Abbey Fields & St Nicholas’ Church – Then & Now

St Nicholas' from across Finham Brook
St Nicholas’ from across Finham Brook

One thing that is apparent when trying to recreate Then & Now pictures is how much leafier today’s scenes are than those of yesteryear. Sometimes it’s difficult to match the exact vantage point for the ‘now’ photo because it would result in a photo containing a wall of foliage that obscures the scene to be captured! This is definitely the case with the Then & Now pairing above.

The ‘then’ photo shows a late Victorian long shot of St Nicholas’ Church and the Abbey Fields with an equivalent modern image taken from the top of the grassy embankment on Rosemary Hill. Today there is a line of trees along Finham Brook which would completely obscure this view in mid-summer, so the ‘now’ photo was taken in early February 2017 to at least get a line of sight to the church spire. In the foreground of both photos the line of Finham Brook can be seen.

The ‘then’ photo can be dated to before the turn of the century, purely based on the absence of the avenue of lime trees which now runs from Bridge Street up to St Nicholas’ church, bordering the car park today. A picture of these lime trees as saplings can be seen in A Kenilworth Collection (Odibourne Press, 1986) by Helen Scott and Richard Storey in a postcard which is dated at 1911, so that narrows the date down to around this period.

In fact, Robin Leach has helped out with dating our ‘then’ photo a bit more accurately. He points out that the churchyard wall is partly built but incomplete so so the image must be post 1885 but there is a hedge across the middle so it is pre-1897. Also, he observes that the photo was taken before Abbotsfield House was built in 1895, which today looks imposingly over Abbey Fields. The big tree visible at the top of the hill was famously taken down in the 1990s too, he adds.

Given the elevation of the church spire against the horizon it can be deduced that the ‘then’ image photographer was situated up in a high window of the newly built Abbey Hotel, built between 1885 and 1886, situated immediately behind the ‘now’ image’s vantage point. Initially named the Bowling Green Hotel after the hotel it replaced when Priory Road was knocked through the site, it was renamed Abbey Hotel in January 1887.

Thanks to Robin Leach for additional information for this article.

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Work to begin on Kenilworth Abbey Gatehouse

The Abbey Gatehouse, sometimes known as the Tantara gatehouse, is one of the few surviving parts of the Abbey to still exist above ground and has the added distinction of being one of the oldest structures in Kenilworth apart from the castle and parts of St Nicholas’ church. Work has been carried out in recent years to keep the gatehouse watertight and protect it from the damage caused by people climbing on it and vegetation seeding in the gaps between the stones.

THE OUTER CHAMBER, looking south-west, with the new display unit in the centre. Drawing, Jonathan Holland
Mockup of the Harry Sunley Memorial Project
Drawing, Jonathan Holland

The Harry Sunley Memorial Project was set up some time ago with the object of preserving the gatehouse and making it safe and accessible to the public. Kenilworth Abbey Advisory Committee took up the Project and worked hard to bring it to fruition. It has been a long journey for the volunteers who have spent many hours in meetings, writing letters and cataloguing the dressed stones that were kept in the building and subsequently moving them for storage elsewhere.

At last our efforts were rewarded. In December 2016 Scheduled Monument consent was received from Historic England for the proposed work. In January 2017 Kenilworth Abbey Advisory Committee met with the architect, Jonathan Holland, and agreed a schedule for the work. Further meetings, with Warwick District Council Officers, set out the timetable for beginning the tendering process, clearing the buildings and installing a mezzanine platform in the north chamber and an oak, octagonal display cabinet in the south chamber. It is possible that this first phase of the work might be completed by early summer 2017.

A second phase will look at the provision of lighting to the gatehouse. Plans are also being developed to replace the door and windows and ensuring that the flooring is safe for visitors. All of the work will conform to the stringent conditions set by Historic England and Warwick District Council and the need to conserve this ancient structure for future generations.

