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Discover Abbotsbury Along the Jurassic Coast of Dorset

Updated: Jun 20, 2023

Abbotsbury is the small historic coastal village located in Dorset located 16 Km east of Bridport by the Fleet Lagoon of Chesil Beach along the B3157 known as the Jurassic Coast Road Drive. The picturesque village of Abbotsbury is best known for its local history dating back to the Iron Age and much more recently for its Abbey, Subtropical Gardens and Swannery.

Chesil Beach and Portland Bill, looking south-east over Abbotsbury in Dorset - Image by John Armagh
Chesil Beach and Portland Bill, looking south-east over Abbotsbury in Dorset - Image by John Armagh

About Abbotsbury

The earliest recordings for the place of Abbotsbury dates back to a grant by King Edmund between AD 939-46 during the Anglo-Saxon period and also AD 597 by a priest known as Bertufus who is believed to have built a chapel in Abbotsbury.

In 1016 Cnut the son of Swein Forkbeard, King of Denmark (reigned 986–1014) would become the King of England having defeated Edmund II or Edmund Ironside at the Battle of Assandun. This victory allowed Cnut to become the emperor of an Anglo-Scandinavian empire including five kingdoms of Denmark, England, Wales, Scotland and Norway.

In a charter of 1024 King Cnut (also known as Canute the Great) and his wife Queen Emma gifted Abbotsbury, Portesham and Helton to his royal house steward known as Orc or Ore who upon his death bequeathed these lands to a Benedictine order of monks of Cerne. They would build the abbey of St Peter at Abbotsbury in 1044 which was dissolved by Henry VIII during his English Reformation and personal schism with the Catholic Church in 1539.

Henry VIII had been a devout Catholic in his younger years. He had defended the Pope against the Protestant ideas published by Martin Luther, a German priest. In 1534, Henry VIII declared that he, not the Pope, was the head of the Church in England. This sparked the English Reformation and a break away from the influence of Rome and this triggered England’s transition into a Protestant country. What followed was a period of ruthless Dissolution of the Monasteries and many rebellions. The abbey that had once been an important religious and cultural hub in the region was left in ruins.

Carp Lake looking up to Abbotsbury Abbey in Dorset
Carp Lake looking up to Abbotsbury Abbey in Dorset

Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell who served as his chief minister was tasked with stripping the monasteries of their treasures. At the time a Court of Augmentations was setup to handle the selling of the monasteries and their land to noblemen and the gentry. The profits went to the King. It was one of the largest changes of land ownership in English history. Henry gained immense wealth, and his nobles bought up monasteries and their lands, converting them into grand homes.

When the Abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII its buildings and estates were bought by Sir Giles Strangways. Today the village of Abbotsbury is part of a 15,000 acres area of land managed by Ilchester Estates and owned by the Hon Charlotte Townshend.

Abbotsbury Swannery

King Charles III upon accession inherited the ancient title of "Seigneur of the Swans" whereby he can lay claim to any of the unmarked mute swans within the open waters of England and Wales. But on the River Thames, he shares his stock with two medieval livery companies, the Worshipful Company of Vintners and the Worshipful Company of Dyers. At Abbotsbury in Dorset the Hon Charlotte Townshend is allowed other than the King to own swans at Abbotsbury Swannery.

A Mute Swan with Cygnets
A Mute Swan with Cygnets

Abbotsbury Swannery, is now an internationally important nature reserve within Dorset’s Area of Outstanding Beauty whose origins date back to the Benedictine order of monks who built abbey of St Peter at Abbotsbury during the early part of the 11th century.

The swannery at the time was a source of income for the abbey and food for the monks. Even the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer who wrote "The Canterbury Tales" in 1387 sketches a monk who he describes as a good prelat (meaning church official) and who loved to eat a fat roasted swan. A swan was considered as a great delicacy.

Today the Abbotsbury Swannery is a 25-acre safe haven on the Fleet Lagoon for a colony of between 600 to 800 Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) with their distinctive long S-shaped neck and an orange bill with a black base and a black knob.

Now protected under The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 the Abbotsbury Swannery provides an ideal environment for the swans to breed and raise their young cygnets. Each year, around mid-May, the swans lay their eggs, and visitors can see the hatching of cygnets from late May to early June.

The Mute Swans share their home with other resident and migratory birds throughout the year. The area around Fleet Lagoon and Chesil Beach attracts many species of waterfowl and over 300 different varieties have been recorded leading to the area being designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a Special Protected Area (SPA) and a Special Area of Conservation (SAC).

The Abbotsbury Swannery is among one of the best family visitor attractions in Dorset. Visitors can explore the swannery and follow accessible designated pathways that wind thier way through the natural habitat of the swans. There are vantage points to also enjoy watching the swans being hand-fed twice a-day. In May each year the Abbotsbury Swannery holds a Food and Drink Fair in association with Dorset Food & Drink.

An interesting fact is that the swans will moult their feathers from the beginning of June in a process of shedding and regrowing feathers. These features are collected and sold to make military plumes for ceremonial use.

Abbotsbury Subtropical Garden

Not too far from the Abbots Swannery is the 30-acre Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens that dates back to Mary Theresa Fox-Strangways the 1st Countess of Ilchester and first wife of 2nd Earl of Ilchester. In 1765 a summer house called Abbotsbury Castle and walled kitchen garden was built surrounded by a woodland garden close to Chesil beach along the Jurassic Coast.

Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens Dorset - Image by Liz Martin
Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens Dorset - Image by Liz Martin

Throughout history the Strangways family and the descendants of the 1st Countess sent home plants during the golden age of Victorian plant hunting from their travels across the world and planted them in the gardens.

Today, plants include palms, tree ferns, bamboo, magnolia, camellia, rhododendrons, azaleas, hydrangeas and the Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens has its own coastal shrub called Pittosporum Tenuifolium Abbotsbury Gold.

Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens are now home to a wide variety of exotic and rare plants from around the world. Described by Alan Titchmarsh as “One of the finest gardens I have ever visited” the mild microclimate in Abbotsbury allows for the growth of plants that would not typically thrive in the United Kingdom.

Abbotsbury is a village with a long and fascinating history that has defined its identity as a wonderful place to discover and a destination to explore along the Jurassic Coast in Dorset.


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