about 30 minutes, it’s worth stopping by. The stone roof is particularly interesting, especially seeing how the roofers accommodated changes in pitch and angle. The beam structure underneath holding it up is also impressive. It’s open every day from 2-5 pm, between 1 April and 31 October.