New life for old chapel

A SIGNIFICANT piece of Suffolk's medieval past - known to thousands of visitors to Suffolk's top nature reserve - has been preserved.

A SIGNIFICANT piece of Suffolk's medieval past - known to thousands of visitors to Suffolk's top nature reserve - has been preserved.

The small chapel, which lies on coastal marshland at Minsmere, near Leiston, has been protected from the ravages of time thanks to help from heritage bosses.

It is the second piece of the area's ancient history to be preserved and heralded as being of national importance - last month an early medieval boat was uncovered at Sizewell.

The conservation of Leiston Chapel has given archaeologists a valuable insight into how the land was used dating back to 1182.

The RSPB was given £35,600 by English Heritage and £12,000 from Natural England to conserve and repair the crumbling walls of the chapel under the proviso that it commissioned a thorough evaluation first.

This research was led by Suffolk County Council's Archaeological Conservation Team and confirmed the chapel is situated in the centre of what was originally a Premonstratensian Abbey.

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Leiston Abbey, formerly known as St Mary's Abbey, was founded in 1182 near Minsmere by Ranulf de Glanville, Lord Chief Justice to King Henry II.

Fearing an increased risk of flooding, the monks abandoned the abbey in 1363, and a new complex was built two and a half miles further inland by Robert de Ufford, Earl of Suffolk.

Documentary evidence suggests that a presence was maintained on the original site until the dissolution in 1537 and Leiston Chapel is the only surviving evidence of this continuing occupation.

John Ette, ancient monuments inspector for English Heritage in the east region, said: “This is of great archaeological importance, being the early site of the Leiston Abbey and where the monks created their community before they were inundated by coastal processes.

“The chapel is the last surviving element and it sits on a hill in the most amazing setting in the nature reserve.

“It may appear that very little is left of the abbey but what is here is of great importance. This and the other Leiston Abbey are the only Premonstratensian sites in Suffolk.”

Stuart Boulter, archaeologist for Suffolk County Council, said: “The chapel has three phases of building showing the different periods of restoration it has been through and helps us back up the belief that after the abbey was transferred to Leiston this chapel was still inhabited.”

The chapel also played a surprising role in during the Second World War, when a concrete pillbox and machine gun emplacement was inserted into the eastern end of the structure.

Ian Barthorpe, spokesman for RSPB Minsmere, said: “Many of our visitors ask about the building in the middle of marshes, allowing us to tell its fascinating story.

“Twice a year I organise walks past the chapel and it gives me the opportunity to tell how its history relates to the current landscape of Minsmere and how its inhabitants over the years have helped shape this part of the reserve.”