This is the second of a two-part feature; the first was published last week
The Abbey House first came into view as we walked along the old monastic apple orchard, heading through a huge 13th-century broken colonnade towards a magnificent-looking priory. I winced as I saw medieval transept mullion windows replaced with white gloss-painted frames and plain glass. I turned to my friend, Mowbray, beside me. “What an incredible house that I never knew existed,” I said. “If I didn’t live at Upton Cressett, this is the sort of magical place I would want to live in. I wonder who lives here?”
The answer was nobody. Beside the old front door was a plaque saying “Abbey House Sports Club”. It turned out that the former medieval priory, near Much Wenlock in Shrophire, was now a recreation club for local workers at the Buildwas Power Station. In the 1960s, the former lodging had been turned into a social club – with several bars, a cricket pitch and billiards room – by the owners of the Central Electricity Board. Members were playing bowls on the lawn and enjoying pints of beer on the flagstone terrace.
I walked into the entrance hall and saw a school-style blackboard standing up with the following words scrawled in chalk: “Due to imminent sale, all items in the club will be sold at a boot sale next Sunday.” A brief enquiry to the barman established that the owner was the German energy giant E.ON. Although it wasn’t on the market yet, within a few days I had an advance copy of the sales brochure.
What was clear from my first viewing was that the Buildwas Abbey House estate was one of the most important ecclesiastical estates to come on the market for a generation. What was even more extraordinary – which I only noticed on my first formal viewing – was that the library drawing room contained exactly the same ornamental plasterwork motifs as in our Gatehouse at Upton Cressett, including the inscription “Jesu”, the portcullis and Prince of Wales feathers. This was almost certainly an Elizabethan form of religious symbolism connecting the Catholic houses of Shropshire.
I don’t know what it was exactly that caused me to lose my head over Buildwas. Perhaps it was the romance of the history, the plasterwork, or maybe it was when the agent told me that the other main interest for the property was from a local developer who wanted to gut the Grade I building and turn it into their “Telford corporate offices”. I felt a conviction to pursue her like I’ve only ever felt before when chasing a woman that I was besotted with. Yet I ended up jilting Buildwas at the altar, pulling out of the sale just hours before we wired the funds. I could have bought it – taking out a vast mortgage on my family home – but I would never really have owned the place, not in the sense that Henry James envisaged in his private fantasy of “moving in” after his visit in 1877. My “bridge lender” bank would have owned it. Any breach of the terms and conditions of the loan (which included not being able to reach me) and the bank could have seized the property – actually both the Abbey House and Upton Cressett.
What, you might well ask, was I going to do with the Abbey House if I wasn’t going to sell up my other home and live there? I could never live with my family at Buildwas. It would be too dangerous to bring up any children there. Buildwas Bridge, next to the abbey, is a favourite local suicide spot, as the banks of the Abbey House are where the fierce currents of the Severn are at their most dangerous.
My idea was to turn the Abbey House into a commercial events/wedding and country house rental business. The house would be restored to its Victorian splendour for “staffed” rental holidays with a house butler of whom Henry James might have approved.
I spent weeks writing a detailed business plan and a refurbishment costing. There would be great shooting weekends and weddings. The Abbey would become the modern Downton Abbey of Shropshire, with Americans paying homage to Henry James while learning about the Industrial Revolution on visits to the local World Heritage Site of Ironbridge.
My coup de foudre was to commission the Jerwood Prize-winning artist Adam Dant to design an elaborate mural sequence for the Great Hall refectory and entrance hall to rival anything by Rex Whistler. Adam came up with a scheme that combined the contemporary artistic imagination with medieval materials, colours and designs to interpret the15th-century Italian allegorical story told in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. I still have the entire sequence in ink drawings.
No, I didn’t just fall in love with this small slice of English Illyria: it became an obsession. And my desire to own a slice of English monastic history did very nearly ruin me.
The whole adventure has taught me many lessons. One is to remind me of the power of beauty; and how the great pull of beauty – like the power of the human spirit – has no bounds to its irrational grip on the mortal spirit of man. Certainly part of my motivation was simply a bloody-minded sense of aesthetic mission to rescue a beautiful ecclesiastical building, groaning with a sense of spirit of place, from the hands of modern developer philistines.
What would they have known of the rare beauty of the exquisite Caernarvon arch of 1377 that led into the Abbot’s Great Hall (marked “Function Room”). What would they have known of the origins and original purpose of the 13th-century beams above the concrete floor of the billiards room? That if you removed the modern ceiling, you would find yourself back in the original Abbot’s private chapel (marked “billiards room” in the sales brochure). What would they have known of the early encaustic painted tiles that lay hidden under the awful Seventies diamond-patterned brown carpet in what was the bar area of the Buildwas social club? After I lifted the carpet, and saw the field of brightly painted original medieval tiles, I gulped for air as a treasure diver might have done after his first dive through the Mary Rose in 1971.
To the English, property is not just bricks and mortar. It is an expression of our very identity and sense of self. Our relationship with buildings is an intimate extension of our relationship with the past. Property is often more about the emotional than the purely economic. We tend to invest not just money but also considerable feeling and spiritual capital in our houses.
Partly this is an accident of English law. Because we do not subscribe to the Napoleonic Code, estates are often not broken up. The narrative of place in Britain is not one of constant redistribution. Our quest for restoration is tied into our wanting to restore the narrative of our largely unbroken and unique national history. Restoring architecture and ancient buildings that have lost their way – converted into social clubs or offices that the original medieval builders could not have imagined in their wildest dreams – can be redemptive. But it can also be ruinous.
Although I still grieve for the beauty of the Abbey House, I don’t entirely regret my bid. If I had the money – which I didn’t at the time of stumbling across Buildwas – I would buy a run-down abbey, if another came up. But only if it were abroad, as a holiday home. Not on my Shropshire doorstep.
Indeed, despite my losses I still believe that making a bid for a monastery or abbey ruin makes a lot of sense today. Regardless of whether you are religious, such properties are undervalued, as a property’s spiritual provenance is considered all but irrelevant.
When I went to visit the eminent British sculptor Emily Young at her studio in Tuscany, I was not especially surprised to find that she had chosen to buy a former medieval convent. The convent ruins allow the imagination to create whatever the visitor or artist wants to create: one reason why so many artists have been drawn to them.
What attracts Young to the old ecclesiastical stone is the sense of the eternal – that whatever human features, whatever scowl or cry, she carves into the ancient stone will survive us and live on for thousands of years – as opposed to the sort of fashionable fad for abstract art practised by so many of her contemporaries.
Does a religious history or previous religious use add any extra dimension, value or meaning today to architecture? My answer is yes, and oddly it doesn’t matter if one can relate to the faith of those who used to worship in such edifices. What makes former ecclesiastical buildings so powerful as places to live in is the feeling of spiritual timelessness. I was humbled not only by the stones of Buildwas but also by the sense of intense belief that must have existed there before.
The truth is that I lost my nerve. I made the mistake of actually thinking about the appalling consequences if everything went wrong. Had I been in my thirties, I would have stayed with my bet, bought the Abbey House and worried about the consequences later. Pulling out of the sale was not just about losing the house; it was also about losing faith – in my decisions, and in myself. Call it either growing up and being responsible, or being terrified of reaching 50 and realising that the future has suddenly become the eternal present.
But to this day, I make a detour if I ever find myself heading towards Buildwas Bridge.
William Cash is editor-in-chief of Spear’s
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