Deep in the heart of the emerald green trees and the rolling fields of Surrey lies a beautiful stretch of the River Wey. Just off the main road is an easily missed entrance to a once important Abbey. An artificial lake, adorned by reeds, rippling with swans, ducks and coots leads you along the path and arising from the grass lies Waverley Abbey . Run by English Heritage the Abbey was the very first monastery in England to be founded by the reforming Cistercian Monks in this tranquil spot in 1128.
There is a very small car parking area off the main road and from here you approach the abbey via a footpath that runs alongside the lake. On a hot summers day, it was alive with wildlife and we spent a good hour trying to spot as many creatures as we could – dragonflies, waterboatmen, swans, coots, ducks.
You would be hard pressed to find a more idyllic spot and standing looking at the Abbey from a distance you get a real sense of the peace and solitude that these monks must have had almost 900 years ago.
It was founded by William Gifford, who was Bishop of Winchester and first had only 12 monks and an Abbot who came from Aumone in France. By 1187 there were around 70 monks and 120 lay brothers in residence. But despite its now serene quality, times were hard for the monks. The crops often failed and the Abbey was often affected by its close proximity to the river which meant that on several occasions the Abbey flooded, causing great destruction and the crops failed.
Floodings became a regular occurrence which meant the Abbey was largely rebuilt during the 13th century. However, it continued to develop and the monks and lay brothers farmed the surrounding land, were very active in the wool trade and also provided shelter for pilgrims and travellers and an infirmary for the sick.
Henry VIII had his way in 1536, and the Abbey was dissolved and it is recorded that there were now only 13 monks living there at this time, which meant it was considered one of the smallest monasteries, despite its previous grander status in the 12th century. The site was passed to Sir William Fitzherbert who was treasurer of the king’s household. Sadly most of the Abbey was dismantled and some of the stone was reused to build Sir William More’s house at Loseley, only a few miles away near Guildford.
The Abbey followed the traditional pattern and layout of a monastery with a large church. The Chapter House was to the south and this was where the monks would gather daily to discuss business.
There was also a dormitory as well as refectory, latrine block and cloisters. Today although only parts of the buildings remain, many parts are really quite substantial and archaeological excavations have recovered the complete ground plan for the site so we known what it once would have looked like.
The most impressive ruin is that of the lay brothers’ quarters, which can be found at the far end of the site. There is a long cellar which has beautiful columns which support the vaulted ceiling above. Parts of the upper floor still visibly remain.
The whole estate covered about 50 acres and besides the Abbey there was also a brewhouse and other outbuildings although these cannot be seen today. There is a great plan on the English Heritage website of the original Abbey buildings so you can get your bearings.
The 13th century vaulted refectory is really quite stunning and I as William happily played by the trees finding sticks (What 3 year old would not be happy with a plentiful supply of sticks!) I sat and gazed at the incredible workmanship and imagined the sound of the monks and the life they must have lead.
This is a perfect spot for a picnic – you can breath in the smell of the fresh air, imagine what life was like in a remote part of surrey in the Medieval times and marvel at incredible piece of British History that has survived remarkably well. Entry is free and there are English Heritage signs up thorough the site telling you what the buildings are and some of the history.
The Abbey will probably take you around an hour to wander around, yet this is beautiful spot to sit and rest awhile, like one of the travellers who would have knocked on the monks door and sought a place to stay. So stay awhile amidst the fields and grasses, smell the wildflowers, collect sticks, marvel at the bright blue waters of the lake and the sky and take some time to just relax. You couldn’t get a more peaceful spot to while away the hours.
To the North of the Abbey is the much newer Waverley Abbey House which was built by Sir john Aislabie in 1723. He was a former Chancellor of the Exchequer and used some of the stone from the Abbey to build the new house. During the 19th century the house was owned by George Nicholson who was the uncle of Florence Nightingale and it was frequently visited by the writer Sir Walter Scott, who famously wrote the Waverley Novels.
The house is currently a training and conference centre and in the grounds in the summer there are often open air performnaces by local theatre companies such as The Guildburys who recently produced Nell Gwyn by Jessica Swale.
To access the Abbey visit this map – it is situated on the B3001 from Farnham to Elstead.