The ruins of the old Quarr Abbey are a national treasure on the Isle of Wight.
Monks were very good at choosing sites for monasteries in days gone by. The Cistercian abbey of Quarr is especially interesting because it exploits access to and from the sea. When sailing in the Solent you can still see the bold protective wall on the northern edge of the abbey precinct.
When you pass Quarr on your way between Ryde and Newport you gain an equally good view of the southern wall. These walls were in fact the last part of the monastic complex to be built, being a major element in the defensive works built by Islanders in the early stages of the Hundred Years War. They contain Britain’s earliest documented gun ports, thought to date from the early 1360s. At that time, Quarr’s monks had seized their place at the cutting edge of England’s defence technology.
Within the rectangular plan of the precinct wall lie the ruins of the Abbey of Our Lady and St John. From its foundation in 1132, the abbey steadily grew until it was soon the largest religious house on the Isle of Wight. Some 400 years later, when it was eventually sold and dismantled on the orders of Henry VIII, it covered an area of some eight hectares.
When Sir John Oglander passed by in 1600 there was no trace of the church, but an old gaffer came forward to tell him what a wondrous fine church it had been. By this time, the stone had been carted away to build the King’s new coastal forts. You can now see what is evidently monastic carving in the masonry of Yarmouth Castle.
Sir John Oglander claimed he could see a vague outline of the lost abbey church in the growth of the summer hay crop. The first to explore these below-ground traces was the Island architect Percy Stone. In 1896, he dug trenches to locate the junctions of various walls. Under the line of what is now the coastal footpath, he soon found the chancel and choir of the church. He even uncovered the founder’s tomb. Using his architectural knowledge and a good deal of conjecture, he eventually reconstructed much of the abbey plan.
Since the Archaeology Department of Southampton University has carried out geophysical surveys, we can now see even more of the buried abbey plan. Visitors are intrigued to know the true nature of these lost buildings and it is hoped that funds may be found to enable new excavations, to re-examine some of the archaeological information that Percy had dug through but had not been able to record accurately.
The ruins that still stand include part of the infirmary chapel (near the stream); a portion of the kitchen and refectory; the monks’ servery hatch and part of abbey wood store. There is also some fine vaulting to be seen. The most significant surviving structure is now used as a barn. This was the brothers’ dormitory. Here the brothers slept on the first floor while the abbey’s stores were safely housed on the ground floor. It is still possible to see the outline of the great archways where carts could deliver supplies. In the 19th century the barn and some adjacent ruins were modified with ‘Gothic’ embellishments, composed of re-used medieval window mouldings. An interesting ‘cottage ornée’ was also added at the roadside end. In the lane leading from the cottage to the main road, the casual visitor can easily miss the fine medieval culvert. It is still gurgling with water.
The medieval abbey of Quarr is a national treasure, being one of England’s rare monastic houses to be fortified and to fulfil a maritime role. With abbey ships sailing to Normandy, the Low Countries, the West Country and the North Sea coast, its influence on Island commerce and English maritime trade of the High Medieval period was remarkable. Visitors to the Island always seek to understand more. In this we would like to help.
We have been in conversation with the Ministry of Works and latterly with English Heritage about the conservation of the old abbey since the ruins came into our control in 1950. Work has become urgent since the ruins are now on the Buildings At Risk Register. With help from English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund, we have completed a substantial amount of consolidation of these ruins, but more work remains to be done.