One of the routes that has become very familiar to us is the ‘Suffolk Tourist Route’. This runs along the A1120 heading toward the East Coast. We’ve done it so many times now that our T4 Cree could drive this on her own!
But there was nothing routine about our trip to Leiston Abbey! We stumbled upon the story of one of Suffolk’s most macabre legends: the ‘devil dog’ known as Black Shuck.
Did he really kill people?
Let’s find out more about this gruesome story and the mystery of Leiston Abbey…
Stumbling into history
We had been to RSPB Minsmere for the day and were travelling homewards in the early evening sun. Being interested in ancient ruins, we saw the outlines of what remained of a once impressive building silhouetted against the orange sky.
We slowed the motorhome enough to read a sign saying, ‘Leiston Abbey’, so we entered the driveway.
Visiting such sites with a cumbersome vehicle can be fraught with danger – narrow lanes, no turning room, the dreaded height barriers. But we ventured up the track cautiously and came to a decent sized car park – large enough for a turn around. There was nobody else here anyway.
The speed bumps had been a little high for our ‘sports suspension’ – our VW Cree sits a little low – but after a bit of a knock on the first one, we knew to take them very gently. Parked up, we looked for a ticket machine but were happy not to find one and so made our way towards the ruins, passing a music school.
There were recitals drifting across on the breeze, making the whole experience unearthly. We were filled with a reverence for what and who had passed before us…only separated by time.
It was eerily apt that we had come from Minsmere because many of the stones which were used to build Leiston Abbey had also made the same journey centuries before…
Leiston Abbey – the back story
So let’s take a moment and find out what happened here…
When the 1182 Premonstratensian Abbey at Minsmere, right on the coast, proved in danger of flooding, it was relocated a few miles inland to Leiston in 1365 under the patronage of Robert de Ufford, Earl of Suffolk.
Yes, the whole building was moved! This explains why a 14th century Abbey has 12th century stonework (for any of you with historical archetectural knowledge!)
By the time of the relocation to Leiston, the Premonstratensians had been assimilated into the ‘socially aware and interactive’ Order of St. Augustine. And later, having sealed its fate in the reformation, Henry Vlll gifted the monastery to his brother in law, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk.
Some buildings were demolished. The church had the ignominy of being used as a barn. The Abbey church, which you can see through the archway in the picture above, was refashioned as a farmhouse, with the addition of a Georgian frontage years later.
Leiston Abbey as a religious retreat centre
Ellen Wrightson purchased the site in 1918 and used it as a religious retreat centre. On her passing, she gifted it to the Diocese of Bury St Edmunds and Ipswich.
Leiston Abbey, still privately owned to this day, is now under the watchful eye of English Heritage. The house is used by the music school.
When you visit – and it’s entirely free – you’ll easily imagine the magnificence of the buildings at their height. The charm of personal daily life lends an air of connection to the former occupants. A Canon’s wash bowl is clearly seen. Stone steps are worn with the footfall of good people long since forgotten.
As the sun dipped lower, the abbey took on a solemn, mournful air which added to the beauty. There was a hush rarely felt in this frantic world.
But there’s something else about Leiston Abbey.
Enter Black Shuck!
Little did we know that when turning down the lane toward the ruins we would stumble upon one of Suffolk’s most gruesome stories.
In 2013, archaeologists conducting an exploratory dig unearthed perhaps the most exciting part of this benign site’s history – the carefully laid-out body of a huge dog. A massive dog in fact! Estimated to be around 7 feet tall when standing on its hind legs and weighing in at 14 stones.
This legendary black hound is reputed to have burst into Blythburgh’s Holy Trinity Church – just a few miles away – during a massive storm on August 4th 1577, killing a man and a boy and causing the church steeple to collapse through the roof of the nave! The church door still sports scorch marks.
All down the church in the midst of fire, the hellish monster flew, and, passing onward to the quire, he many people slew.Old verse, author unknown
Shuck continued his rampage in nearby Bungay’s St Mary’s church an hour or so later! “…wringing the necks of two parishioners as they knelt…one shrivelled up like a drawn purse.”
The legend lives on…
So, Black Shuck is embedded into Bungay’s history too. He is incorporated into their coat of arms and recalled in the names of businesses in the town. The local football team there are known as The Black Dogs.
And afficionados of Suffolk band, The Darkness, keep the legend of Black Shuck alive to this day in their song of the same name. The chorus chanting, “Black Shuck, Black Shuck, Black Shuck – that dog don’t give a… (!)”
Tales of Black Shuck have been told over the centuries and we are conducting some research…including a visit to Blythburgh church to see those scorch marks for ourselves!
We left Leiston Abbey carrying the pervading peace with us, along with a sense of wonder. If this really is Black Shuck’s resting place, how and why did he end up here?
Delve deeper into the history of Leiston Abbey here. It’s well worth a visit if you’re in the area and has easy access for motorhomes. Just watch the speed bumps!