Denny Abbey and Farmland Museum is an interesting site worthy of a half day’s visit with something to interest all family members.
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Denny itself is a small “island” of high ground surrounded by low-lying and often water-logged ground. This is an appropriate site for the farm museum as Denny has been farmed for over 2000 years until the 1950s. (Roman pottery fragments were discovered at the site.) Wheat and barley grow particularly well in Cambridgeshire because of rich soil and low rainfall. Potatoes, carrots, onions, celery, and sugar beet (begun in 1923) were other favourite crops. The Ely Sugar Beet factory opened in 1924. Until the 1960s farming was very labour intensive for these crops in this area.
The Farmland Museum collects, preserves, and displays social history artefacts, tools of rural crafts and industries, and agricultural machinery related to rural Cambridgeshire. Steam powered threshing machines were used in the 1800s, and a number of these large farm machines, including tractors, combine harvester and sugar beet equipment, are on view. Equipment is operated on special days in May.
There is a special farm play shed and play area for children. In April the museum puts on fenland food days. The University of Cambridge runs special adult education days. A typical village fair is another special event. In August a medieval life weekend is held.
Walnut Tree, a farm labourer’s cottage, dating from the 1860s and in use until the 1960s is furnished to represent a 1940s farm labourer’s cottage; the story of a fictional family gives an insight into how farm workers lived during this time. There is a living room, larder, washroom, and kitchen on the ground floor. The bedrooms are upstairs, and the family privy is in the cottage garden.
Also at the site is a timber framed, formerly thatched, 17th century Grade II listed, stone threshing barn with a farming exhibition. In the barn hand-operated machines such as chaff cutters and root choppers were used. From 1960-1990 the barn stored animal feed, hay, and fertilizer. Winnowing was done with both doors open to blow away the chaff and dust.
Renovated pig sheds contain mock-ups of a blacksmith's shop, fenman's hut and basketmaker's workshop. A fenman’s hut would be where he would take shelter while going out for the day to trap small animals and birds to provide food for the family. Willow trees grew well in the Cambridgeshire wetlands and made good baskets and hurdles (portable fences). Peeling and splitting willow was seasonal work done by women while basket making was a full time job. Baskets were used by potato farmers and fruit growers.
Other displays include a wheelwright's workshop with such tools as a long pit saw, paint mill, and cart and wheel parts. A cooper’s display shows tools and the workshop needed to make barrels and buckets. A village shop from the early-mid 20th century and a dairy make up other displays.
Beside the museum are the remains of a Grade I listed 12th century abbey. It’s the only religious site in England occupied at different times by three different monastic orders. A small church was first built c1159 for Benedictine monks from Ely cathedral.
The Knights Templar took over in 1170 and ran it as a home for aged members of their organization. The Knights, because of their power and influence, fell out of favour with the king in the 1300s and he set about arresting them and confiscating their lands. The knights at Denny Abbey were taken to Cambridge castle and then to the Tower of London.
The Countess of Pembroke was given Denny by King Edward III. She brought the Poor Clares, Franciscan nuns, here around 1339. She made the original church into her own apartment, adding a floor, and then built a new church, a refectory (dining room) in 1330, a dormitory for 40 nuns, cloisters, and other buildings. Some of the refectory floor tiles survive and can still be seen, in spite of the fact that it was used to store grain for hundreds of years.
The countess of Pembroke died in 1377 and is buried at the abbey. It is assumed the abbess moved into her rooms and life continued as usual at the abbey. Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1539 and two years later Denny abbey closed. The last abbess and the nuns moved to her home in Warwickshire.
Henry gave Denny to Edward Elrington, an Essex property speculator. He dismantled parts of the buildings and sold the stone. Afterwards the abbey was converted into a farmhouse and lived in by many tenants over the years. The refectory was used as a barn. Tudor chimneys and fireplaces were later additions, and, still later, plumbing was added. More farm buildings were added over the years, and the land was improved by introducing drainage.
Between 1830-1844 the farm was leased to the Witt family. He employed Irish peasants to deal with the corn (wheat, barley, and oats) crop. In 1883 the Dimock family became the tenants, then owners. When they purchased the farm it included 27 horses, 56 cattle, 272 sheep, 15 pigs, 2 dogs, and 200 poultry. They installed a range for cooking in the kitchen. Racks for hanging bacon were suspended from the kitchen ceiling. The Countess’s former guest rooms became their family bedrooms. The Dimock family sold the farm in 1928. The jam makers, Chivers, were tenants until WWII and grew strawberries for jam.
Pembroke College acquired the abbey and farm buildings in the 1950s and placed it in the care of the Ministry of Works, now English Heritage. The farm was sold separately and is still used for cereal and root crops and cattle.
Denny Abbey and Farmland Museum
Ely Rd, Waterbeach, east side of A10, six miles north-east Cambridge, Cambridgeshire.
Tel. 01223 860489/988
Open: April-end Oct, Tue-Sun, 11am-5pm; BH Mon, 11am-5pm
Web: Denny Abbey Farmland Museum
The Abbey is English Heritage property. There is a reduced charge for farmland museum for English Heritage members. The tea-room is open weekends 11am-4pm, also Wed and Thu, noon-4.30pm during school holidays; picnic area; shop; free parking