• Thu. Dec 8th, 2022

Summer camp of 100 conservationists working hard to save ancient buildings at Boxley Abbey

ByDebra J. Aguilar

Jul 14, 2022

This week, a team of 100 people are hard at work restoring two of Maidstone’s most historic buildings, including one that once housed a saint’s finger.

The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings held its week-long summer restoration camp at Boxley Abbey with volunteers practicing their skills in gauge stonework, wood carving and lime making among many others tasks.

Two projects, each once part of the medieval abbey, are being carried out simultaneously.

One is the Grade II* listed former St Andrew’s Chapel in Boarley Lane, Boxley, known as the Old House Project, which once housed the Sandling Village Post Office.

The other building a few hundred meters away is huge. It is believed that this may once have been the “hospitium” for the many pilgrims visiting the abbey on their way to worship at the shrine of St Thomas a Becket in Canterbury.

A hospitium is a hospital in the medieval sense of the term, as a place where visitors could find rest and hospitality. Or perhaps the building was just a large tithe barn to house the abbey’s animals and store its crops. It may have been both, with the pilgrims staying on the upper floor above the animals.

SPAB, which was founded in 1877 by textile designer and conservationist William Morris, hopes the building’s history will become clearer as their work progresses.

The barn at Boxley Abbey may have once been the abbey hospital to accommodate visiting pilgrims
Heritage in Danger 2019.Old St Andrews Chapel, Boarley Lane, Boxley Abbey, Boxley, Maidstone, Kent.  Old chapel at the end of C15, now disused for worship, but transformed into a dwelling at the beginning of its history.  Unoccupied and in need of repairs.  Being restored by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings as an example of sensitive conservative repair and an opportunity for craft training and work groups.  General view from the south.  (57880892)
Heritage in Danger 2019.Old St Andrews Chapel, Boarley Lane, Boxley Abbey, Boxley, Maidstone, Kent. Old chapel at the end of C15, now disused for worship, but transformed into a dwelling at the beginning of its history. Unoccupied and in need of repairs. Being restored by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings as an example of sensitive conservative repair and an opportunity for craft training and work groups. General view from the south. (57880892)
Volunteers at the SPAB site in Boxley
Volunteers at the SPAB site in Boxley

Boxley Abbey was a Cistercian monastery founded in 1146 and originally settled by monks from Clairvaux Abbey in France.

It was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1537. The abbey building was largely demolished and the remains turned into a private house, but parts of the gatehouse, the boundary wall and various features of the monks’ gardens remain, to various stages of decomposition.

The hospitium or barn belongs to the Best-Shaw family who currently live in the abbey house and whose ancestors have owned the estate since 1890.

The somewhat more modern Chapel of St. Andrew, dating from 1484, was also converted into a house after the Dissolution. It once belonged to the Tudor poet Thomas Wyatt and was said to house an important religious relic – the finger of St Andrew. It was largely occupied by sharecroppers until around 1890, when the tenant then in residence, a certain Frederick Mannering, opened a grocery store in part of the premises.

Later, probably around 1931, the shop became the village post office and operated as such until 1969.

This timber-framed extension of the old chapel became the Sandling Post Office
This timber-framed extension of the old chapel became the Sandling Post Office
The old house as it was when the SPAB took over - covered in vegetation.  Photo: Ralph Hodgson
The old house as it was when the SPAB took over – covered in vegetation. Photo: Ralph Hodgson
The roof of the old house has been repaired
The roof of the old house has been repaired

Since then the building, which is Grade ll* listed, has been left to rot and has been listed on the National Register of Heritage in Danger.

SPAB bought the building for around £60,000 in 2018.

Their objective is twofold. SPAB wishes to sympathetically restore the building, using traditional construction and craftsmanship techniques, so that it can once again become a home, and thus secure its long-term future.

At the same time, he takes the opportunity to teach restoration techniques to his volunteers and students to ensure that traditional skills are not lost.

This week, a team of 56 volunteers, seven staff, eight fellows and fellows from the SPAB training program and 29 specialists worked at the site.

They have come from all over the country and are sleeping in tents among the trees in the orchards of Boxley House.

The volunteers camp in the grounds of the abbey
The volunteers camp in the grounds of the abbey
On the first day, volunteers received a welcome pep talk
On the first day, volunteers received a welcome pep talk
Only the main portal of the abbey remains
Only the main portal of the abbey remains

The Best-Shaw family hosted the team by providing them with meals – and in return, SPAB is also working to restore the hospital.

SPAB spokeswoman Felicity Martin said: “There’s a nice sense of community, especially in the evenings with everyone sitting around the campfire.”

But the SPAB and the volunteers have embarked on a herculean task. Ms Martin said: ‘When we first bought the house it was so overgrown you could barely see it.

Over the past two years the vegetation has been cleared and the Royal Engineers – who also lend a helping hand each year – have temporarily reinforced one side of the building which had begun to bulge outwards.

It is important to note that the roof has been repaired to ensure that the building is watertight and does not deteriorate further.

The Royal Engineers have temporarily shored up one side of the chapel
The Royal Engineers have temporarily shored up one side of the chapel
SPAB's Felicity Martin at Boxley
SPAB’s Felicity Martin at Boxley
This wall was once the exterior of the building
This wall was once the exterior of the building

Mrs. Martin predicted that the restoration would take at least five years. She said: “SPAB is very happy to do everything slowly, because we want to do everything right.”

This week, a number of tasks were underway.

A team was repairing part of the abbey garden wall and elsewhere cleaning old mortar from the edges of a collapsed section of wall so they could be reused in its repair.

On another part of the site, a team has “soft-capped” a stone wall.

Boxley Abbey has been listed as a Scheduled Ancient Monument, the highest level of protection, not only for its own importance but also because it is known that there were earlier settlements here dating at least to the Roman era.

Caroline Nonweiler, regular volunteer, cleans bricks for reuse
Caroline Nonweiler, regular volunteer, cleans bricks for reuse

SPAB has now started three archaeological digs at potential sites in the field to see what can be revealed.

Grahem Keevil is the man in charge of this section. He said: “If what’s out there is medieval, Roman or something much more modern, we don’t know. But it shouldn’t be more than a few feet below the surface because the equipment surveying doesn’t penetrate much more than we could dig with a bulldozer in no time, but we do it by hand and are very careful to make sure we don’t damage anything.

Mathew Slocombe is the National Director of SPAB. He said: “We are really delighted to be here at Boxley Abbey.”

“Our objective is to repair the building of course, but also to train, promote learning and federate at local and national level.

“We’re really excited to involve people in the work we do here.”

The team covered a stone wall in Boxley Gardens
The team covered a stone wall in Boxley Gardens

The public can follow the progress of the restoration project by visiting the SPAB website here.

No one knows what happened to St Andrew’s finger, but Boxley Abbey also had a second attraction which attracted many pilgrims – the Rood of Grace.

It was a crucifix but the amazing thing was that Jesus’ hands, feet and eyes could be seen moving and he even cried tears.

Upon disbanding, King Henry’s men discovered the miracle was a scam; the monks worked the moving parts by wires.

The Rood toured county markets, including Maidstone and Rochester, to show people how they had been duped, before finally being taken to London where it was smashed and burned.