Walks index

Information about Barnwell Abbey


This is not a walk. The first river walk takes you to Stourbridge Common, which includes a look at what's left of Barnwell Priory.

Dugdale in Monasticon Anglicanum(1692) says "Perceiving that the site on which their house stood was not sufficiently large for all the buildings needful to his canons, and was devoid of any spring of fresh water, Pain Peveril besought King Henry to give him a certain site near Cambridge...from the midst of that site there bubbled forth springs of clear fresh water, called at that time in English Barnewell, the Children's Springs, because once a year on St John Baptist's Eve, boys and lads met there, and amused themselves in the English fashion with wrestling matches and other games and applauded each other in singing songs and playing musical instruments. Hence, by reason of the crowd that met and played there, a habit grew up that on the same day a crowd of buyers and sellers should meet in the same place to do business". This may be an invented derivation, of course! It may be referring to Stourbridge Fair.

Barnwell Priory started being built in 1112. When the monasteries were dissolved in 1538 by Henry VIII, no use was found for most of the Priory, apart from building material. A small building called the Cellarer's Checker has survived, so has the church of St Andrews the Less. There is some information on the Priory below. Click on the coloured photos for a larger version.

External links
Cellarer's Checker
Abbey House
First river walk
Old Buildings in Cambridge
St Andrews the Less
History of Barnwell Priory
Holy & Notable Wells of the Cambridge District



The Cellarer's Checker was open as part of Open Cambridge 2012. This leaflet was handed out then. The photos are mine, not part of the leaflet. There are more photos in Old Buildings in Cambridge.

The Cellarer's Checker

The only surviving monastic building from Barnwell Priory

THis small stone building, together with the Church of St Andrew the Less, (which was built for lay use) in Newmarket Road, are the surviving parts of what was once one of the most prosperous religious complexes in the country - Barnwell Priory. Built to house at its height thirty quire monks and over a hundred lay brothers of the Augustian Canons. Why the Cellarer's Checker has remained intact, when the rich architectural splendour of the Priory was so effectively destroyed or plundered after its dissolution in 1538, is curious, though it was probablu overlooked because of its humble appearance. It was also easily adapted to a store or barn due to its close proximity to Abbey House. Victorian etchings show its roof and walls were intact and it was still in regular use on the estate

Every monastery across Europe had a standard arrangement for its buildings, clustering them around church and cloisters. This layout variedlittle between monastic denominations. This building is assumed to be the Cellarer's Checker, because of its position relative to the Kitchen, Parlour and Frater (Refectory) which appear to have stood around it. This position had a practical purpose, as it enabled the Cellarer to do his job in overseeing them more effectively. The Cellarer's Checker was the only place within the Priory where the spiritual world of the monastery and the world outside would interact, strike deals and shake hands on a daily basic. It was a sort of trading point and 'Goods In' for the monastery. The following layout, conjected from past excavations (filled in with black) and descriptions in the monastic records and dissolution documents, gives you some idea of how the Cellarer's Checker may have related to the other buildings in Barnwell Priory.

Map showing buildings of Barnwell Priory, Cambridge

The Cellarer was the second most important position in the monastery, after the Abbot. His job was central to the daily functioning and financial health of the monastery. He was responsible for the sale and leasing of granges and other monastic land, the collection of titches and tolls, and sourcing general monastery supplies such as food, drink, fuel, utensils and tools. He would have had a sub-cellarer, fraterer, chamberlain, kitchener and guest-master beneath him as assistants. His job also required him to be a good bookkeeper, maintaining meticulous accounts, costing and forward planning, plus checking the weekly expenditure in the kitchens. These tasks sometimes required the Cellarer to be out at night, or away travelling hundreds of miles to land owned by Barnwell Priory. So he was allowed a degree of flexibility in how much of the honorium (the daily ritual timetable) he could be exempted from.

West side of Cellarer's Chequer

The construction of the first priory church started in 1112, was paid for by Pain Peverel, though it wasn't consecrated until 1191. It took nearly eighty years to complete because the patron changed, and the new patron Everard de Beche had different ideas about what style of building it should be, pulling the not yet completed church down to its foundations and starting again and starting again. He replaced the 'old fashioned' Norman Romanesque building with the then more comtemporary Early English style. You can see this Early English style, with its characteristic long thin windows with a pointed arch, in some of the blocked up windows in the outside of the Cellarer's Checker. So this building is roughly contemporary with de Beche's restyling of the priory church, which would most likely mean it is mid 13th century in age.

The outside of the building is architecturally plain and unassuming. Over the years it's been repeatedly patched up and made do. Inside it has a roughly square floor plan, with a stone vaulted ceiling supported by a study central pillar. Scattered across the floor and propped up against walls, you'll find fragments of carved masonry, coffinsw and lids. These are all monastic debris dug up over the last two centuries. The coffins were probably unearthed during gravel excavations begun in 1812, or while foundations were being dug for terraced housing in the late 19th century. The Priory cemetery was lcoated a few metres above the back gardens on the right hand side of what is now modern day Beche Road.

Hwever battered by centuries of neglect, the Cellarer's Checker is much loved by local residents. Though rarely open to the public, it is, once a year during Abbey House's Open Day. It was reroofed a few years ago, so it is at least water-tight. The building is Grade 2 listed, and it owned and looked after by Cambridge City Council.

