Friday, 20 September 2013

The Abbey on our Doorstep

Posted by Rosie

A couple of weeks ago a post popped up on our Facebook page about "Le Weekend du Patrimoine" (The Heritage Weekend).  It gave various suggestions about historical places throughout Normandy that would be offering guided visits during the week-end of 14/15th September.  Top of the suggestions was The Abbey at Le Plessis Grimoult. 

Now we have lived here for 6 years and Le Plessis Grimoult is the next village to us yet we have never heard of the Abbey.  So I went online and found out a bit more about this unknown piece of heritage right on our doorstep.  It turns out that it is a ruined priory dedicated to St Etienne, including the remains of the priory, a walled/fortified garden, a maze and further archaeological interest.

So last Sunday we headed off to see what we had been missing for so long.  It turned out to be a very interesting place dating back to the 12th century. Over the years is has suffered much dereliction, not least because in WW11 the Germans placed a large machine gun at the top of one of the towers which subsequently took a massive hammering from Allied troops.  Just one tower of the abbey/priory now remains as well as the remains of the gateway, evidence of the church and the chapter house (which is now a private residence).  The chapter house has seen much "modernisation" ...  and sadly for "modernisation" read "loss of important features".  The maze was fun although we later learnt it was only about 40 years old and nothing to do with the original Priory.

It was however the walled or fortified garden that proved to be the most interesting feature.  For many years it had lain undiscovered and it was only when some-one had put together the 4 pieces of paper that make up the plans for the Abbey did they then notice something marked right in the middle where the 4 papers joined.  Excavations revealed what looked like a miniature fortress with central open area and 4 tiny towers on each corner. It was obviously far too small to be an actual fortress so what was it for?  Nothing like this had ever been seen in France but there are examples in other countries including Italy and the East.  It is now believed that the garden was built to be a representation of Heaven on Earth; somewhere to emulate Jerusalem for those unable to visit. The central area would have been home to rare and beautiful plants and the towers would have housed caged exotic birds.  Archaeologists believe there must be other such structures in France but to date none have been discovered.

Remains of the Walled Garden (Picture from Wikipedia)
Unfortunately the camera battery went flat so I don't have any pictures to show you of the garden but I did find this picture on Wikipedia.

For anyone wanting further information on this archaeological site these links may be of interest:

Le Plessis-Grimoult (in English with lots of pictures)

Newspaper report about the Open Weekend (in French)

Priory of Le Plessis-Grimoult (French Wikipedia)

The Abbey has recently changed hands and the new owners have extended the opening hours. Outside of heritage weekends it is open free of charge throughout July and August on Mon, Tues, Fri, Sat and Sun from 10am to midday and from 2-6pm.  It is well worth a visit to anyone interested in history and heritage and we still can't quite believe that we had never heard about it before.

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