One perk of living in the UK is that occasionally you stumble upon a town or village that’s completely unexpected. These settlements are often remote, or located amidst troublesome terrain. Yet, despite the odds, sometimes a community springs up.
Crowland is one of these places. The town is just north of the Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire border. It is reached via a somewhat nerve-wrecking drive through the fens. Surrounded by swampland, Crowland – and particularly it’s shining jewel, Crowland Abbey – feel a but like a diamond in the swamp.
PS: A list of terms (*) can be found at the bottom of this page.
The town’s origins date back to the beginning of the 8th century thanks to a monk named Guthlac. At the time, Crowland was almost completely cut off from the world. The Fens that surrounded the land turned it into an island, and the land itself a muddy swampland. Crowland, also called Croyland, means soft land, thus deriving its name from its surroundings. Guthlac, seeking the life of a hermit, saw this as an ideal location and set up shop. Inspired by his commitment, a small monastic community began to grow in Crowland.
Guthlac became known for his sound counsel, drawing people from across the country to seek spiritual guidance. Guthlac also provided Prince Æthelbald refuge from his cousin Ceolred. While under his care, Guthlac predicted that Æthelbald would rise to King without any bloodshed. Pleased with this vision, Æthelbald pledged to build Guthlac an abbey once he became King.
However, Guthlac would never see the abbey built. He died in 714. But King Æthelbald kept his promise, and the abbey constructed in 716. He dedicated the abbey to the now Saint Guthlac’s memory.
Rebuilding the Crowland Abbey: A Brief History
Unfortunately, the abbey suffered a hard existence. In 869, King Edmund of East Anglia refused to pay tribute to Ivar the Boneless. Angered, Ivar captured and imprisoned him at Hoxne, Suffolk, gaining control of East Anglia. In retaliation, the now King Æthelbald and his brother, Alfred, led an attack against the Danes in Reading. They experienced heavy losses and were defeated. In 870, fast gaining control over the neighbouring regions of East Anglia and Northumbria, the Danes desecrated Crowland Abbey.
The abbey remained in ruins until 946, when Abbot Turketyl restored it, and added in a set of bells. The townspeople enjoyed the bells for 146 years, until 1091, when the abbey burnt down. The heat from the fire melted the bells.
Abbot Joffrid built a third abbey in 1109 . But alas, only 18 years later, an earthquake partially destroyed it. Another fire raged in 1143, causing even further damage.
Finally, in 1144, construction on a fourth and final abbey started. By the 1530’s, Crowland Abbey was one of the most influential abbeys in England. The abbey that remains today in Crowland is about 1/7th of it’s former size. Gone are the bakery, brewery, hospital, and numerous other previous appendages.
A final blow came in 1539, following King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries*. Crowland Abbey passed to the crown on 4th December 1539. All of the monks were immediately sent away, and the church’s first Rector appointed.
Renovation & Controversy
Over time, townspeople began to strip the lead from the roof of the nave*. This caused it to collapse, taking with it the south aisle. The churchwardens used the rubble to partially rebuild the arches in the north aisle in order to provide an enclosed structure.
For the next several hundred years, the church fell largely off the radar, and it began to deteriorate. It wasn’t until the late 19th century – when Revered Le Bouef, the church’s rector from 1884-1906, sent nearly 17,000 handwritten letters requesting financial support for the abbey – that restorations began.
In 1925, Crowland found its way into the news when the BBC wanted to air the abbey bells being rung on radio. This was a monumental moment, as it was the first recording of this nature to ever be transmitted. However, many of the townspeople believed it sacrilegious to broadcast the sound of church bells, and started a protest. They planned to cut the wires and prevent it from airing. Despite a large police presence, the protestors were able to successfully cut the wires. However, unbeknownst to them, the electrical engineer had not set the wires in the predicted route, which resulted in the wrong wire being severed and the broadcast being successful.
Today, the town of Crowland is quite small, with a population of less than 4,500. The town’s main feature is still the abbey, which remains quite impressive.
We first went to Crowland in 2017 with Jeremy’s parents. Despite not being remotely religious, Crowland’s presence clung to me, and I desperately wanted to return. When Jeremy and I finally packed up and moved out of Norwich, we went 90 minutes out of our way to fulfill this desire. And we don’t regret a thing! Plus, it proved Crowland is a fantastic day-trip destination from Norwich.
Something about Saint Guthlac’s journey resonated with me. Although I do not doubt his piety, I believe that, like me, Guthlac was an extreme introvert. Perhaps he saw being a hermit in Crowland as both appealing, and potentially necessary. As an introvert, a hermetic lifestyle certainly appeals to me. Maybe I am wrong, but Crowland and Guthlac definitely has some hold on me. And I wasn’t the only one. Jeremy was just as eager as I was to return!
Whereas our previous first trip landed on a Saturday, this time we arrived in the middle of the day on a Sunday. The town was completely silent, with no one in sight. Just as Guthlac and I like it! Jeremy and I set off straight for the abbey, wanting to get a better look than last time.