South side of Cellarer's Chequer Inside Cellarer's Chequer with coffins Inside Cellarer's Chequer with coffins




Abbey House

Abbey Road is on the corner of Beche Road and Priory Road, near the Elizabeth Way roundabout. Click on the map or coloured photos for a larger version.

Plan of Abbey House Abbey House

This article about Abbey House is by Mike Petty and was published in the Cambridge News, 3 Dec 2012. The colour photographs are mine.

A House with a history

Few motorists queuing along Elizabeth Way to turn into Newmarket Road will notice an ancient chimneystack rising above the terraced houses on their left. Yet it belongs to Abbey House, one of the oldest and most interesting properties in Cambridge. It was built in the 1670's on the site of an Augustine priory and was once claimed to be the most haunted house in all England. But whatever the supposedly ghostly residents, the real ones have been an interesting set of characters.

They incude people whose names are immortalised in cambridge Streets - Panton, Gwydir and Geldart - and one who remarkable story has just been told. Peter Danckwerts won the george Cross for his wartime work as a bomb disposal officer, he combated Italian frogmen riding human torpedoes, then absent-minded stepped on a land-mine. Postwar he joined the newly established University Department of Chemical Engineering, becoming Shell professor and gaining an international reputation.

In 1962 he glimpsed Abbey House. By then it belonged to the city council who'd been given it by Lord Fairhaven in 1946 as the site of an enlarged Folk Museum. But the building was just not suitable and the museum did not have the resources to keep it in good repair. Instead it creaked alarmingly in high winds, enhancing the impression of hauntings. Prof Danckwerts became the latest in a series of tenants.

In retirement he looked into the stories of those who had lived there before him. The most remarkable was Jacob Butler who inherited the property in 1714 when he was in his 30s. He was a barrister, a graduate of Christ's College and a man of massive physique, being 6ft 4in tall and broad in proportion, so his appearance in court was striking. He was frequently involved in litigation himself.

Jacob Butler

Jacob owned much of the surrounding area including the field where the Stourbridge Fair booths were set up on Batholomew's Day. This was a real little town laid out in rows - Garlic Row, Brish Row and Cheese Row with sections for cloth, iron and coal, and a cheap side. It brought sellers from all over Europe and buyers from all over the country. There were curious rules attached to Stourbridge fair which Jacob saw were observed, once driving his carriage through the crockery stalls and smashing tons of their wares after the traders failed to clear their land in time.

But he has a soft heart, especially for the poorer folk, and a love of the eccentric. He always invited the dwarfs and giants from the side shows to dine with him while the fair was on, and this was accepted as one of his little quirks. He also liked to get value for his purchases and, long before his death, had a coffin made of oak which was so huge that several people might have got inside. Visitors flocked to see his final resting place - sometimes they used it as a card table. When tired, he would lie down in it.

Jacob's funeral in 1765 was a grand event, for he was the oldest barrister left at the time, being 84 - though he had not practised for some time, being considered cracked in his intellect. He left instructions that they were to drive his giant coffin on a farm cart drawn by his favourite horses, Dragon and Barg, to the Abbey Church, St ANdrew the Less on Newmarket Road. If the church would not bury him there then he was be brought back and buried in a grass plot in the Abbey House grounds. However, that caused problems, for he wasn't living at Abbey House then - he'd lost it in a lawsuit and moved to a house in Emannuel Lane. Then they found that the coffin was so large it would not go into the church. So his corpse was laid in a lead coffin and was conveyed in a normal hearse to the church, while the wagon behind drew the large oak coffin. Then after the service, the large oak coffin was lowered into the vault and the smaller one put down into it.

Such a man deserved a memorial and so Jacob Butler erected one himself, eight years before his death. It took the form of six large mural tablets erected on the walls inside the Abbey Church giving his own view of his life and achievements, not wanting to rely on the judgments of others. But after a new Christchurch was erected across the road, the Abbey Church fell into disrepair. When it was 'restored' in the 1850's Jacob's memorial was taken out of the church and set up outside in the churchyard where time has taken its toll. Now Peter Varey, author of the book on Dankwerts, is hoping to get the Squire Butler's hexteuch repaired. Expert restorers have said that the six slabs are slate and shouldn't have been exposed to the elements. It may be possible to restore them, perhaps to be reinstalled inside the church. But they have worn away and are virtually blank. However, not all is lost. back in 1786, Jacob's version of his life story was published in The History and Antiquities of Barnwell Abbey and of Storubridge Fair and although stone and slate crumble, paper has survived. The actual volume is very rare but it can be freely read, page by page, by anybody with a computer connected to the internet as it has been scanned as part of the Google Books project. One day all books may be available this way.

Life on the edge: Peter Danckwerts


Some parts of Barnwell Abbey remain in the garden of Abbey House.

The wall round the garden, and another within the garden, were built partly from stones from the Priory. The wall on the right is marked on the map at the top of this page as 'Existing wall". It is on alignment with where the Priory buildings used to be.

Stones from Barnwell Priory Stones from Barnwell Priory

There are some carvings as well.

Carving from Barnwell Priory Carving from Barnwell Priory