Deirdre Forde, Julian Munby, and Ian R Scott
Oxford Archaeology, £20
Review Graham Keevill
Torbay will mean only one thing to most people: holidays! In Torre Abbey, however, the area holds a gem of monastic archaeology. The site was founded quite late, in 1196, by the Premonstratensians (reformed Augustinian canons). When it was closed in 1539, its value of almost £400 made it the wealthiest house of the monastic order in England. The site took a standard route after the Dissolution, with the cloister ranges converted into a fine residence for Sir Hugh Pollard. The Cary family bought the abbey in 1662, remaining in their possession until 1930. It was then bought by Torquay Borough Council; its successor, Torbay Council, still owns it.
Given such a history, it was inevitable that Torre would attract archaeological attention. As this excellent book highlights, this has been a long and complex process – from antiquarians to archaeologists, many people (and organisations) have investigated the site. Chapter 1 makes this clear, with a gazetteer of known work from the 1820s to 2015. I would have preferred the historical summary which follows this gazetteer to have preceded it, but that is only a minor quibble. The remaining eight chapters provide a detailed description of the three main phases of modern investigation, by the Exeter Museums Archaeological Field Unit in the 1980s and ’90s, MOLA in the 2000s, and Oxford Archaeology from 2011 to 2014.
Melding these works (and the several archive reports on them) into a single narrative must have been a challenge (no two archaeologists or units ever do things quite the same), but this has been done with remarkable clarity and cogency. The report very much concentrates on the site’s monastic phase – the title makes this clear – with a standard geographical approach to description and interpretation of the excavated and standing remains of the church and cloister areas. A final chapter with an overarching discussion of the site’s significance within the archaeology of Premonstratensian abbeys and monastic archaeology in general would have been welcome, but this may not have been within the remit of OA in bringing the disparate excavations to publication in a single volume. They should be congratulated on having done so – and in a timely manner.