As you approach the abbey, you can’t help but notice it looks pretty off-kilter, somewhat leaning tower of Pisa-esque. Directly across from it is an old thatched roof building, which claims to be Guthlac’s cottage. A considerable cemetery surrounds the abbey, where we saw a few people laying flowers.
BACK INSIDE THE CROWLAND ABBEY
While we took photos outside of the abbey and its collapsed south aisle, a lovely gentleman came out and asked if we wanted to come inside for a tour of the church. We eagerly followed him in. He and another volunteer offered to give us a personal tour. However, Jeremy and I were pressed for time, so unfortunately passed in case it ran too long. It is a shame, and if you are visiting, I believe a tour would be invaluable.
The abbey nave is quite small, but beautiful. Sadly, when we were there, renovations prevented us from seeing the bells. However, there are 6 of them, and they are named Bartholomew, Beccelm, Turketyl, Tatwin, Pega, and Bega. They are the first tuned peal* in England, and possibly the world. Other interesting features include a small carving of Saint Guthlac (seen above), the Lady Chapel chest and the roof boss*.
The roof boss is, quite unusually, a Green Man. Although Green Men are found frequently in abbeys and other Christian structures throughout Europe, they are pagan. Typically associated with vegetative deities around the world, the motif is a symbol of rebirth and the cycle of life. While Green Men often appear in clerical buildings, they are rarely seen in roof boss designs due to their Pagan roots.
From the nave, you can also get into the north isle, where a small ‘museum’ tells more of the abbey’s history. There is also a copy of the Guthlac Roll. After the saint’s death, King Ælfwald commissioned a monk named Felix to tell the story of Guthlac’s life. He created the Guthlac Roll. Due to the angle, we were unable to get a photo, but you can learn more about this medieval ‘biography’ here.
EVEN MORE HISTORY?
Another Crowland feature of historical note is the Trinity Bridge, located in the centre of the town. The bridge was built in 1360 to replace three separate wooden bridges that crossed a tributary over the River Welland. It created an economical solution to crossing the confluence. Today, the Welland no longer runs through Crowland as they were rerouted, but the Trinity Bridge remains. It is a unique structure, and well worth a quick visit. On the west side of the bridge is a stone carving of a sitting figure, believed to be either Christ or King Æthelbald. It is likely that during the bridge’s construction, the builders moved the carving from the abbey to the bridge.
SERIOUSLY, WHY CROWLAND?
Look, if you don’t enjoy history, or you’re not religious and you prefer large crowds, maybe Crowland isn’t for you. But I still think it’s worth a day trip. Even after two trips, I would go again!
WHAT CAN I EAT IN CROWLAND?
Giuliano’s: Yes, located in Crowland is one of the best Italian restaurants in England. In my opinion, of course. Granted, I ate here once, but the Penne Arrabbiata was fantastic – and as a spice-loving vegetarian, that is normally my benchmark for Italian food. But Jeremy and his parents enjoyed their meals, as well! The downside? It’s only open at night from 17:00 – 21:30, Tuesday to Saturday! Located at 10 East Street.
The Old Paper Shop: This is a relatively new cafe, but they make yummy pastries, cakes and other baked goods, as well as more substantial options. Pop in for a meal, or just grab a giant milkshake. Open 9:30 – 16:00, closed Wednesdays. Located at 4 North Street.
The Old Copper Kettle: Okay, this is cheating because we never went here, but I am adding it because of the building alone! It closed for ages, but is reopened now. I am led to believe the food is great and the atmosphere vibrant. Open 9:00 – 16:30 Tuesday to Saturday, from 10:00 – 16:30 on Sundays. Located at 6 North Street.
HOW DO I GET THERE?
We drove from Norwich, and if you are interested in retracing our steps, we essentially took the A47 forever. If you’re driving from elsewhere, please check Google Maps for the best route.
If you don’t own a car, or don’t want to drive, you pretty much need to go through Peterborough, as Crowland is located in Peterborough. You can catch the bus from outside the Queensgate shopping centre at Bay 16. Conveniently, the shopping centre is a short walk from the train station if you are traveling to Peterborough by train.
- Dissolution of the Monasteries: a set of laws and legal processes in place from 1536-1541 that allowed King Henry VIII to disband Christian institutes across England, Wales and Ireland. The laws were implemented to bring in further money for the crown, and permitted Henry VIII to seize any affiliated assets and income.
- Nave: the central section of a clerical building, meant to accommodate the congregation.
- Roof Boss: a protrusion or carving found on the interior roof of a building. The boss is found where the ribbed intersections of the ceiling intersect. This feature is common in ecclesiastical buildings, such as abbeys and cathedrals.
- Tuned Peal: a peal is a loud ringing of bells, such as when people are married at a church. A tuned peal is a timed sequence of ringing bells.
Have you been to Crowland? What did you think? Are you from an interesting, but overlooked little town or village? What’s it like? Let us know in the comments so we can come visit!