Friday, 13 May 2016

a visit to Coggeshall

This afternoon I went with my parents to see Coggeshall Abbey.  I hadn't known there was an abbey at Coggeshall, and in truth there isn't much of it left, and that's in private ownership, but the owner had kindly agreed to lay on a tour plus tea for the Friends of the Minories.  It was not a coach trip, though, but a get-yourself-there outing, and since my parents don't drive I supplied the wheels and they the tickets.

We called at the National Trust's Grange Barn first.  I hadn't known that existed either, having not read my National Trust membership guide carefully enough, but when I spotted it on Google maps while trying to find the abbey it looked like a handy place to stop.  Given the unpredictable nature of Colchester's traffic and the A12 it's always a good idea to aim to be early to events with a fixed starting time, to reduce the chance of being late, and I thought we could look at the barn if the traffic was running freely, and would have a margin for delay before the main event if it wasn't.

It is a very fine barn.  It was almost lost in the 1970s when that sort of thing wasn't so highly regarded and a change of ownership saw it allowed to fall into dereliction with a view to housebuilding.  The locals rallied round, permission to demolish the barn or build houses was withheld, the locals got it rebuilt and in the 1980s transferred it to the National Trust.  The majority of the timbers are still the originals, but the roof tiles came from a London council estate that was being demolished and happened to have tiles that were a good match, stylistically speaking.  I enjoyed looking at the barn, and was grateful to the National Trust volunteers who cheerfully agreed we could leave the car in their car park, which was nowhere near full, rather than risk parking 'in the lane' at the abbey.

Parking in the lane looked like chaos when we arrived at the abbey and I was very glad not to be taking part, though in fact everybody had miraculously sorted themselves out by the time we walked back to the barn.  The abbey church is long gone, and all that remains is a cloister house (or it might have been the guest house, the experts are still arguing about it), a short brick built arcade with room above, and the abbot's lodging.  There is some very nice Medieval brickwork including some specials, moulded shaped bricks used for doorways and arches, which the proud owner told us had worn far better than the stonework and was of vastly superior quality to Tudor brickwork.

Part of the original buildings morphed into a farmhouse after the Reformation, and then had the luck to be owned by families who mismanaged their affairs to the extent that they could not afford to improve or update it.  Many pretty Georgian frontages across Essex hide a far earlier building behind them, but not at Coggeshall Abbey.  It is still late Medieval.  The current owners bought the place eighteen years ago, and have been lovingly restoring and patching up the house and buildings ever since.  We were shown a couple of rooms which were almost straight out of Wolf Hall, with panelling and vast, log-eating fireplaces.  There is a pretty garden too, with a fabulous weeping lime, and a fold of the river Blackwater, and a carpenter's workshop housed under yet more medieval beams (plus corrugated roof) with a carpenter who can make or mend anything.  Just downstream was the only Grade I listed watermill in Essex, though that belonged to somebody else and wasn't part of the tour.

Then we had tea in the garden, and my only criticism would be that two hours is longer than a guided tour should last.  People get tired and are ready for their tea and cake.  The organiser murmured that she had not realised the tour would take quite so long, but you see the owner was an enthusiast.  He and his wife have had help from various grant making bodies to try and stick the whole place back together and keep it going, and I'm very grateful that other people have the energy to take on projects like that.  I couldn't face it myself.

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