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Craswall Grandmontine Society

Preamble by Kate Douglas

What do you do when you find an error in a book, wrongly describing an obscure monastic site on the Anglo/Welsh border? You want to find out more. So, one day, you drive 150 miles to find out. That was the start of an adventure that would change the lives of the historian and archaeologist Carole Hutchison and myself forever.

We had just returned from France where we had been researching Cistercian Monasteries. On a whim we had stopped at Grandmont (to the north of Limoges), the site of a former Abbey belonging to a little-known order of Hermit monks. We bought a book about the history of the place and discovered the existence of 3 English houses of the Order of Grandmont, one of which was Craswall Priory. The description of a monastery with magnificent columns and towering vaulting did not tie up with a very austere monastic order. Was it just a coincidence that the author’s name was Lanthonie, and that the Grandmontine priory of Craswall was a couple of miles across the hill from Llanthony, near Hay-on -Wye?

We eventually found the site and having fought our way through brambles and nettles got to the excavated east end of the ruined church. There was a ministry of works site hut in the field, but it was obviously not being used. Why was this site so neglected? The local farmers did not know. So down to Hereford to find out.

Thus 40 years ago, following an announcement in the Hereford Times, a small group (21 people if memory serves), gathered in Hereford town hall to discuss Craswall Priory and what could be done to preserve it from further deterioration. The Craswall Grandmontine Society was formed, comprised of a former Mayor, local historians, members of the Woolhope Club, a warden of the Brecon Beacons, an architect, a bookbinder, an actuary, a vicar, and an archaeologist from the City of Hereford. Small beginnings, but lots of enthusiasm. At its height the CGS had over 50 members.

Over the years since its creation the CGS has worked to raise funds to preserve the remains of the priory. It has acted as a pressure group to encourage English Heritage to continue its oversight of the priory.

The pilgrimage to Craswall helped raise awareness of the site and its history, with participants coming from France and the USA as well as all over the UK. Organized for many years by the Revd Dr Christopher Armstrong, the pilgrimage was supported by some wonderful speakers including the Revd Roy Jenkins and a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who completed the pilgrimage from Abbey Dore to Craswall in his wellie boots.

In 1989 for the 800th anniversary of the canonization of the founder of the Order, Stephen of Muret, a celebration was held in the Priory attended by the French cultural attaché and several French visitors, and two American sponsors. The CGS organized an exhibition in Hereford Cathedral to raise awareness of the history and importance of the site. That exhibition transferred to France and formed part of a chain of commemorative events. It was also the year that The Hermit Monks of Grandmont by Carole A Hutchison was published by Cistercian Publications in the USA.

Various research projects have been carried out over the years in conjunction with the University of Bristol, the Hereford Archaeological Trust, and others. Many volunteers, including year 10 pupils from White Hart Lane School, helped with vegetation clearance on several occasions, camping on site. Mick Aston was a great supporter and friend, giving his time and lecture fee to the CGS as well as writing an article in Current Archaeology.

Recent aerial surveys and geophysics have improved our knowledge of the importance of the site. It has a unique plan in comparison to the other 165 Monastic cells of the Order.

In 1991 we joined a group of French to buy, preserve and restore the Grandmontine church of Rauzet in the Charente. We moved there to live permanently in 2002; I am now the sole owner of the monastic site and organize concerts and events with the local Association pour la Sauvegarde de l’Eglise Grandmontaine de Rauzet. (ASEGR). Many of the friendships and contacts made continue and encourage the ongoing research into this fascinating Order, which came to an end before the French revolution, and its architecture.


