Last month the Friends of St Benet’s Abbey continued their celebration of the 1000th anniversary of the founding of the Abbey with a ‘Discovery day’: we welcomed an audience of around 100 to a series of talks, and a trip to the site with leading experts, to find out about aspects of its history.
Starting the proceedings was Professor Julian Luxford from St Andrew’s University who gave a fascinating presentation on the architecture of the Abbey. Through his talk we gained an insight into St Benet’s as a place of change, continually building and developing – a part of the Broadland landscape that would have echoed with the sounds of mason’s hammers for many hundreds of years as new additions were added. Alison Yardy from Norfolk County Council’s Environment Team went on to explore the 18th century mill, a significant building in its own right. Through her talk we discovered that the mill, built over the gatehouse, spent a period of its life milling rape seed to create oil and at one time would have been filled with grinding machinery. On our trip to the site, we measured the mill’s internal diameter and put to rest for once and for all the competition for the largest mill on the Broads – confirming that is indeed St Benet’s!
This was followed by a presentation from Professor Tom Williamson who spoke about the changing shape of the Broads, the movement of rivers and how the geology which created the ‘Cowholm’ ‘hill’ is a key aspect to understanding why the Abbey is where it is. Again, we saw glimpses of a busy past landscape with people moving along rivers, perhaps stopping at the thriving frontage of the Abbey.
Nicola Hems, Curator at the Museum of the Broads brought us up to date by exploring the Abbey through the lens of tourism, from the early part of the 19th century through to today, bringing with her a range of illustrations and images of picnickers, pilgrims and holidaymakers that keep the site relevant and thriving in the modern era.
It was an extraordinary day, rich in information and in enthusiasm for this iconic site. A huge thank you goes to TFOSBA for bringing this together and there is more to come as the summer unfolds, including an exhibition, on-site sculpture and a community play – see below for more details on how you can get involved…