Monday Musings: Denny Abbey, Cambridgeshire


William Dugdale’s map from his 1662 history of the fens, showing the southern fenland before drainage, including Milton, Waterbeach and Denny Abbey. From: David Hall and John Coles, Fenland Survey (London, English Heritage, 1994)

As part of the research for Novel 2, I spent two days back in the familiar surroundings of Cambridgeshire last week. The time travel antics of Novel 2 are focused on a very specific section of the old medieval fenland; the area surrounding Milton and Waterbeach. (The map to the left gives you some idea of how this area might have looked before the fens were drained.) On this trip, I wanted to investigate Denny Abbey, which was founded in 1159 as a Benedictine monastery, but during the fourteenth century, when the time travel bits of my novel are set, was one of only three Poor Clare communities in England at the time. Both Denny and the neighbouring Waterbeach Abbey, which no longer stands, were vulnerable to floods in the medieval period, but Denny is set on a relatively high island of high ground. When the two foundations were merged by the Countess of Pembroke in 1351, the Waterbeach nuns only slowly and reluctantly left their flood-prone abbey, partly due to fears that it would fall into lay ownership. By 1359, Waterbeach was deserted and ‘well-nigh desolate’. Denny, in a satisfyingly symmetrical contrast, hung on until dissolution in 1539.

denny abbeyFor a modern visitor, especially one who is playing with ideas of time travel, the most fascinating aspect of Denny Abbey is the fact that it is ‘deconstructed’. The building has been continuously rebuilt and extended since its foundation, moving from a Benedictine monastery to a retirement home for Knights Templars to a Franciscan nunnery to a farmhouse. When English Heritage acquired it in the 1960s, they deliberately deconstructed the building to ‘show off the different layers and architectural styles’ [sign in the abbey]. This has led to some fascinating juxtapositions:

denny outside 2denny upstairs nuns door denny

Because the different versions of this building are literally layered over each other, it is difficult to trace the outlines of either the original Benedictine monastery or the extensions put in place during the time of the Poor Clares. A part of the fourteenth-century structure has been destroyed; the door pictured to my left would have led into the nuns’ dormitories, but now opens into empty space. It’s a magical and atmospheric setting for an historian or a writer, and reminded me of a very different building, the Church of Santo Domingo in Cuzco, Peru, which was built on the site of Qorikancha, an Inca temple. Despite the Spaniards’ attempts to literally erase Inca history, when earthquakes partly destroyed the church, the remnants of the Inca building reappeared; the Inca walls, in particular, withstood the shocks much better than the Spanish architecture, and so endured. Similarly, this site – though hit by English Heritage rather than an earthquake – is literally a construction of its past.

Notes on visiting Denny Abbey: This site is surprisingly little-known, and is not featured in any of the tourist guides to Cambridgeshire that I have seen. It’s actually an easy 20-min journey from central Cambridge on the Stagecoach 9 bus. If you get off at the Research Park near Landbeach, the abbey is a short 15-minute walk away. You’ll find it on your right after walking straight up the road that the bus continues its journey on. Or you could drive, but that would be less exciting.

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