If you've ever driven through Bedfordshire, perhaps near the imposing Cardington Hangers, you may have passed a curious little building sat lonely in a mottled meadow next to a farm and vineyard. It may well be that you passed the remains of Warden Abbey. One of the most curious and intriguing buildings in Bedfordshire.
The original Warden Abbey was founded in 1135 as a daughter house to the Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx in Yorkshire, a highly-prosperous religious order of monks and nuns whose wealth and prosperity would only grow. By 1300 this Bedfordshire-based sister monastery was already extensively made up of fine buildings and by 1320 work had also started on an abbey church of "cathedral-like proportions". A magnificent mosaic tile floor from the abbey, which embellished this enormous church, was unearthed in 1961 and is now housed in Bedford Museum.
It was at the abbey that the Warden pear was first cultivated. A small pear used for cooking, this horticultural enterprise gave way to the Warden pie. Hot Warden pies were still sold in Bedford in the nineteenth century, and earlier references can be found in Elizabethan and Stuart literature. The abbey seal even displays three pears surrounding a crozier.
In 1537, during the reign of Henry VIII, the abbey was dissolved and this huge, prosperous religious enterprise crumbled. The Gostwick family acquired the land at auction and demolished the buildings. By 1552, a new red brick mansion was built on the site, incorporating some of the former Abbot's lodging. In about 1790, the main part of the Tudor house was pulled down by its new owners, the Whitbreads of Southill, leaving only a partial fragment still standing.
This curious fragment is the building known today as Warden Abbey, which is all that is left to us, above ground, of both monastery and house. Sat lonely in a field, pockmarked by archaeological interest and limbs long lost.
The surrounding village of Old Warden, which still exists now, grew up under the Abbey's protection. Even today the legacy of the Warden pear is still evident in the village and local economy, as the vineyards of the past now produce locally-made, award-winning white wines each year. The Cistercian monks planted two original vineyards centuries ago: "the ten acre Greate Vineyard and the four acre Lyttel Vineyard." The modern vineyard that remains was planted on the site of the Lyttel Vineyard by the Whitbread family.
Warden Abbey is all that is left of this once great settlement, now a curious fragment left stranded in quiet fields. These surrounding meadows, grazed by livestock, are virtually unexplored and may still prove to be a fascinating archaeological site, the landscape of ridges and bumps still burying secrets of past Cistercian wealth.