Blythburgh Priory, Blythburgh, Suffolk
Blythburgh Priory, Blythburgh, Suffolk
2012 – English Heritage - Phase 2 for the Ruins?

John Ette was very interested in seeing the ruins post-Phase 1 and in early 2012 we met up. He was very pleased with the end result and we had a long talk about the project in general terms and more particularly about what, if anything could be next.

I explained that whilst I was fully understanding about the concept of patience within archaeology, as landowner and 25% funding contributor to the English Heritage work, having got this far, it seemed extremely disappointing if we were not to address some of the questions suggested by Bob Carr in his preliminary reports, principally the unresolved problems relating to the form of the church, particularly when Bob had clearly identified the remaining unresolved and interpretive problems [and possible resolutions] in his report.

In addition, to trying to answer some of Bob’s questions, there was also the remaining issue of the substantial ash tree adjacent to the NW crossing tower. Whilst it had been cut to a safe height, the careful removal of the stump would ensure controlled stability, and allow further archaeology to what may lay beneath and lastly, there was the NE crossing tower which required maintenance and rough-racking.

John did not discount this possibility out of hand and suggested that with the help of Tim Buxbaum and Bob Carr, a second proposal was prepared for English Heritage consideration, which included the above issues.

As Phase 2 was principally an archaeological exercise on Tim’s recommendation I contacted Suffolk County Council Archaeology Service. I spoke to a Rhodri Gardner, who I had dealt with professionally over a number of years, usually in dealing with minor archaeological recording as part of building projects. I explained in general terms what I was looking for and he put me in touch with SCC Senior Project Officer, and Lead Archaeologist, Stuart Boulter. They put together a package for the project.

Stuart was a brilliant find [forgive the pun] and his enthusiasm was infectious. Details of Phase 2 were speedily assembled and put to English Heritage, who subsequently sanctioned the additional work.

As with Phase 1, the owners provided additional labour for unskilled support work and the tricky task of removing piece by piece the rather large ash stump. Stuart was always on hand to guide and recommend and elsewise he set about his work with a clear vision of what needed to be done with minimum amount of time loss; he simply wanted to answer those questions and there was clearly very little that was going to stop him.

Stuart’s dedication and shear enquiring professionalism during April and May 2012 finally solved many unanswered questions. Yes, there were still a few to go, but the major areas of blur which eluded ‘Time Team’ and Bob in Phase 1 finally became clear in focus.

It is true that Stuart had the benefit of those that came before, but even so, based on that information he needed to carefully plan his time and where to look.

As to the success of Phase 2, in Stuarts's words: "in 23 years in this profession, this is the most exciting dig of my career".
& from John Ette, English Heritage: “..from a ruin to a monument”

So what did Stuart find?

Phase 2 – findings

                               

On the removal of the ash stump two further distinguishable sections of walling were found to the west of the NW crossing pier; the most westerly section had marked similarities with the large surviving south nave wall and was likely of similar date ie 11th. or 12th. Century and possibly pre-dated the Priory. The section between this and the NW crossing pier was a much later blocking section of walling, which it seems closed up the access to the north of the nave.

On reopening one of the ‘Time Team’ trenches on a north/south line west of the newly uncovered walling, Stuart found no evidence of a north side of the foundation trench, previously deduced as supporting the robbed north nave wall, but he did find a south side! Further investigation supported the idea that there was no north side as the building stepped in level at this point down to a north ambulatory.

This very strongly suggested the Priory had a north cloister after all and to add to his hoard of findings Stuart went on to find the foundations of steps from the ambulatory into the north transept and wall plaster on the northern face of the wall facing the ambulatory, which had been hidden below the ash stump. Job done!

But, there was more to come; Stuart opened up ‘Time Team’ trench 8 to the south of the nave along the line of the suspected wall location of the south transept west wall. Stuart’s trench explored the previous excavation and decided to look a further 0.5m south and found the SW corner of the south transept. It was a substantial wall of 1.8m wide, with buttressed corners. With the strong likelihood of the north transept plan matching the south, the shear scale of this building was beginning to become very clear.

The lack of doorjamb to the SW drum pier and a blind south nave wall suggests that whilst there was not a south cloister it is very likely an attached building occupied this location.

As a final footnote to an extremely successful archaeological Phase2, Stuart turned his attention to the Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene, annexed to the main house and inspected selected foundation trenches and wall fabric. He concluded that whilst not totally conclusive the evidence suggests it is not unreasonable to believe the present building is essentially the chapel of St. Mary Magdalene, due to the continuity of structure, and fabric, similar to other local monastic sites and supporting historical evidence of location and existence.

We cannot thank Stuart enough for his exceptional fieldwork; it was indeed a very clever and well thought out campaign of archaeology and deservedly successful in achievement.

Full details of the Excavation can be found in SCCAS Report No. 2012/084