‘Re-uniting the Stones of Hyde Abbey’ – a fascinating mission for David Spurling

datePosted on 10:11, June 17th, 2015

IMG_20150425_132839195_HDREdward Fennell reports on David’s talk from April 2015

“My aim is to make stones interesting!” said David Spurling to a packed Hyde Parish Hall in late April. A tough challenge, you might think? But not really. David, who lives in Headbourne Worthy, is passionate about the stones from Hyde Abbey. He hunts them down with the true spirit of the adventurer, climbing ladders, peering into foundations and getting his hands dirty in rescuing them from the bowels of skips.

All a little eccentric? Not at all. Hyde Abbey was one of the most important ecclesiastical buildings, aside from the cathedral, in medieval Winchester. When the abbey was dissolved in 1537, the buildings were rapidly pulled down and the stonework and other materials were sold off to be recycled across the city and the surrounding area. David Spurling became intrigued by the story of these stones when he realised that his own home – ‘Silverstream’ – was packed full of them. Having such a direct and personal link to a building of the scale and significance as Hyde Abbey was a compelling experience. Moreover, the story that the stones tell is not just about the physical structure of the dissolved abbey but also presents a direct route to the wider life of the monastery and the people who lived there over a period of more than 400 years. No wonder he is enthusiastic.

Filling a vacuum

Tracking down, recording, categorizing and photographing the scattered stones of Hyde Abbey has been  a key part of Hyde900’s mission to fill the vacuum of information and understanding of this very important historical site. As the final resting place of King Alfred the Great, his wife Alswitha and his son Edward it was, for four hundred years, an important centre of pilgrimage with considerable wealth and influence.

Following the dissolution, however, it was almost airbrushed out of history. Neglect of the site by the City authorities meant that after a major sale of its principal stonework it became effectively a quarry for those who wanted to use stone in their homes or garden walls. The result is that Hyde is rich in interest for those who care to open their eyes and just look a little more carefully around them. The abbey is there still, just scattered into many thousands of fragments.

That is why David Spurling – together with Ross Lovett, former head stonemason of Winchester Cathedral – is studying these stones with such attention to detail. Not only does it reveal the moulded decoration of the abbey’s architecture but it is also possible to gauge where the stone was sourced whether from sites in central southern England or even from as far away as Caen in Normandy.

 Re-imagining through digital technology

Meanwhile, there was the human history. From the early period it is  possible, by drawing on evidence from Winchester College, to reveal the identity of the master masons who had responsibility for the construction of the abbey. Later, following up on the fate of the stone in the mid-16th Century onwards introduced David to characters such as Thomas Wriothesley (a prominent figure in Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall) and Richard Bethell who bought the Hyde Abbey site and built himself a fine house in its ancient precincts  – even though he ended up having a long drawn out legal wrangle over payment for some of these stones.

Now, as David explained, Hyde900 is working with the Digital Media Department at the University of Winchester to draw all this information together. Using the power of computers it will be possible to is create exciting images which explain and demonstrate the abbey’s architectural features ‘in the round’ by, for example, visualizing the setting of a voussoir into an arch or (what Hyde900 calls) a ‘whistlestone’ into a nookshaft.

The hope is that over the next year or so all of this will be available to the public via the Hyde900 website. In any case, if you suspect your have a stone from the abbey or want to see where the stones are now located visit our ‘Stones’ page. There’s more to those stones than you might think.


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