A Weekend of English Abbeys and Churches

Posted on May 8, 2007 by Holly Hayes
Part of: Graduate School in Oxford

We had a very nice weekend trip for the May Bank Holiday. We saw some new things and got lots of photos for my website, but also relaxed and took it pretty easy (comparatively). We also stayed flexible, which was unusual - we chose a general direction and found a couple sights to aim for, then left it open from there.

Saturday May 5

We headed out sometime after noon on Saturday and drove northwest through the Cotswolds. That was beautiful as always. We both agree that this is the nicest area of England we've seen yet, and we've seen quite a bit of it now. It has beautiful scenery with rolling hills and fields, which you can find all across England, plus lovely little villages made of that distinctive cream-colored Cotswold stone.

a cotswolds village

Our first stop was in Stow-on-the-Wold, the best-known of the Cotswold towns, but only for a bathroom break. David found a parking spot along the street and I headed into the nearest pub - which turned out to be the oldest inn in England. It is called the Eagle and Child and was founded in 975 CE. It looked like it, too. Although it was modernized and nice, it had very low ceilings and a maze-like interior. We thought about having lunch there (a UK newspaper has also rated it in the #8 pub in England for eating) but decided to press on since we had had a late start.

Our first stop was Hailes Abbey, a ruined Cistercian monastery in Gloucestershire. We knew from a brief internet search at home that there wasn't a whole lot left to see, but it was on our way and it was an important pilgrimage destination in the Middle Ages so it's good to add to my website.

The parking lot for Hailes Abbey was next to a little stone chapel, so we thought we might as well have a peek in there. Thank goodness we did, as it was fantastic! It's actually older than the abbey ruins we were about to visit.

View from Southwest

It was built in the early 1100s as a parish church for the little settlement of Hailes. But when the abbey came along in the mid-1200s, the whole village was relocated a few fields away so the Cistercians could fulfill their "far from the concourse of men" rule! All that remains of the village is this church, which was used by pilgrims, visitors and workmen of the abbey (who weren't allowed to worship with the monks in the big abbey church).

Nave Looking East

North Wall and Pews

The best part about the church, aside from its generally charming looks and location on the edge of a field, is that it's filled with old wall paintings! They are from the 13th century and depict saints, a hunting scene with dogs, coats of arms of the royal family who founded the nearby abbey, and mythical creatures from the medieval bestiary:

Basilisk and Griffin

A griffin (lion's body with eagle's head) and a basilisk (who has a deadly stare).

St. Catherine of Alexandria

St. Catherine of Alexandria; coats of arms; a hunter blowing his horn.

Short-Eared Owl

An owl, which represented sin and darkness. He is being attacked by a "bird of light" who has almost completely faded away.

Then we headed across the street to Hailes Abbey. This was founded by the brother of King Henry III, whose name was Richard, Earl of Cornwall. He got into some serious trouble at sea and vowed that if he lived through it, he would found a monastery. He did live, and he fulfilled his vow with the help of his brother Henry, who gave him land on which to build it.

Thanks to its royal sponsorship it was a very large and impressive abbey, and it became even more so when another member of the royal family brought a vial of Christ's blood to enshrine at the church. The Shrine of the Holy Blood at Hailes Abbey attracted pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages.

After the Reformation, the abbey was mostly destroyed, although some of the abbot's lodgings were turned into a private house. The Holy Blood was taken to London and inspected, and it was dramatically revealed to have been only honey, colored with saffron.

Here's a few views of the ruins. There's definitely not much left, but the rural location is beautiful.

hailes abbey View into the refectory towards the cloister.

hailes abbey The cloister.

hailes abbey church View of the abbey church foundations from the nave to the east end.

There is also a little museum that has some fine ceiling bosses from the chapter house and other interesting items.

By the time we finished our fairly brief tour of the abbey ruins we were starving, but luckily there were signs for a tea room nearby. It had been too long since we had a cream tea and it sounded perfect. Unfortunately the place was less nice than we'd imagined, but it was still fine. The scones were warm and the clotted cream was rich, but it was certainly no Bath Pump Room! We did have a very nice view of the countryside from our table, and there was a birdfeeder just outside the window that attracted a variety of birds to entertain us while we ate. It was better than most British television.

Then onto the next stop, Tewkesbury Abbey, which is in Gloucestershire.

aerial view of tewkesbury abbey

Unlike at Hailes, the church of this abbey is still very much intact and now functions as the parish church of Tewkesbury.

tewkesbury abbey tewkesbury abbey

As you can see the church is huge and could easily pass for a cathedral.

tewkesbury abbey tewkesbury abbey

They happened to be having a food festival in and around the church, but unfortunately they were starting to close up shop by the time we arrived. It was fun to taste mead (brand name "Drunken Monk") and peach wine inside a big church, though!

tewkesbury abbey d80 163

And this was definitely the first time we've ever seen Vegetable Olympics:

astounding parsnip archery

After our tour of the church we sat in the parking lot for a bit, perusing our road atlas and trying to figure out where to go next. We were pretty close to the cities of Hereford and Worcester, both of which have cathedrals, but we starting to feel like we might have done enough major sightseeing for the day.

