Holm Cultram Abbey

Holm Cultram Abbey was a Cistercian Abbey of St. Mary, and the largest monastic house in Cumberland. It was founded by the monks of Melrose in 1150. Attacks by the Scots led to extensive rebuilding in the 14th and 15th centuries. It was at its most prosperous in the 12th and 13th centuries, famous for its salt production and export of wool. It was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538 and there is a record of stone from the Abbey being sold in 1561. The place then became derelict, except for the nave which continued to serve as a parish church.

In 2006 the West Cumbria Archaeology Society in conjunction with Grampus Ltd. carried out a magnetometry survey in the field to the South of Holm Cultram Abbey and the adjoining field to the East.

This was part of ongoing research by the Society into the history and archaeology of the Abbey. Consequently permission was sought and granted from English Heritage and the landowners for a small scale excavation to investigate the South wall of the cloisters and two putative buildings. A 25m x 2m. trench was opened and later extended 6m. x. 2.m on the West side.

Several phases of walling were exposed which were interpreted as the South Wall of the cloister and probably the East wall of the refectory building with a warming room to the East, with an associated midden, extensive robber trenches and pits, discarded architectural fragments of stone, and a drain. The monks probably used Pythagoras’ Theory to lay out the cloisters; when we did the same we found the tape fell exactly along the wall suspected to be the South wall of the cloister. The warming room featured a fireplace and chimney. The architectural stone found is consistent with the style of architecture which would be found in the refectory. Comparative plans at Dundrennan Abbey, Dumfries and Galloway, and Roch Abbey, Yorkshire, show a similar layout. The drain running across the south end of the trench is also consistent with this theory.

Two graves were also located with an associated grave slab. These were situated along the East wall of the cloister. The grave slab has been examined and is inscribed in cursive Lomardic French; it features a raggulty cross and is probably the grave of a clerk, as it has a book and clasp, with the name of John of Denketunock, dating to around 1430. A quantity of medieval and later pottery was recovered. Other finds included well preserved animal and fish bone, lead, three coins and a bronze weight. The latter bears the kings arms and is a standard weight, possibly for wool. (West Cumbria archaeology Society)

In March Grampus went with some volunteers to survey the fields to the north and East of the Abbey. The results did not show anything of interest in the field to the East, but the results looked more promising for the field to the north. Trenches were open over strong signals. Unfortunately none of the trenches revealed any archaeology, though one trench was not excavated to the natural due to the weather. This trench revealed a possible ditch, but more work needs to be done in order to establish more information about it.

The next field work associated with Abbey Town ran from the 23rd July to the 6th August and was located on farmland in New Cowper. The area chosen is named “Chapel Hill”, which is in fact 3 small hills on a piece of land overlooking “Chapel Moss”. The Society targeted this area as for their final Heritage Lottery funded excavation, they wanted to look for one of the lost Chapels associated with the Abbey. The site chosen was that of the lost Chapel of St Cuthbert. The society wished to test the survey methods to try and locate any evidence of a building or occupation in the area, especially as there has been no previous investigation, so the exact location and date of the site is unknown.

Grampus and the Society worked with many enthusiastic volunteers in carrying out the geophysical survey of the 3 fields, with the results available to show the volunteers at the end of the day. The results in the first field showed up a strong anomaly over which a trench was established. This trench showed evidence of iron working as large amounts of slag, heamatite and in situ burning were discovered. After discussion, it was decided to leave this trench as it required more time dedicated to the area and research than we had available. It was recorded and closed down.The only piece of Medieval pottery came from the topsoil above the trench.

The survey results for the field to the north of the first trench had strong archaeological anomalies. The most obvious and strongest of these was a large sub circular enclosure with a possible defended entrance to the south. Trenches were established on the enclosure ditches as well as inside the enclosure. The ditches for the enclosure proved to be very deep and wide with very few finds. Carbon samples were taken from the ditches where possible so the Society hopes they will help date the site in the absence of finds.

The survey and excavation reports are forthcoming.

For updates and information about work at Abbey Town, please either contact us or look on the Society’s Facebook page for more information.