An archaeological watching brief placed by the Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA) on a development being carried out within the grounds of St Mary’s School, Buckfast has uncovered some of the area's medieval past.

The watching brief condition, which is a standard part of the planning procedure, was requested by DNPA archaeologist Jane Marchand because the area involved lay within the outer court of medieval Buckfast Abbey, and therefore could be sensitive archaeologically.

The work involving the creation of a new playground revealed a large rock-cut ditch which formed part of the boundary of this 13th-century outer court. A continuation of the boundary ditch had already been revealed in the 1980s when the present road was cut a little to the north of the site.

In addition to the boundary, a large medieval agricultural or industrial building has also been uncovered by the building work. With mortared stone walls and in places large river cobble foundations, it contained a doorway which was blocked at a later date and a small fireplace in one corner. It was built on a hillside and had a sloping floor. A number of stone-lined and rock-cut drains kept the building dry. A collection of medieval pottery was also recovered.

Archaeologist, Stewart Brown, who has spent many years working at the Abbey and who carried out the watching brief, feels that the building set within the outer court was most likely a shippon (cowhouse) belonging to the Cistercian monks.

If so, it is a rare early example of this type of building. His identification is supported by documentary evidence which shows that the Abbey held a field known as Shippon Park in the 1530s, just before Henry VIII closed Buckfast Abbey and all the other monasteries in England, and that the field lay in the immediate vicinity of the present school site.

Attached to the large building was a rectangular enclosure defined by a trench cut into bedrock. At the bottom of the trench were two large post-holes suggesting that the enclosure had a substantial fence around it, possibly forming a stock pen associated with the shippon.

The shippon probably continued in use into the post-medieval period like many of the former Abbey’s buildings. It may possibly have become a slaughterhouse since a slaughterhouse is linked with Shippon Park in documents from at least the 17th century until the nineteenth century. Eventually, the building collapsed or was demolished.

Its interior was covered by demolition rubble and roofing slates. Once the building was abandoned, a deep deposit of soil accumulated on the site, evidently having moved down the hillside as hillwash. The area was later used as an orchard and kitchen garden.

The site has been recorded and the walls of the building protected with sheets of terram before being covered up again by stone chippings laid down for the new playground. The development did not disturb the demolition rubble so the interior of the building remains to be excavated in the future.