Who would have thought that the accidental discovery, while out on a Sunday walk along the River Severn, that a run-down priory was for sale could end up costing so much? Not just financially and emotionally but also in terms of a private sense of loss – both aesthetically and, above all, in terms of my own sense of judgment.
Looking back, was my doomed quixotic quest to restore one of the great Cistercian estates of the Midlands in the months running up to my 50th birthday just a madcap middle-age identity crisis? A subterranean retirement fantasy escape to the familiar arched cloisters, pointed-arch windows, Romanesque colonnades of the monastic buildings in which I spent much of my boyhood and teenage years (Jesuit and Benedictine)?
Or were there darker forces at work in my 10-month whirlwind love affair with Buildwas Abbey, near Much Wenlock in Shropshire? Was I just another romantic victim of what the German scholars call “ruin lust”?
English aesthetes are particularly vulnerable to being struck down with this condition. The writer Candia McWilliam wrote in her autobiography, What To Look For in Winter, that no less than three times in her life – at particular low points spiritually and emotionally – she was “rescued by architecture”. I felt the same sense of aesthetic need and vocation when I first glimpsed the Abbey House’s ivy-covered, half-broken Cistercian colonnades, set against the grandeur of the stone ruins and well-kept lawns of Buildwas Abbey.
What follows is a cautionary tale about the real “English disease”. Not charm, as Evelyn Waugh suggested, but the romantic quest for rescuing property – and in the process of restoration somehow restoring not just the stones of the past but often also something within ourselves. So we buy (or try to buy) property we can’t afford. Property we don’t need. Property we have no real modern use for. Property we can’t afford to run or keep up, even when we do somehow pull off the renovation miracle.
The English have a very different relationship with property than our European friends, which is why you can still buy a crumbling palazzo in Italy or French religious ruins and edifices so cheaply compared with in Britain, where a “romantic wreck” can be sold at a premium as a “historic character property”. The Germans, French and Italians don’t really understand this Peter Mayle syndrome: restoring an old farmhouse, chateau or abbey until we are driven into the financial grave. Our relationship with property is more emotional than economic.
When we take on a neglected property we aren’t just looking for a family roof over our head. We want an emotional connection. To buy a romantic wreck is an act of faith. We don’t only invest financial capital but also considerable emotional and spiritual capital in our houses. In many cases, we are investing our very souls into the stones and walls of the past. At least that is how I felt with Buildwas.
Before I first set eyes on the ruins of Buildwas and its Grade I Abbey House – where Henry II courted his mistress Fair Rosamund in the late 12th century – I never imagined it was possible to “grieve” over a building that you felt you had been given an almost God-sent vocation to rescue and restore.
I can understand people being distraught by the loss of their childhood home. But one that you have never lived in? And just stumbled across during a Sunday afternoon trip to visit some local abbey ruins?
Looking back on my love affair with the Abbey House estate – which ended badly – I have asked myself a question: is it possible to fall in love with a building in the same way that you can lose your heart to another? And have a relationship as intense and ultimately as doomed as any failed human relationship?
I haven’t been the only one nearly to lose my head over the fantasy of owning the Buildwas abbot’s lodging and riverside estate. The American novelist Henry James was also smitten by the beauty and unique character of the Abbey House, which he visited on a rainy July day in 1877. As he wrote of the estate in his essay, Abbeys and Castles:
In the afternoon, my host took me for a walk and in the course of our walk he led me into a park which he described as “the paradise of a small English country gentleman”. It was indeed a modern Eden, and the trees might have been trees of knowledge. They were of high antiquity and magnificent girth and stature; they were strewn over the grassy levels in extraordinary profusion, and scattered upon and down the slopes in a fashion than which I have seen nothing more felicitous since I last looked at the chestnuts above Lake Como. The house was most agreeable: it stood on a kind of terrace, in the middle of a lawn and garden, and the terrace overhung one of the most copious rivers in England.
Academics say that James partly borrowed the riverside setting of the Abbey House for the garden tea party sequence in The Portrait of a Lady – one of the most famous openings of 19th-century English fiction. In fact, the novelist went further than that. He also dared to fantasise about actually owning the place, though he was greeted by a butler at the door of an occupied house when he presented his visiting card – not, as I was, with a sign advertising a “house sale” with all fixtures and fittings being sold off, from the bowling green lawnmowers to the club snooker table.
“I have never been to a country so unattractive that I didn’t find myself ‘drawn’ to its most exemplary mansion,” James wrote. “There was one especial [the Abbey House] as to which the dream of having impossibly acquired it from an embarrassed owner kept melting into the vision of ‘moving in’ on the morrow.”
Yes, James was right. Just as JMW Turner was right to interrupt his Midlands tour to stay and paint the abbey ruins, so struck was he by their grandeur and beauty, despite the sheep grazing in the colonnades.
The Buildwas Abbey House estate is not just any ruined ecclesiastical building. The Abbey House, set in 23 acres of riverside gardens, mature garden and parkland grounds next to the ruined Cistercian abbey of Buildwas, has long been regarded as one of the finest privately owned early medieval priory estates in England.
The abbey was first given a royal charter by King Stephen in 1138. Important early abbots included Ingenulf (1135-55) and Ranulf (1155-87). The abbey generally flourished throughout the medieval era – with a few scandals, including the murder of an abbot – and acquired local lands to became a wealthy ecclesiastical estate until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The abbey and estates were seized by Henry VIII in 1536 and then became the private home of the Powis family.
The architecture of the Abbey House dates back to the 12th century, with 16th-century and Victorian additions. The Collins Guide to The Ruined Abbeys of England and Wales describes Buildwas as “austerely splendid” with the “simplicity of the architecture expressing the Cistercian ideals to perfection”. The guide says visitors can stand in the north-eastern range of the ruins (part of the Abbey House’s grounds) and “enjoy the grandeur of the building, and through the open arcades on either side absorb the beauty of the Shropshire countryside”.
The monastery is known for its famous “Buildwas Books”, with more than 100 manuscripts held in the scriptorium. Despite its dissolution, with all property and chattels seized by the Crown or sold off, half of the manuscripts remain in libraries today, the largest surviving collection of any former British Cistercian monastery.
Of course, I knew nothing about the abbey’s famous history, or the Henry James and JMW Turner connections, on that fateful Sunday back on August Bank Holiday, 2015. I was looking to walk off the effect of drinking too much Bandol rosé at lunch. I wasn’t seeking for a new house to live in. Far from it: I had just finished restoring my family’s own historic house of Upton Cressett five miles away, where I was happily living with my wife, Laura.
The last thing I (or she) wanted was another expensive restoration project. I had already spent a fortune creating my own private Arcadia, where I could pull up a drawbridge against the world after my two crushing divorces which left me single and without children by my mid-40s. Restoring Upton Cressett had helped to restore my broken and emotionally scarred self. But I certainly wasn’t looking to repeat the experience. Apart from anything else, after my own four-year restoration project I didn’t have any money left.
Still, love can strike any time, often when you least expect it …
William Cash is editor-in-chief of Spear’s. Next week he explains how his dream of restoring the Abbey House nearly ruined him.
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