Barn Acre Cottage, Borough Marsh, Berkshire

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Feature Sets (2)


Borough Marsh is an island surrounded by the rivers Thames and Loddon and their tributaries, between Shiplake and Wargrave. These gateposts with beakhead voussoirs built into them were crucial to the rediscovery of carved stones from the cloister of Reading Abbey. Just before the outbreak of World War II, Dr Wilfred Bowman bought Barn Acre Cottage in Borough Marsh near Wargrave. He intended to use it as a summer cottage, but he and his family took more-or-less permanent residence there after the air raids on London began. While gardening Dr Bowman unearthed the two beakhead voussoirs recorded here, and had them incorporated into the gateposts of a new set of gates for the cottage. In 1948 the stones were noticed by René Ledésert, a specialist in French literature based in London, who brought them to the attention of his friend George Zarnecki at the Courtauld Institute of Art, who recognised them as stones from Reading Abbey, and began a correspondence with Dr Bowman that resulted, later the same year, in the Courtauld Institute excavation of Dr Bowman's garden, and the discovery of some sixty carved stones that are now in Reading Museum. For an account of how the stones may have come to Borough Marsh, and more details of the excavation, see Baxter and Harrison (2002) and Zarnecki (1949 and 1950). An account of the excavation has been compiled by Tessa Smith, Dr Bowman's daughter, which includes photographs and copies of correspondence.


Borough Marsh was, in the early part of the 20thc, an outlying part of the Holme Park estate, centred on the house that is now Reading Bluecoat School.  The medieval Bishops of Salisbury had a palace at Holme Park, and it was this site that Charles Keyser was excavating in 1912 when he came upon the capitals and double springers, taken from Borough Marsh, that form the core of the collection of Reading Abbey stones in Reading Museum (qv).


Exterior Features


Beakhead voussoir 1

A beast beakhead voussoir, broken at the bottom (intrados) and generally eroded. Any head that was originally at the bottom is lost. A pair of fernlike fronds fan out from the bottom of the stone, enclosing a worn, triangular grotesque head with small round ears at the upper angles and bulbous eyes. Towards the extrados the voussoir is decorated with cusping.

h. of voussoir 0.20 m
w. at bottom 0.09 m
w. at top 0.13 m

Beakhead voussoir 2

A bird beakhead voussoir, generally worn and with a loss to the upper part of the left edge. What remains is the cusped outer border, as (i), and the head of the bird, the lower part of the beak lost. Eyes are large, almond-shaped and sharply slanted with drilled pupils.

h. of voussoir 0.215 m
max. w. 0.11 m
w. at bottom 0.08 m
w. at top(damaged) 0.105 m


The two voussoirs may be compared with other material from the cloister of Reading Abbey now in Reading Museum, including stones that were excavated from the garden of this cottage in 1948. Voussoir 1 may be compared with Reading Museum 1992/3 and 1992/33. A better-preserved example of the same type as voussoir 2 is Reading Museum 1992/83.


  • A. E. Preston, 'The Demolition of Reading Abbey'. Berkshire Archaeological Journal, 39, 1935, 107-44.

  • G. Zarnecki, 'The Buried Sculpture of Reading Abbey: Chapters of an Archaeological "Detective Story"', Illustrated London News, April 16, 1949, 524-25.

  • G. Zarnecki, 'The Coronation of the Virgin on a Capital from Reading Abbey', Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 13 (1950), 1-12.

  • R. Baxter and S. Harrison, 'The Decoration of the Cloister at Reading Abbey' in L. Keen and E. Scarff (eds.), Windsor: Medieval Archaeology, Art and Architecture of the Thames Valley (British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions XXV, 2002), 302-12.

  • T. Smith, Excavations at Barnacre Cottage Borough Marsh 1948. Abilly (Indre-et-Loire) 2003. Private publication. email tessa.smith@wanadoo.fr

1948 excavation, the team and their lorry outside 20 Portman Square.
1948 excavation, Wilfred Bowman and George Zarnecki seen together in centre foreground.
1948 excavation, (L to R) Mme Ledesert, Rosemary Clay, George Zarnecki, Donald King, Peter Lasko and Peter Kelly.
Gatepost with voussoir (1948 photo).
Gatepost with voussoir (1948 photo).


Site Location
Barn Acre Cottage, Borough Marsh
National Grid Reference
SU 776 777 
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales): Berkshire
now: Wokingham
medieval: Salisbury
now: Oxford
Type of building/monument
Private house  
Report authors
Ron Baxter 
Visit Date
17 January 2002