As the crow flies, Buckland Abbey is around 4 or 5 miles away from our holiday home, but it took us about 40 minutes to get there, including a toll-paying trip across the Tamar Bridge. I always seem to do this, as in the Lake District, I also had a few long journeys to undertake to get to the other side of Windermere from my holiday cottage! Maybe it’s time to get an amphibious vehicle?!
When we did get there, we found Buckland Abbey to be a fairly unusual National Trust experience as it is half historic home and half museum. While touring the building, you will find yourself pass from a museum room dedicated to Sir Francis Drake straight into a Georgian Dining Room laid up for dinner! I have to say that I really enjoyed this smorgasbord of exhibits as it didn’t overdo either aspect and made for a very varied tour.
Smorgasbord is actually a good word for Buckland Abbey itself as it is a mash-up of vastly different eras in terms of architecture and has been home to such diverse characters as Cistercian monks and Sir Francis Drake, who would never have been described as monk-like! Sorting out the different periods within the building would be a real challenge for anyone as it started as a Medieval abbey before being altered in Tudor times, again in the 1770s, and once more in the 19th century, before a fire in 1938 led to still further significant alterations. Such is the blend of styles that you can be firmly rooted in the Georgian period as you wander around the Dining Room, only to spot a stone carving of the winged ox of St Luke, left over from the abbey days, nestled in the corner.
Perhaps the three most important owners of Buckland Abbey over the years were the Cistercian monks, Sir Richard Grenville and Sir Francis Drake, although a later member of the Drake family – Sir Francis Henry Drake (one of many Francises!) – made the Georgian changes, which include a really striking staircase, with a gate at the bottom to stop the dogs from getting to the kitchens! Monks and Mariners are the main focus for the museum-style exhibits, though, with the Treasures room featuring notable items related to Drake, including one of his drums and some Royal Standards from the Golden Hind, while the Lifetimes room (in the upper long gallery) looks at life on the ocean wave as it would have been for both Richard Grenville and Francis Drake as well as including a separate section on the history of the Cistercian abbey, which was founded in 1278 and dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539.
It was at that time that the Abbey was given to Sir Richard Grenville, the grandfather of our famous mariner, who later inherited it himself. It was in the 1570s that he made his major alterations to convert the Abbey into a house. In the Great Hall, there is clear evidence of this in the overmantel frieze, which features the date MCCCCCLXXVI (1576). It was suggested at Trerice that the same craftsmen may have been used both for this plasterwork and that installed at Trerice in 1573. If that was the case, however, the plasterer had improved his art in the succeeding three years as the Trerice overmantel is marked MCCCCCLXX3, with a digit in place of the Roman numerals where he ran out of space!
Sir Francis Drake did not appear to make any major changes to Buckland Abbey after eventually buying it from Grenville, but he owned it for 14 years and is, therefore, an important part of its history, hence the museum and the presence of a larger-than-life-sized plaster model of the man himself at the entrance to the Lifetimes room. This was made from the same mould as the two well-known statues in Tavistock and on Plymouth Hoe. The house also displays dummies of Sir Francis and his second wife Elizabeth wearing costumes inspired by their portraits. In fact, some of the volunteers also appear in costume at Buckland and we were rather surprised to come across a monk in the kitchen!
Another couple of things I want to mention in the house are the ceiling of the Drake Chamber and the model of the Golden Hind, both of which are modern but fitting additions. The ceiling is designed to reflect the varied aspects of Buckland’s history, and includes panels inspired by life on the estate as well as a few with marine themes. This was put up in 1998 to replace a plain ceiling put in after the fire. Meanwhile, the model of the Golden Hind is actually a working radio-controlled boat, but it looks just as good on dry land (i.e. a window sill!).
I would also urge you not to miss the Great Barn (from the Cistercian days). Although it is simply an empty barn (with just a cider press to look at), it is perhaps as ‘great’ as any barn I have ever been in, rivalling the Grange Barn in Coggeshall, and perhaps even a little more impressive due to its emptiness. The scale of the building really strikes home when there is nothing in it except little human-sized you!
At the moment, another highlight of a visit to Buckland is the Rembrandt display. In 2010, the Abbey was given five paintings from the estate of Lady Samuel of Wych Cross, including what was believed to be a self-portrait by Rembrandt. A series of scientific investigations began and the display outlines each of the different clues that were examined to try to pin down the picture’s provenance. After eight months of detective work, Professor Ernst van de Wetering, previous chair of the Rembrandt Research Project, concluded that he believed the portrait to have been painted by the famous artist himself. A volunteer told us that this exhibition is going to leave Buckland soon to go on tour and that the picture may return to its original spot in the house after it returns.
This same volunteer was also a mine of information about the current set-up at Buckland and what it might mean for the future of the house. The property came to the Trust with no furnishings so everything has been added and there is no reason for the Trust to be particularly ‘precious’ about any of the contents. As a result, it is fairly easy to change things and it could well be that what I saw at Buckland may not be there in the same layout on a future visit. There is also a deal with the City of Plymouth Museums & Art Gallery to consider. Having taken on the property in 1946, the Trust agreed with Plymouth City Council in 1951 to use the Abbey as a branch of the museum and it was administered by the Council from 1951 to 1987. Management then reverted to the Trust, with continued support from the museum. However, our volunteer told us that the Council is looking to move its museum into larger premises and may want its Drake memorabilia back. This would be a crying shame as the museum exhibits are a perfect accompaniment to the Abbey’s show rooms, and I would urge Plymouth Council to leave things well alone. Surely giving Drake’s things pride of place in a house where he once lived is preferable to presenting them alongside many unrelated artefacts in a modern building and in a city that he wouldn’t recognise if he came back there today.
Highlights: Drake history and artefacts; Georgian staircase; Rembrandt exhibition
Refreshments: Mushroom soup with bread; chocolate fudge cake
Purchase(s): Guidebook; ‘Sir Francis Drake: Behind the Pirate’s Mask’ by Andrew Norman