The Society

Craswall Grandmontine Society was founded by Carole Hutchison and Kate Douglas in October 1983. Its objectives are ‘the education and instruction of the public by the furtherance of the study, investigation, description and preservation of the historical and archaeological evidence of the Grandmontine Order in Britain and in particular the Priory at Craswall’.
Since the late 1980s the Society has worked with the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission and its successors in order to promote these objectives through funding appropriate conservation work, leading to the rescheduling of the Priory in 1996. Further work has been carried out since then, most recently by the combined efforts of Natural England and Historic England.
Parallel with that work, in 1986 an annual pilgrimage to Craswall priory was launched by the Society and the Abbey Dore Fellowship. These were led by the late Dr Christopher Armstrong until his departure to Burley-in-Wharfedale in April 2006. The pilgrimage was revived in 2012 by the Revd Nicholas Lowton, then Vicar of the six parishes that form the Black Mountain Group. It was led in 2014 by Dr Rowan Williams, and continues in the guise of the multi-day Golden Valley Pilgrim Way.
Earlier excavations, in the 1900s and the 1960s, had exposed much of the plan of the site and its significant details, allowing a growing realisation of its significance as the only Grandmontine house in England with such substantial remains, as the highest of all monastic sites in England, and as the only Grandmontine site in Europe with evidence of an earlier church, incorporated as a ‘south chapel’ in a later rebuilding.
Conservation work, a combination of selective excavation, consolidation and backfilling, was carried out at the Priory in partnership with English Heritage between 1987 and 1996, following which the priory was rescheduled in 1996. Particular attention was paid to the consolidation and display of ‘those parts with a special significance for the understanding of Grandmontine architecture’, with appropriate treatment elsewhere ‘to preserve the medieval fabric and associated archaeological deposits’. In 1990 the Society commissioned an architectural survey to ‘identify and quantify the structural problems of the priory’.
The first stage of the work, the urgent repairs to the historic fabric, was carried out during March to May 1993. Consolidation took place of the internal face of the south wall of the church, the west wall of the chapter house and the dorter stairs, north side (Figs 38-9, courtesy of Bob Tolley). Scheduled Monument Consent was granted in August 1994 for Phase II: consolidation and stabilisation of rubble masonry in the north wall of the nave, the apse, and the north-east corner and east wall of the chapter house, work to protect the chancel floor, and selected removal of previously backfilled areas adjacent to the above. Phase II was completed in November 1995. The last major work on the site, in 1997, was surgery on the yew tree at the north-west end of the church which cost, in all, £3,600. Total expenditure on the conservation of the priory 1990-99 was £75,000.
The Society has remained committed to its objectives. It has had a small membership but still aimed to draw the attention of appropriate national bodies to the work which needs doing in order to preserve these remains of outstanding significance.
In 2014 English Heritage carried out conservation works to the piscina ‘to prevent further settlement, cracking and loss of fabric’. Saplings growing on the ruins south and west of the cloister were also cut down. The conclusion then was that long standing problems relating to the ancient yew at the north-west end of the nave, which pepper the Society’s files, would ‘require expensive consolidation and further assessment, possibly to be addressed with underbuilding and more severe intervention than just propping, which had held up until this point thankfully’.
Conservation work overseen by Historic England and funded through Natural England was completed in March 2017. In brief, the works comprised:
1. A more permanent solution to the propping of the standing masonry adjacent to the veteran yew in the corner nearest the field entrance.
2. Renewal of soft capping without geotextile to protect stonework
3. Consolidation of areas of stonework in the following locations:
Nave/Chancel reveal;
south wall of Nave to the Cloister
north Chancel wall
southwest corner of Chapter House
4. Targeted tree and scrub work with roots left in situ
5. It was decided to leave the springers and reveals and openings of the east wall of the Chapter House. This is a vulnerable area but stable enough for the short term and a future project beyond the scope of this one.
6. Work on the west wall and opening of the monks’ day room was completed.
7. Originally 30 metres of soft capping was discussed and quoted for. This was revised down to 20 metres following the omission of the work to the East Wall of the Chapter House (as above) and decision to cut the geotextile in some places rather than remove it (where the capping was still functioning).
Over 3 tons of lime mortar was used on the site. What was initially identified as re-pointing usually meant rebuilding, stabilizing and deep grouting to the core of the masonry. As Esther noted, ‘whilst it is a pity that we have been unable to look at the east wall of the Chapter House, we have achieved an awful lot with a small budget, conserving the most vulnerable areas and buying a little more time’.
The priory was taken off the At Risk register in 2019.

In recent years the Society has shifted away from promoting major work on the ruins towards using its shrinking funds on more limited shorter term objectives. New interpretation boards have been provided to enhance visitors’ understanding of the ruins, together with a new map of the site in memory of the late Carole Hutchison, co-founder of the Society.
More recently still, the Society has recognised that the interests of its shrinking membership lay in commissioning new technology to better understand what might be possible in the future. The results from aerial and resistivity surveys are to be found elsewhere on this website, together with reports on the conservation of the arm relic found by the Lilwall excavation, work also partly funded by the Society.
We hope that the newly extended and refurbished Hereford Museum will have a Craswall display, enhanced by the results of the efforts of the Society’s members in its 40-year existence. Their efforts have been aimed at laying a foundation for future historians and archaeologists who might eventually seek to shed further light on this unique site.

Craswall piscina after 2014 conservation work.

Craswall Church, west end showing yew tree embedded in masonry

The standard Grandmontine piscina at la Primaudière


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