Architectural palimpsests – reusing ruins

Architectural-palimpsest-roof-detailHow amusing that I’ve come to write and post about change and the reuse of the original to find that the WordPress interim editor has morphed into the new all singing all dancing mobile friendly editor. As I get to grips with the new which is amended and overwritten (I’m presuming this as I’m not really familiar with what’s going on underneath the bonnet of this ‘editor machine’), I know I’m working in a long and well-trodden tradition.

Ever since they started scraping and reusing vellum the possibility of a palimpsest has existed. Glimpsing patches of an earlier image or some older text beneath more recent writing has been a boon to scholars working with ancient manuscripts.  Obviously, in less comfortable times humans have reused all kinds of scarce resources as a matter of course. Often when buildings were damaged by fire and not rebuilt surviving quality materials such as expensive stone and brick were speedily carted off to be used elsewhere. However, sometimes prestigious ruins were simply incorporated into a new different building.

There is a fine example of an architectural palimpsest in Bury St Edmunds incorporating parts of the surviving structures of the old Benedictine Monastery into a newer building.

old monastery wall palimpsest
Architectural palimpsest – the walls of the old West Front of the Abbey Church are reused to form part five domestic residences.

Not much of the monastery’s Abbey Church survives today, but the freestanding ruins provide an intriguing reminder of how magnificent the original St Edmunds Abbey must have been. Interestingly, it was the place where a group of English Barons held a significant secret meeting over 800 years ago. At this rendezvous, probably around the 20 November 1214, they swore an oath to compel King John to accept The Charter of Liberties. The following year at Runnymede this charter would be assented to by the king and is known as Magna Carta.

Nowadays, at the entrance to the Abbey Gardens there stands a mid-14th century gatehouse which would have been the secular entrance to the monastery. Whilst further down the road, still formidable in all its imposing magnificence, is the Norman Tower which was the original clerical entrance for the Benedictine monks.

I’m always looking for inspiration from architectural details and there was plenty to photograph in Bury St Edmunds. I like the process of considering the Norman Tower, then the medieval Abbey Gatehouse and then, finally, the very recently finished (2000-2005) gothic revival tower of the Victorian St Edmundsbury Cathedral.

Author: agnesashe

Artisan, blogger and passionate East Anglian working from home.

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