5 photos 5 Stories: Hidden Wenlock #1


Pauline at Memories are made of this tagged me for this challenge: a photo and a story for five consecutive days. On her blog she took us to some of the world’s most resonant places, including the Taj Mahal, so please do visit her.

I thought I’d stay at home for five days, and reveal some local secrets. In fact in this first photo I want to show you something you cannot see at all. I’ll call it a ghost -more of which in a moment.

The things you can see are the ruins of Wenlock Priory. Before Henry VIII dissolved it in 1540, it was one of the biggest monastic houses in Europe, and a sister house to the abbey of Cluny in France. The monks in Wenlock would thus have all spoken French as well as Latin. I suppose they must have had some resident interpreter to manage all the Shropshire serfs who would have been needed to tend the Prior’s extensive domain.

The Priory itself was a place of great pilgrimage, which in turn caused the small town of Much Wenlock, with its hostelries and traders, to grow up around it. Two of the towns surviving pubs, The George and Dragon and The Talbot  date from these pilgrim days. The big draw was St. Milburga and her healing miracles. She was the Saxon princess who was abbess of the town’s first religious house back in the 7th century. When her four hundred year old bones were conveniently rediscovered in 1101, they were said to glow, and smell sweetly as saints’ bones were wont to do.

Much Wenlock, then, has a long-established pedigree on the odour of sanctity front.

But now for that ghost – more a spirit of place really.  And it belongs to writer Henry James. In the days when the Priory comprised the personal ruins of the Milnes Gaskells who lived next door in the Prior’s House, Henry James was one of their many eminent house guests. In fact he came three times. There is more about his visit  in an earlier post  When Henry James Came To Wenlock, but first a postcard view of how the ruins might have looked back in his day, in the late 1870s:

001 (8)

And now you have the setting, both past and present, you can conjure Mr. Henry James from his own words. As I have said elsewhere, during one of his times here he was apparently working on his own ghost story The Turn of the Screw: Here is his description of the Priory, these days in the care of English Heritage:

Adjoining the house is a beautiful ruin, part of the walls and windows and bases of the piers of the magnificent church administered by the predecessor of your host, the abbot. These relics are very desultory, but they are still abundant and testify to the great scale and the stately beauty of the abbey. You may lie upon the grass at the base of an ivied fragment and measure the great girth of the great stumps of the central columns, half smothered in soft creepers, and think how strange it is in that in this quiet hollow, in the midst of lonely hills, so exquisite and so elaborate a work of art should have arisen.

Henry James Portraits of Places



Related posts:

In Much Wenlock An Inspector Calls

When Henry James Came To Wenlock


23 thoughts on “5 photos 5 Stories: Hidden Wenlock #1

  1. There’s such a haunting pull in these old buildings where ivy, moss and other green plants begin to take over a place that was once lived in… perhaps it is the sense of the presences still lingering there, or perhaps it’s the feeling of stories once lived but now forgotten, or perhaps it’s a bit of both and many more invisible things that prickles my senses. It’s a great photo too, Tish.

  2. It certainly is a very ghostly looking ruins Tish. The words of Henry James give it so much character and a real presence with the words he used. Henry V111 had a lot to answer to and he certainly changed history. I actually was a house keeper for a year in 1990 in one of those monasteries that Henry had thrown the monks out of and given it to one of his cronies for a farm house. Now it is known as Hickstead House in Sussex. That was an interesting year.
    This post has whetted my appetite for more secrets of Much Wenlock .

      1. It was certainly one of the highlights of my life, Jack came over too, but 6 months after me, and that is a long story too!!! The things rich people get up to. Well I probably would get into trouble if I did blog about it. I think every one has interesting stories in their life.

  3. Oh you gave me so much pleasure with the quote from James. I imagined that ponderous man sprawled on the grass covered in creepers eying off the masonry: I just don’t believe he did it, and of course he merely suggests that you might. The were many other pleasures – the way you people place with abbots and kings and saints and writers; the atmospherics of photo and postcard; and the verve and familiarity of your writing. I’m hungry for the rest of the series.

    1. Gosh, Meg. You did do well conjuring James like that. I’d been rather hoping that he did get down on the grass, but you’re probably right. On the other hand he might not have been so ponderous after Milnes Gaskell had taken him trekking all over the locality.

      1. I suspect I got a bit mixed up: it was the masonry not him wrapped in vines! He was the subject of my honours thesis a thousand years ago, so I squirrel away everything I hear about him. I do remember a story that he was very annoyed when his brother climbed a ladder at his house and peered into the garden next door to see an English notable, Chesterton I think. Just not done! (I do hope that wasn’t a story you told – I don’t quite know where I am these days.)

  4. And lo, that my bones should smell sweet if rediscovered one day from their pile of ash. Nice story and images Tish, thanks!

    1. Hello Bill. It’s an interesting marketing concept isn’t it – sweet smelling bones. The notion certainly brought in the punters for a few hundred of years 🙂

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