Reprinted from Newsletter 117, dated 2005 November–December

Assuring the future at the Abbey

Vicky Dawson

A view of the remaining walls of a large ancient ruined structure. The viewpoint is from the top of one wall, and we look down and across the rest of the structure. Tall arches are on the walls. On the left a large chunk of wall is missing, and a little further away on this same side a short tower rises from the wall. A similar tower is in the far right corner of the structure. There is no roof, other than atop these two small towers. The tops of the walls have plant life growing on them. The structure is surrounded by well-kept grass with straight paths. There are a few trees. Further away is a town.

Grasses and flowers sprouting atop the ancient walls is a technique called “soft capping” to protect them. [Photo from the Abbey website; it was not in the printed newsletter.]

The trustees of Glastonbury Abbey took delivery of a Conservation Plan for the site earlier this year — the abbey ruins, the grounds, the Gatehouse, Abbey House — and for the collection of excavated artefacts in their care. The plan is the product of two and a half years of hard graft by a team of researchers led by Dr Jo Cox, of the Exeter firm Keystone.

The term ”conservation plan” is perhaps misleading. It conjures up specifications for mortar mixes and schedules of repair and stabilisation work. A conservation plan is in fact a series of policies, which will guide an organisation in the management of the historic monument in its care and ensure its significance is retained and even enhanced. These policies are arrived at through a staged process, starting with a largely chronological account of the monument’s history, followed by an analysis of why the building is important. The third stage is the identification of factors that put it at risk.

The Glastonbury plan is supported by a gazetteer of the archaeology and upstanding buildings, by an analysis of the landscape and a report on the ecology of the site.

Launched with an all-day symposium

To launch the plan the Abbey trustees held a symposium on October 8 to secure support and establish a common will to tackle the priorities identified in the document. An audience of invited guests, representing local and national bodies, local government, the Church, academic and charitable institutions was regaled by a series of thought-provoking and entertaining talks.

The day was chaired by Dr Robert Dunning, chairman of the Glastonbury Abbey Trust and recently retired editor of the Victoria County History for Somerset. Dr Jo Cox opened the proceedings with a paper on how the massive task of researching and putting together the conservation plan was carried out.

Rosemary Cramp, a leading expert on Anglo-Saxon archaeology and immediate past president of the Society of Antiquaries of London, then described Glastonbury Abbey’s importance to the history and archaeology of monasticism. Its record of monastic life and teaching, unbroken from the earliest days of Christianity in Britain to the Dissolution in 1539, is unique. It is one of the few great monastic sites to have been subjected to extensive excavation. Its record could answer many questions about the cultural and economic history of religious establishments if only it was made available through research and publication.

She endorsed the trustees’ aim of trying to bring together and assess all the extant information. The result would make fascinating displays, which would bring the fragmentary material alive. She also stressed the importance in this modern age of storing excavated material in environmentally controlled and accessible conditions.

Alan Thomas, the abbey’s consultant architect, rounded off the morning session with an account of the conservation work that has been carried out on the abbey church over the past two years.

Current work: new modern viewing bridge, scaffolding on the nave

A new viewing bridge has been installed in the Lady Chapel give level access to the church and to help protect the medieval stonework from wear. The structure is a striking modern design of glass and steel, which appears to float over the void of St Joseph’s crypt. If you haven’t seen it yet, it is well worth inspection.

Extensive work has been carried out on the south wall of the nave, the crossing piers and the north transept. It was the first time for many decades that these areas had been scaffolded. As it turned out, this was none too soon: a stone from high up on one of the piers came away in the hand of a conservator as he started work!

Alan described the challenges of looking after a building like the abbey: should one repair or conserve, stabilize or allow weathering? He also told us of the opportunities the scaffolding presented for close study of the construction methods and phases of the medieval masons.

You may be surprised when you visit the abbey now to see that the tops of the newly conserved walls are already sprouting grasses and flowers. Don’t worry; this is called “soft capping”, a technique that actually protects the top and face of the walls.

The Abbey’s place in church history

Dom Aidan Bellenger, claustral prior at Downside Abbey, began the afternoon session with a presentation entitled “Glastonbury Abbey in the history of the church: spirituality of place”. It was a thought-provoking analysis of the place of Glastonbury Abbey within the spirituality of the nation. He identified seven key features:

  1. The genius loci — The visual and topographical impact of Glastonbury.

  2. The antiquity of Glastonbury — Continuity and tradition are important in relation to Glastonbury.

  3. Monasticism — Dunstan symbolizes the beauty of holiness, of prayer and liturgy in a monastery.

  4. Holy men and women of Glastonbury — The inspiring lives of these individuals give a human dimension, substance, life and fun to the place.

  5. Relics of saints — The relics at Glastonbury were prodigious in quality and quantity.

  6. Pilgrimage — This was undertaken by rich and poor.

  7. Renewal — Glastonbury has risen again like a phoenix in the 20th century.

He then looked at what might be important to the spiritual dimension of Glastonbury in the future and came up with five strands:

  1. The continuity, change and development of ideas and spirituality

  2. The biography of the site, which provides models for understanding the past.

  3. The cultural enhancement of spirituality through liturgy, music and the visual arts.

  4. Spirituality — silence, prayer and community.

  5. The historians and storytellers of Glastonbury — Archaeologists can endorse the history, which is as exciting as the myth.

Glastonbury Abbey is the expression, in its architecture and community, of the monastic vision of the monastery as a paradigm of the New Jerusalem.

English Heritage practicalities

Edward Impey, head of research and standards at English Heritage, then brought us back to practicalities with a presentation on Glastonbury Abbey as a visited monument. He acknowledged that the range of issues covered in the Conservation Plan is daunting, but that it has laid firm foundations for the work. He emphasizsed that understanding is the basis of conservation; you cannot look after your asset physically if you do not understand it. It is essential to grasp the significance of a site if you are going to bring it to life for others.

The presentation of a monument to the public should be fun, accessible and understandable. He asked the audience: “What do you tell people? Where do you pitch it?” In answer to his own question, he made the refreshing comment that audience research should not dictate your approach. He claimed there is much that people do not even know they want and advised us not go for the lowest common denominator; dumbing-down should not be tolerated.

The day was rounded off in typically stirring style by a discussion led by Professor Mick Aston, president of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society, but possibly better know as the resident archaeologist on Channel 4’s Time Team.

A look at the Conservation Plan

Delegates from the floor endorsed key policies in the Conservation Plan:

The day ended having achieved its aims of securing support and creating a common will to tackle the priorities identified in the conservation plan. Connections were made and doors opened. The trustees and staff of Glastonbury Abbey left determined to capitalize on the momentum and goodwill generated by the day.