Crowland is only a small market town (without a market as we had been recently informed) so, with nothing to detain us it was just a short walk from the Trinity Bridge to nearby Crowland Abbey, once a Benedictine Monastery and now, what’s left of it, the Parish Church.
Monks seeking solitude have always sought out remote places to live and the inhospitable marshlands of Eastern England were once perfect for this purpose. The Fens have been referred to as the “Holy Land of the English” because of the former monasteries and Abbeys at Crowland, Ely, Peterborough, Ramsey, Spalding and Thorney.
The Fens have a special place in English history, here Hereward the Wake led resistance to the Norman invaders and here King John lost the Crown Jewels in the murky waters at Sutton Bridge.
There was a monastery at Crowland because of the hermit monk Guthlac who settled here sometime in the seventh century. Now, Guthlac was clearly as mad as a box of frogs – this is an extract from his chronicler…
“Guthlac the man of blessed memory began to dwell, after building a hut over it. From the time when he first inhabited this hermitage this was his unalterable rule of life: namely to wear neither wool nor linen garments nor any other sort of soft material, but he spent the whole of his solitary life wearing garments made of skins. So great indeed was the abstinence of his daily life that from the time when he began to inhabit the desert he ate no food of any kind except that after sunset he took a scrap of barley bread and a small cup of muddy water.”
This is Guthlac who seems to have been cleaned up a bit for his stained glass window portrait in Crowland Abbey…
Guthlac became famous for dealing with demons, self flagellation, performing miracles and providing sagely advice and the Abbey was founded and built as a place of important pilgrimage for medieval pilgrims. It was dissolved in 1539 along with another estimated eight hundred religious houses in England during the English Reformation. The monastic buildings including the chancel, transepts and crossing of the church were demolished and plundered fairly promptly but the nave and aisles were spared and to this day serve as the Parish Church.
Saint Guthlac remains important in the Fens and there are several churches in the area that are dedicated to his memory.
We walked around the grounds and through the ruins of the Abbey and then finding the church door open ventured inside. I was slightly surprised to find it open because these days church doors often remain firmly locked due to the increase in vandalism and theft. There was no such bother sixty years ago or so when we went on family holiday and my Dad visited almost every church we passed by – he liked visiting churches – unlike other holiday attractions they were free to enter.
John declared the visit to Crowland to be a great success but there was much more to see and do so we left Crowland and drove north to the town of Spalding which was once famous for an annual Flower Parade.
John was surprised to discover that the road we were using was no more than three feet above sea level and the surrounding fields were even lower, well below sea level. These low lying fenland areas extend over one thousand, five hundred square miles extending through Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk. Much of the Fenland originally consisted of fresh or salt-water wetlands. These have been drained and continue to be protected from floods by drainage banks and pumps. With the support of this drainage system, the Fenland has become a major arable agricultural region in Britain for grain, vegetables and cash-crops.
The Fens are particularly fertile, containing around half of the grade one agricultural land in England. Spalding in the area of South Holland is a thriving district at the very heart of the UK’s agri-food sector and it is estimated that a staggering 35% of the UK’s food, either grown, processed or delivered will pass through South Holland at some point in its production cycle.
We stopped briefly in Spalding to visit the grounds of Ayscoughfee Hall a medieval manor house which is now a museum, walked for a stretch along the river and admired the elegant Georgian houses across the water and then continued our journey to our next destination – the village of Donington.
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