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Twelfth century abbey opens up

PUBLISHED: 09:00 11 June 2010 | UPDATED: 09:47 01 August 2010

IT once housed some of the most important religious leaders in Norfolk and was an awe-inspiring landmark at the heart of a thriving medieval community.

IT once housed some of the most important religious leaders in Norfolk and was an awe-inspiring landmark at the heart of a thriving medieval community.

But despite being a site of enormous historical and cultural importance, Langley Abbey has been shut away from the eyes of the public for hundreds of years.

Now the 12th century abbey, near Loddon, has undergone a £500,000 restoration project and was on Tuesday opened as a fascinating new Norfolk tourist attraction.

The abbey had been used as a farm before it was bought in 2001 by current owners Chris and Rebecca Townsend.

With the help of a £300,000 grant from Natural England and the expertise of English Heritage, the couple have restored the abbey as a historical site that will attract tourists from all over the UK.

Will Fletcher, inspector of ancient monuments for English Heritage, said: “This is one of the best preserved abbeys in Norfolk and one of only a few that is open to the public. It's a very typical abbey. What is special about it is how well it has been preserved.”

The abbey, both a Grade I listed building and a Scheduled Ancient Monument, was built in 1197 and housed an abbot and 14 canons. At one point it owned 62 Norfolk parishes, and was an economic centre where people traded and paid their taxes.

“It would have stood out for miles around and it would have probably been the biggest building before Norwich,” said Mr Fletcher. “The church has its mark in the landscape and it showed that the land was controlled by the church. The idea was to blow people away with the amazing imagery.”

Tourists can now explore the abbot's private cellar and chamber, and pre-booked guided parties can also explore the ruins of the old church, destroyed during King Henry VIII's reign.

The project was one of the first UK sites to be eligible for a Natural England Higher Level Stewardship Scheme grant.

Educational Access, which allows schools, history societies and other groups free admission on pre-arranged trips, also formed part of the agreement due to the historical nature of the site.

Mr and Mrs Townsend bought the abbey as a working arable farm, but as the industry was in recession at the time they decided to diversify. They now rear Longhorn cattle on site, and the meat is sold in the Langley Abbey shop that also sells other local produce.

As a farm, the abbey employed many people in the local area before the mechanisation of agriculture, and the restoration of the abbey has continued in this vein with local craftsman employed to do the work and local materials used as far as possible.

The Townsends have overseen every detail of the restoration. Mr Townsend said: “This site is a local treasure so we felt a real sense of responsibility - it became our mission to restore the abbey. After a lot of work and significant investment we are really proud to be able to share it with visitors.”

Langley Abbey is open for the summer from 10am- 4pm everyday except Mondays. Admission is £4 or £2 for under 16s or concessions.

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