The purpose of the Discovering Dunkeswell Abbey project was to raise the profile of Dunkeswell Abbey which has a rich cultural and historic interest. The project helped the local community connect with and understand the site through an archaeology programme, multi-generational engagement activities and on-site interpretation material.

Start Date: 12/04/2019 End Date: 30/04/2020


Discovering Dunkeswell AbbeyHistory of Dunkeswell Abbey

Dunkeswell Abbey is a scheduled 13th century Cistercian abbey two miles north of the village of Dunkeswell.  Some upstanding remains survive today and parts of the abbey church are incorporated into the current Victorian church constructed in 1841-2 by the Simcoe family. Dunkeswell Abbey was the ‘daughter’ of Forde Abbey, and was founded in 1201 by William Brewere. By the time of its dissolution in 1539 it was counted as one of the major monastic houses in Devon

Monasteries were an essential part of medieval life and acted as the centre of worship, learning and charity. Unlike many other monastic orders, the Cistercians sought seclusion and believed in living a very simple life, valuing hard work, study, prayer and self-denial. They were known as the ‘white monks’ as they wore undyed tunics to distinguish themselves from Benedictine monks who wore black.

The Cistercians would have chosen to build their abbey at Dunkeswell because of its rural location and proximity to water, timber and other natural resources. The Cistercians were skilled at managing water and diverted local watercourses to supply the large fish ponds where they farmed fish. The earthworks of these fishponds are still visible today.

As well as monks, the community at Dunkeswell would have included many lay brethren who acted as ploughmen, dairymen, shepherds, carpenters and masons. Some masonry remains of the lay-brothers dormitory (which would have been on the first floor of the west range) can be seen at the site.

The site is now a Scheduled Monument and is currently on the Historic England Heritage At Risk Register. The Abbey is an important part of the Blackdown Hills’ historic landscape and helped shape the environment we see today.


High walls that remain from the 13th century Cistertian abbey, with the Victorian Church in the background.

The ruined remains of the west range with the Victorian Church behind. Photo: Heritage Arts and People

Aims of the Discovering Dunkeswell Abbey project

HAP Heritage Arts and People logoAlthough Dunkeswell Abbey is an important part of the Blackdown Hills’ historic landscape, it was not well known or understood in the wider community. Very little of the Abbey survives today and a lack of signage or interpretation information at the site made it difficult for the community to connect with or understand the layout and significance of the Abbey complex.

The aim of the project was to raise the profile of Dunkeswell Abbey and to help the community connect with and understand the site through a community archaeology programme, multi-generational community engagement activities and interpretation material on-site. There was a focus throughout the project on enabling volunteers to learn new skills and on increasing well-being.

The project was run by Heritage Arts and People CIC, in partnership with the Blackdown Hills AONB.

The project ran for one year and involved:

  • River walking survey
  • Earthwork survey
  • Geophysical survey
  • Test pit excavation
  • Programme of learning with schools and community groups
  • School education packs
  • Tours and activities during Heritage Open Day

During the project Heritage Arts and People worked with more than 30 volunteers on research fieldwork and learning opportunities. Volunteers worked alongside professional archaeologists learning skills and gaining knowledge about both Dunkeswell Abbey and the techniques being used to further understand it.

New discoveries: our community archaeology programme

The volunteer programme gave our volunteers an enriching and enjoyable learning experience and helped them discover more about the Dunkeswell Abbey complex.

Several volunteers walking along the bed of a stream picking out fragments and placing them in trays.

River walking survey. Photo: Heritage Arts & People

During the river walking survey, volunteers helped to recover medieval floor tiles, peg tiles and building materials. At least one of the decorated floor tiles represented a previously unknown design. The discovery of tile wasters revealed completely new evidence for the production of plain peg-tiles (used in roofing) on the site, supporting emerging evidence that the parishes around Dunkeswell supported a major ceramics industry in the medieval period and in the 16th century.

Floor tile fragments on which you can make out some of the original designs

Floor tile fragments. Photo: Heritage Arts and People

The results of the earthwork survey at Abbey Mill Farm suggest that the earthworks represent the remains of part of the inner precinct boundary of the Abbey, with the remains of two building platforms which may be the sites of service buildings for the cloisters.

The geophysical survey explored four areas around the Abbey ruins to try and further understand the nature of earthworks previously identified during aerial surveys.

Volunteers using rope and geophysical survey equipment in a field close to Dunkeswell Abbey

Geophysical survey with volunteers. Photo: Heritage Arts & People

Following on from the geophysical survey, two test pits were excavated in an area identified as a possible furnace/extractive site, targeting a linear earthwork and putative slag deposit. The excavation revealed large quantities of dumped metal working waster: iron smelting slag, fragments of clay furnace lining and possible iron ore. The possible in-situ remains of a clay structure, potentially a smithing hearth bottom, were also discovered, suggesting on site iron working production. A sample taken from a sealed burnt layer had the potential for radiocarbon dating; so, with a grant from the Blackdown Hills AONB, the material was processed and a radiocarbon date extracted. The radiocarbon determination for charcoal recovered from the sample returned a date in the late Roman Period.

Volunteers were involved in all of the archaeological investigations, as well as sessions with heritage experts and a trip to the Devon Heritage Centre.

Dunkeswell Abbey on Tour

As part of the project we worked with local primary schools and community groups to share the results of the community archaeology programme.

In addition to this, an open day was held at Dunkeswell Abbey during the Heritage Open Days 2019. Read more about the open day.

A group of people stand amongst trees in front of the ruined walls of Dunkeswell Abbey

Heritage Open Day tour of the Dunkeswell Abbey site. Photo: Heritage Arts and People

Reconstruction Drawing of Dunkeswell Abbey

Before its closure following the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539, Dunkeswell Abbey would have acted as a centre of worship, learning and charity, full of activity, industry and life.

To try and help visitors understand how the Abbey might have looked, historic buildings specialist and illustrator, Richard Parker, was commissioned to create a reconstruction drawing of the Abbey.

A black and white illustration of how Dunkeswell Abbey would have looked

Reconstruction drawing of Dunkeswell Abbey. For a labelled version see Dunkeswell Abbey leaflet – link below


Reports relating to Discovering Dunkeswell Abbey

Discovering Dunkeswell Abbey evaluation report [pdf]

Earthwork survey of Abbey Mill Farm orchard, Dunkeswell, East Devon, Discovering Dunkeswell Abbey project report [pdf]

Dunkeswell Abbey geophysics survey [pdf]

River survey and finds report [pdf]

Land east of Burnsome Forde, Dunkeswell Abbey, Devon. archaeological test pit excavation [pdf]


Additional Resources

Discover Dunkeswell Abbey leaflet [pdf]

Funders and supporters

The Discovering Dunkeswell Abbey project was funded through The National Lottery Heritage Fund, with additional funding from Devon County Council and Blackdown Hills AONB.

The project was supported by:

Project location

Parts of Dunkeswell Abbey are open to the public and interpretation material is now available to view in the red phone box near the entrance to the Holy Trinity Church. There is also an interpretation board and leaflets inside Holy Trinity Church, located on the site of the Cistercian Abbey church.



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