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Thomas Cromwell and the Destruction of Hailes Abbey

How an important abbey was destroyed by a King's Commissioner.

Distance 5 miles (8km)

Minimum time 2hrs

Ascent/gradient 605ft (185m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Fields, tracks, farmyard and lanes, 7 stiles

Landscape Wide views, rolling wolds and villages

Suggested map aqua3 OS Outdoor Leisure 45 The Cotswolds

Start/finish SP 050301

Dog friendliness Mostly on leads - a lot of livestock in fields

Parking Beside Hailes church

Public toilets None on route

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© AA Media Limited 2015. © Crown Copyright Licence number 100021153

1 From Hailes church turn right and follow the lane to a T-junction. Turn right and after 200yds (183m) turn right on to a footpath. Cross an area of concrete and follow a track as it goes right and left, becoming a grassy path beside a field. Go through a gate, followed by a stile. After about 75yds (69m) turn left, through a gate, and cross a field to a gate at a road.

2 Turn right and follow the road as it meanders through the pretty village of Didbrook then a stretch of countryside. At a junction turn right for Wood Stanway. Walk through this village into the yard of Glebe Farm.

3 At a gate and a stile cross into a field and walk ahead, looking for a stile on the left. You are now on the Cotswold Way, well marked by arrows with a white dot or acorn. Cross into a field and go half right, keeping to the left of some telegraph poles, to a gap in a hedge. Bear half left across the next field, heading towards a house. Cross a stile and turn sharp right, up the slope, to a stile on your right. Cross this and turn immediately left up the field. Go left over a ladder stile by a gate. Follow the footpath as it wends its way gently up the slope. At the top go straight ahead to a gate at a road.

4 Turn right and right again through a gate to a track. Follow this, passing through a gate, until at the top (just before some trees), you turn right to follow another track for 50yds (46m). Turn left through a gate into a field and turn sharp right to follow the perimeter of the field as it goes left and passes through a gate beside the ramparts of an Iron-Age fort, Beckbury Camp. Continue ahead to pass through another gate which leads to a stone monument with a niche. According to local lore, this is the point from where Thomas Cromwell watched the destruction of Hailes Abbey in 1539.

5 Turn right to follow a steep path down through the trees. At the bottom go straight across down the field to a gate. Pass through, continue down to another gate and, in the field beyond, head down to a stile beside a signpost.

6 Cross this and turn right down a lane, all the way to a road. To the left is Hayles Fruit Farm with its café. Continue ahead along the road to return to Hailes Abbey and the starting point by the church.

In the decade from 1536 to 1547 just about every English religious institution that was not a parish church was either closed or destroyed - this was the Dissolution, Henry VIII's draconian policy to force the old Church to give up its enormous wealth. The smaller monasteries went first, then the larger ones and finally the colleges and chantries. All their lands and tithes became Crown property. Much of them were sold off to laypeople, usually to local, influential landowners. The Church as a parish institution was considerably strengthened as a result of the Dissolution, but at the expense of the wider religious life. The suppression of the chantries and guilds, for example, meant that many people were deprived of a local place of worship.

Hailes Abbey was one of the most powerful Cistercian monasteries in the country, owning 13,000 acres (5,265ha) and 8,000 sheep. It was a particular target for reformers. In 1270 Edmund, Earl of Cornwall, the son of its founder, had given the monastery a phial supposed to contain the blood of Christ. Thomas Cromwell was the King's Commissioner responsible for seeing to the closure of the monasteries. He is reputed to have surveyed the destruction of the monastery from a vantage point near Beckbury Camp. There is still a fine view of the abbey from here, as you should find as you pass Point e on this walk. According to Hugh Latimer of Worcester, who had been working with him, Cromwell also spent an afternoon in 1539 examining the so-called 'blood'. Cromwell concluded that it was nothing more than an 'unctuous gum and compound of many things'. Once the valuables had been removed, local people took what was left.

The monastery lands were disposed of in a typical manner. First they were confiscated by the Crown and then sold to a speculator who sold the land on in lots. In about 1600 the site of the abbey was bought by Sir John Tracy, the builder of Stanway House. The monks were dispersed: a few managed to secure positions as part of the parish clergy, whilst others took up posts with the cathedrals at Bristol and Gloucester. Others returned to the laity.

Hailes church is all that remains of the village of Hailes. It predates the abbey and survived the Dissolution, perhaps because it had been a parish church and was not directly linked to the neighbouring monastery. It is a church of real charm, sadly ignored by the many visitors to the monastery's ruins. Although very small, it has several special features, including a panelled chancel - floored with tiles from the monastery - and a nave with 14th-century wall paintings. Didbrook church also survived the upheavals. Built in Perpendicular style, it was rebuilt in 1475 by the Abbot of Hailes, following damage caused by Lancastrian soldiers after the Battle of Tewkesbury.

What to look for

As you walk through the village of Didbrook, see if the blacksmith at the Acorn Smithy is open. In Wood Stanway, the wall of one of the first houses you pass to your left is covered in vines, producing a very healthy-looking crop of red grapes in the autumn, even though the English climate tends to favour white grapes.

Where to eat and drink

Just near the end of the route is Hayles Fruit Farm. You can pick your own fruit, buy a variety of produce from the shop or you can have a light meal in the tea room. Winchcombe is the nearest town, offering many possibilities.

While you're there

Visit Hailes Abbey. You can rent a recorded commentary that explains the layout of the ruins. Farmcote church is another gem, little more than a chapel but ancient and uplifting. It's hard to find but worth the effort. Overlooking Hailes, it's located high up in a silent, tranquil corner of the wolds.

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