Engraving of the Tantara Gatehouse
Engraving of the Tantara Gatehouse

The picture above is an engraving of the gatehouse as it appeared in the late eighteenth century. You will notice the chimneys that are visible on the top left of the picture indicating that the building was inhabited at this time. So far our research has not uncovered anything about the lives of the people living in the gatehouse after the dissolution of the Abbey in the sixteenth century. It is, for the present time, a mystery. If any of our readers has any ideas about how to solve this mystery please contact the KHAS website: KHAS Website email address

If you wish to contribute to the Harry Sunley Memorial project to make the Tantara Gatehouse accessible to visitors, a donation form can be found here: The Harry Sunley Memorial project

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Bridge Street from Abbey Fields – Then & Now

Bridge Street from Abbey Fields
Bridge Street from Abbey Fields

This postcard scene shows Bridge Street and Rosemary Hill from the Abbey Fields. The ‘then’ postcard must date to about 1905 or 1906, as the the avenue of trees along the path between Bridge Street and Abbey Hill is newly planted.

Following the dissolution of the Abbey of St Mary, Kenilworth in 1538, the land formerly belonging to the Abbey fell into private hands.  It remained largely undeveloped, being used variously for farmland and private ownership. Between 1884 and 1974 the various parcels of land that constitute the Abbey Fields today were donated by these private owners for recreation and pleasure purposes and are maintained by Warwick District Council under the control of English Heritage.

The Friends of Abbey Fields website details how the section shown here, situated bordering Abbey Hill and Rosemary Hill, “was donated in 1884 to William Evans and Joseph Roberts in their capacity as Churchwardens of the Parish of Kenilworth, as trustees, by Henry Street, George Marshall Turner and others”.

In the distance in the ‘then’ image we can see the buildings of Bridge Street and Rosemary Hill, somewhat obscured by mature trees in the ‘now’ photos. On the extreme left is J.C. Clarke’s Wheelwrights, long since demolished for now private residences. The remaining buildings remain largely unchanged up as far as the white gables of the former millinery shop that once stood at the entrance to School Lane, since demolished for road widening (right of centre). On the extreme right of the ‘then’ image we can see the rose window of the former Rosemary Hill Chapel, built in 1816, which was converted in 1945 and since heavily modified to become the the Priory Theatre.

On the horizon of the ‘then’ image we can see the former windmill and later water tower on Tainter’s Hill, which is now a private residence, now obscured by trees. In the foreground of the ‘then’ image, a hedge line can be seen relating to the former agricultural usage of the land, the lower portion of which still exists in the clump of trees behind the dog walkers in the ‘now’ image.

Thanks to Robin Leach for additional dating information for this article.

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St Nicholas Church – Then & Now

St.Nicholas Church from south-west. 1963. (photo J.Tarver)
St.Nicholas Church from south-west. 1963. (photo J.Tarver)

Another shot attributed to J. Tarver from 1963, this time of St Nicholas Church taken from within the Abbey ruins, with matching a 2016 counterpart shot.

It is not known when St Nicholas’ Church was established. The nearby Priory (later Abbey) of St Mary was established by Geoffrey de Clinton in 1122 and we do know that there was a church on this site in the patronage of the Priory as of 1291.

The monks would be expected to have sole use of the abbey itself and local worshippers would be expected to attend a separate parish church nearby.

Parts of the church are Norman, including the base of the tower and the west door. Later alterations include the fashioning of the square tower into a pointed steeple, plus the addition of transepts in the 19th century. The West Door is made up of Norman sculpture, and was created, probably in the 16th Century, from pieces rescued from the recently demolished Abbey. Pevsner’s Warwickshire and the revised edition of that work describe it as the ‘most sumptuous Norman doorway in Warwickshire’, the new edition acknowledging that it is a later composite. Visitors should compare it with the entrance to Leicester’s Gatehouse in the Castle.

Little has changed in between the 1960s and 2016 shots however, save for the growth of a few trees and the loss of a stone cross atop the gravestone in the foreground. A flag pole can be seen in the background of the 1963 shot. Individual stones can be matched between the two photos in the wall in the foreground.

More on the history of the church can be read on the St Nicholas and St Barnabas website.

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