The Abbey of St Mary was founded around 1119 for Augustinian Canons and was closed by King Henry VIII’s dissolution in 1538. By 1600, most of its buildings had been dismantled, although some parts survive today both above and below ground.
Origins and Development
Today, Abbey Fields are maintained by Warwick District Council under the control of English Heritage as a scheduled ancient monument. No building is permitted. The whole area of 27 Hectares (including the churchyard), contains some 9 sections (including a “paddock” area that is currently not in use).
The first and largest area of land was acquired by Kenilworth Local Board, 1884, for £6,000 from the Rt. Hon. Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, the Rt. Hon. Frederick Arthur Stanley, and the Rt. Hon. Edward, Earl of Latham. Conveyed with covenant that said pieces of land may forever hereinafter be used as public walks or pleasure grounds, under the Recreational Grounds Act 1859.
In the same year, a large plot was given to William Evans and Joseph Roberts in their capacity as Churchwardens of the Parish of Kenilworth, as trustees, by Henry Street, George Marshall Turner and others, to be held and managed by Kenilworth Local Board under same conditions as above. the Church Wardens are still consultants regarding this area.
In subsequent years, Abbey Fields was extended by gifts from private land owners. The associated covenants often referred to the donor’s wish that the land be kept in its natural condition and used for the benefit of the public.
The War Memorial was unveiled on Sunday, 26th February 1922, dedicated to those who died in the Great War (1914-1919). Subsequently it was dedicated to soldiers killed in World War II (1939-1945) and in Korea (1952). Close by is a specimen of the Indian Bean Tree (Catalpa bignonoides), that was badly damaged by high winds in November 2002. A path leads from the Memorial to the centre of the fields, crossing the Finham Brook via an iron bridge, which used to possess a gate that divided the bridge. To the west of the iron bridge, traces of the abutments of the mediaeval Packsaddle bridge, which carried traffic across the brook to the Abbey, can still be seen. It was destroyed in a severe flood in 1673. Nearby are the Swimming Baths (which opened in 1896 using water from Finham Brook) with its indoor and open-air pools, a café and five tennis courts. Until some point in the 21st century, it had a bowling green on the site of part of the enclosed children’s play area, and a golf putting course.
Brooks and Lake
The Alder-lined Finham Brook runs West to East entering the park from the Ford by Kenilworth Castle. A flood in November 1883 caused the Ford to rise to over 3m and in December 1900 heavy rains caused the brook to become a swollen river, so that 30-40m of each side of the Ford was under muddy water, and the Abbey Fields were flooded. The brook leaves the fields by flowing under the grade II listed Town Pool Bridge. Some of the levels of exceptional floods are recorded on the west side of this bridge.
Luzley Brook, lined with weeping willows, enters the fields under Castle Road and joins Finham Brook close to the lake’s waterfowl feeding boards at the rear of the swimming baths. The lake was created on the site of the old Abbey pool by Warwick District Council in the 1990s. Upstream of this junction is an earthworks. The 3m high mound surrounded by mature oak and beech trees was most likely a surveying point used for creating the levels of the Abbey’s water system.
A path leads from the swimming baths via the children’s playground to the 14th century sandstone Barn, now used by the Kenilworth History and Archaeology Society as a local history museum. It is open on Sundays and Bank Holidays in summer, with opening times posted on the door. Downstairs it also houses the Abbey Interpretation Project. Its walls are peppered with shot marks, perhaps from skirmishes in the Civil War in 1642. The path leads on, via part of the south wall of the Abbey Chapter House, to the Tantara Archway (1361-75) of the Abbey Gatehouse. There used to be a ‘Clapper Gate’ or ‘Tumbledown Stile’ in its small archway. It now resides in the Barn.
To the east of this is the churchyard of St. Nicholas’ Parish Church, well endowed with evergreens such as Yews and Cypress. A number of brass plaques in the churchyard identify the Abbey Ruins. The Church is built from sandstone quarried locally and has a Norman archway. The European Lime Avenue from the Church to Bridge Street was planted in April 1902. From the Bridge Street end of this Avenue runs a path back to the centre of the Fields, past a disused water fountain, and from the Church end runs a path to the centre that passes a relic from the South wall of the Chapter House of the Abbey. During excavations, tombs of the Abbey Founders were found here. There is a reconstruction in the Barn.