In the end we decided to head for Great Malvern, a small town described as a nice place to stay by our guidebook.

By now we were in Worcestershire, but there was no sign of the sauce. The landscape was very beautiful and dominated by a long ridge called the Malvern Hills, which are apparently very popular for hiking. Great Malvern is snuggled right up on the slopes of the Malvern Hills and was indeed a nice little town, if a bit hilly!

We parked along a street and set out on foot to find a place to stay for the night. We soon found a nice bed and breakfast but didn't commit until we'd seen the ivy-covered Abbey Hotel recommended by our guidebook. That turned out to be full, so we went back and booked the B&B, which is called Sidney House. Our room had a grandma's-house feel to it and some beautiful views over the valley.

b&b view from b&b

On a lower level was a small bathroom labeled "Loo With a View."

We relaxed for a little bit but it was about 8pm by then and we were ready for dinner. Our host suggested a pub not far away that had good food, called the Red Lion, so we headed there. It was indeed quite good. I had lasagna and David had beef stroganoff, and of course both came with chips. For dessert I tried their bread pudding but sadly it wasn't very good.

While we were out we also discovered why the town's name had sounded so familiar to me: C.S. Lewis was here! I'm quite a fan and he is primarily responsible for my Anglophilia.

"Jack" went to school at Malvern College as a boy, as did his brother Warnie. He returned frequently later in life to go walking in the hills and visit his friend George Sayer, who was headmaster at Malvern College and later Lewis' biographer (see book at right). We happened upon Malvern College the next day on our way out of town:

malvern college

And a pub we walked past on the way to dinner had a plaque on it saying Lewis had spent some time there:

the unicorn c.s. lewis was here

And tradition has it that the gas lamps that can still be seen around Great Malvern were Lewis' inspiration for the lamppost that played a prominent role in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I think there may be other contenders as well, but these are still operational and still use gas! Fun!

gas lamp

Sunday May 6

Sunday morning we had our Full English Breakfast at the B&B: sausage, English bacon, egg, deep fried bread, sauteed mushrooms and baked tomato. Heart attack city, as always! We also had cereal and orange juice to balance it out a bit.

Then we went out to see Great Malvern's main attraction, which is the Great Malvern Priory Church. It is named "Priory" because it was under the jurisdiction of Westminster Abbey in London. We had briefly visited it the evening before, and caught some nice light on it:


There was a service going on when we arrived Sunday morning around 11:30, so we had to wait outside for a good half an hour. In the meantime we chatted with a friendly guy who was waiting to pick up his 13-year-old daughter who sings in the choir.

The church itself was not one of the best we've seen, but it did have a very fine collection of misericords (medieval carvings beneath the choir seats) and carved characters on the armrests:

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As David and I went around lifting up the choir seats and photographing them, a lady watched us with interest and asked me if we were doing it for a book. I told her it was for a website on religious buildings and she thought that sounded great and asked for the name of my website. Hooray! It's becoming clear I need business cards! The guy who did the tower tour at Salisbury Cathedral also wanted to write down my website for him.

eos 398 The drive home from there was not very long and we made two stops along the way. The first one was unplanned - we saw a tower from the road and thought we'd have a look.

It is called Broadway Tower and was built in 1799 as a "folly" for a wealthy Victorian man's property. It was an interesting sight, and it had some very nice views of the Cotswolds.

After a brief stop at the tower, which we did not climb, we had a snack at the converted barn nearby. Meanwhile, Wilma (our old Saab) flirted with a beautiful Jaguar that parked next to us.

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Our final stop was Chipping Norton, a village in the Cotswolds not too far from home. It has a fairly large parish church, which was financed by the wealthy wool merchants that prospered in this area in the 15th century. It is even known as one of the "wool churches" and its style is sometimes called "Wool Gothic."

On our way to the church we passed a lovely set of almshouses, which were financed by one of those wealthy wool merchants as a place for poor widows to stay for free. They are like fairy tale houses, each with their own chimney!

Chipping Norton Almshouses

The church was nice, and the best part is that we had to ourselves. As you can see the weather was no longer as pretty, though.

View from Southeast

One of the things it is known for is a unique hexagonal porch, which has wonderful carved characters on its ceiling vaults and a pretty little window.

South Porch and Tower

Porch Window

Inside, it has a nice "wool Gothic" nave, which was beautifully decorated with flowers since there was apparently just a wedding held here!


Like most old English churches there were a couple of monuments topped with effigies of the departed.


And thus ends our wonderful weekend of English abbeys and churches.