Sheffield’s Heritage Open Days 2018: The ancient past and unusual present of medieval Beauchief Abbey​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

Beauchief Abbey, Sheffield. Picture: Scott Merrylees
Beauchief Abbey, Sheffield. Picture: Scott Merrylees

It could be the Cotswolds - the sight of a little stone-built church beside a pair of cottages where, in a neat garden, a woman is happily pruning flowers on a perfect late summer morning.

But this is only the southern outskirts of Sheffield, and we are looking at Beauchief Abbey, said to be the city's oldest building.

Mark Flather at the door of Beauchief Abbey in Sheffield. Picture: Scott Merrylees

Mark Flather at the door of Beauchief Abbey in Sheffield. Picture: Scott Merrylees

Mark Flather, one of the executive committee tasked with looking after the ancient place, confirms the claim - the Grade II* listed abbey was founded in 1176. But there's a caveat.

"This is Derbyshire," he says, highlighting the fact that Beauchief village didn't fall within the Sheffield boundary until 1934.

No matter – the Anglican church's present is just as curious as its past, which will be explored when the doors are opened for the Heritage Open Days festival next week.

"We're not actually part of the diocese, we come directly under Canterbury," says Mark. "A licence was obtained from Elizabeth I to be at liberty. Because we're not a parish we don't have a stipendiary priest."

Beauchief Abbey with its cottages beside. Picture: Scott Merrylees

Beauchief Abbey with its cottages beside. Picture: Scott Merrylees

Instead the committee has to find a preacher to take services, which still happen every Sunday at the council-owned venue.

"They leave the running of it to us," Mark explains. "We pay for the electricity, we install the lighting. The council looks after the fabric."

Visitors enter through the tower – part of the original medieval abbey. Surprisingly tall up close, it was remodelled in the 14th century and would once have been a third higher. The bell is still rung.

Inside, Mark produces a matchstick model which demonstrates how big the site was hundreds of years ago when it boasted transepts, a separate chapter house and cloisters. 

"It gives you an idea. All we've got left is the bottom two-thirds of the tower and part of the lake."

Set up as a daughter establishment of Welbeck Abbey thanks to a gift of land by the Lord of Alfreton, Robert FitzRanulf, Beauchief – a word derived from the Normans meaning 'beautiful headland' – was dedicated to God, Saint Mary and St Thomas the Martyr, as well as the brethren of Prémontré.

The latter were canons, not monks, Mark says. "Monks tended to stay at home and copy books and things – canons were priests who went out and held services at churches."

For the next 350 years the abbey prospered and controlled much of the local economy, but in 1536 it was dissolved by Henry VIII.

The monastery and its land was sold for £223 to Sir Nicholas Strelley, then Lord of Ecclesall, and the history becomes murky for a period. 

"We know someone lived here, because during the excavations in the 1920s they discovered the chapter house was used as their wine cellar."

In 1648 the land came by marriage into the possession of the Pegge family, and from 1667 onwards much of the stone was used to build the grand Beauchief Hall. The nave of the church and the tower were partially restored to make a chapel for the landowners, who added  coats of arms and carved memorials. The Pegges' Bible – a large, leather-bound volume from 1772 – survives.

The owners sold the estate to Frank Crawshaw – "We'd now refer to him as a property developer," says Mark – who gave the abbey, its cottages and the surrounding land, now a golf course, to the city in 1931. 

Crawshaw stipulated two conditions - that the church remained Anglican and  he be buried in the crypt.

Mark has been involved in the running of the abbey for eight years, since moving to the area. He and his wife were previously members of Holy Trinity Millhouses.

"It's the only place that does regular prayer book services," he points out. "This church uses the book of common prayer, it doesn't use the modern ritual."

The committee works together 'very well', and the congregation numbers between 20-30 every Sunday, but turnout for the monthly evensong can be sparse.

The church receives no grants or external funding; income is gathered from donations, fundraising and fees for weddings and funerals.

On the open days Mark and his colleagues will mark the outline of the original monastery on the ground – next to the graveyard, traces of the chapter house are clearly visible with two stumpy pieces of stone jutting out where the bases were. The cemetery itself carries some intrigue. One of the headstones tells of an unfortunate gamekeeper at the hall who died in April 1758: “My fatal gun caused me to fall, which made a speedy passage through my head, and sent me to the mansions of the dead,” it reads.

Mark says the building is 'very important' to Sheffield, listing two things he especially admires. "The atmosphere and the acoustics. Our choir seldom is more than two or three but it absolutely fills the building."

Beauchief Abbey hosts tours for Heritage Open Days next Friday, Saturday and Sunday – September 14 to 16 – from 11am to 4pm. At 3pm on the Sunday there is a special choral evensong with the Abbey Lane Singers. Visit www.beauchiefabbey.org.uk for details.

This year Heritage Open Days is running from September 6-9 and 13-16 with more than 100 events in Sheffield. See www.heritageopendays.org.uk for information.