Going Behind The Scenes In Wenlock Abbey


We followed in the footsteps of long-gone celebrities on our recent, and I have to say, nigglingly exclusive visit to Wenlock Abbey. It was the first chance we have had to visit there, and it was done under the auspices of our Civic Society.

Without doubt this building is the architectural jewel of Much Wenlock. It lies at the heart of the town, but is usually only visible if you scramble around at the back of the church yard, and peek over the wall. It housed the erstwhile domestic quarters of the priors of Wenlock Priory and, since the Dissolution in 1540, has remained in private ownership. The adjoining priory ruins, however, belong to English Heritage, and are the town’s main tourist attraction. Somewhat confusingly the house has long been called The Abbey, although the priory from Norman times was always a priory, not an abbey. The Saxon religious house that preceded it, however, was an abbey of both monks and nuns and ruled over by an abbess.

The range seen in the first photos is the most recent part of the house, built in the early 1400s. The limestone wing, just visible on the left, comprised both the monks’ infirmary and the original prior’s chambers, and are considerably older.

The present owners have spent the last three decades restoring the house, and creating interior settings that to many might seem outlandish and controversial. There will be more about this in a moment.

But first those celebrities of times past. I’ve written about his visits before, but one of the returning house guests in the days of the Milnes Gaskells’ ownership was Henry James. He came in 1877, 1878 and 1883 – and apparently drew much inspiration from the house and grounds when he was writing The Turn Of The Screw.  The little roof-top tower certainly puts in an appearance in the text.

At the time of James’ first visit, his hosts, Charles and the young Lady Catherine Milnes Gaskell, had not long been married and were expecting their first child.  The invitation had been secured through ‘lobbying’ by a mutual friend, Henry Adams, the American historian. He and Charles Gaskell had met as undergraduates at Cambridge, and before Charles’ marriage he had also been a frequent guest at The Abbey. Adams thought Charles, by then a prominent barrister, and Henry James had many interests in common and would get on well; and so it proved.

Charles’ father, James Milnes Gaskell, had been the Conservative MP for the Borough of Wenlock and had bought The Abbey (priory ruins included) in a derelict state from his wife’s cousin. The Gaskells senior appear to have held rather rustic and unconventional house parties there. (They naturally had other smarter homes elsewhere). Adams describes a visit in the autumn of 1864:

God only knows how old the Abbot’s House is, in which they (the Gaskells) are as it were picnic-ing before going to their Yorkshire place for the winter. Such a curious edifice I never saw, and the winds of Heaven permeated freely the roof, not to speak of the leaden windows. We three, Mrs. Gaskell, Gask (Charles) and I, dined in a room where the Abbot or Prior used to feast his guests; a hall on whose timber roof, and great oak rafters, the wood fire threw a red shadow forty feet above our heads. (1.)

One of the more unusual pursuits on such visits included the archaeological excavation of the Priory ruins.


Adams describes his own contributions to the general exploration:

Whenever we stepped out of the house, we were at once among the ruins of the Abbey. We dug in the cloister and we hammered in the cellars. We excavated tiles bearing coats of arms five hundred years old, and we laid bare the passages and floors that had been three centuries under ground. (1.)

When Charles Gaskell took over The Abbey from his father, he and Lady Catherine set about restoring the property and making it a family home where they might energetically entertain notables from the world of arts and literature. Emphasis was on mind-improving activity, and an appreciation of the aesthetic in all its forms.  Visitors would be treated to extensive walks, drives and railway journeys to view all the surrounding great houses, and visit Shropshire’s many ancient churches and castles.  A trip to Wenlock Edge to take in the vistas was also obligatory.

Henry James documents his own many outings with Charles Gaskell in Portraits of Places.

Chapel Wenlock Abbey

The Prior’s Chapel during the time of Lady Catherine Milnes Gaskell from her book Spring in a Shropshire Abbey  1904 (available to download on Gutenberg Press).


The Gaskells’ other guests included In Darkest Africa explorer, Henry Morton Stanley, architect, Philip Webb, Architect and Pioneer of the Arts & Crafts Movement, and Thomas Hardy and his wife. Hardy was apparently surprised to find himself lodged in the oldest part of the house, and declared that “he felt quite mouldy at sleeping within walls of such high antiquity” (2.)

The Hardys were also taken around the county, visiting Stokesay Castle and Shrewsbury. Florence Emily Hardy recounts how one Sunday Hardy and Lady C walked until they were tired, when

“they sat down on the edge of a lonely sandpit and talked of suicide, pessimism, whether life was worth living, and kindred dismal subjects, till we were quite miserable.”(2.)

The room wherein Hardy felt so mouldy was in the infirmary wing and is indeed very old, dating from the 1100s CE.  The original prior’s chambers were built adjoining the infirmary around a hundred years later, the scale of them doubtless dictated by the need to accommodate a series of royal visits. The deeply devout King Henry III, along with his own prestigious guests, was a frequent guest between 1231 and 1241.


This photo shows the rear view of the infirmary and original prior’s lodgings, (the limestone range on the right) together with the side elevation of the upscaled prior’s lodgings that were added in the early 1400s (multi-coloured stonework to the left).

The king, as monarchs did, would arrive with a large retinue of servants, clerks, cooks, musicians and blacksmiths, all of whom had to be housed. There must have been some pretty good parties too, since a permanently appointed keeper of the king’s wine was required to manage the contents of the priory wine cellar in readiness for any royal visit. Supplies were  brought in from Bristol ( a hundred miles away) by the Sherriff of Shropshire and a record relating to the delivery of four barrels in 1245 states that the wine was to be placed ‘safely in the cellars there against the king’s arrival as he proposes shortly to come to those parts, God willing.’ (4.)


The galleried facade of the more recent fifteenth century lodgings,originally unglazed, was constructed from stone from four different quarries.


The catslide roof is tiled with stone flags.

Inside, on the ground floor, is the prior’s private chapel, while upstairs is the Great Hall with its great stone fireplace and high beamed ceiling mentioned by Adams, and next to it, though scarcely less grand, the Lesser Hall. Timbers in the Great Hall roof have been dendro-dated to 1425.

The front door to the left of this range, though, is considerably older, with its characteristic Norman arch. James describes it in his travelogue Portraits of Places (3):


I returned to the habitation of my companion (Charles Milnes Gaskell)…through an old Norman portal, massively arched and quaintly sculptured, across whose hollowed threshold the eye of fancy might see the ghosts of monks and the shadows of abbots pass noiselessly to and fro…for every step you take in such a house confronts you in one way or another with the remote past. You feast upon the pictorial, you inhale the historic.

It was through this doorway we also went a few  Saturdays ago. As I said, this was a private tour, and our first such visit. Since 1983 the house has been the home of Gabriella and Louis de Wet. De Wet is an artist of some renown and Gabriella is better known to the wider world as theatre and television actor Gabrielle Drake. For the last 33 years, driven by Louis de Wet’s extraordinary artistic vision,  they have been restoring the house – carrying the building’s story on into the 21st century while revealing its ancient monastic roots in strikingly original ways. The project has been an epic labour of love, and involved the dedication of consummate craftsmen, working very much in the mediaeval guildsmen tradition.

I did not take photos. So if you want to see what lies behind this door, please follow this next link. It will take you to a 2 minute trailer of a very excellent film made by Gavin Bush in 2011: In The Gaze Of Medusa . I leave you to make up your own minds about the merit of the De Wets’ prodigious and unique enterprise. It is not straight forward by any means.

For now, here’s the one photo I did take – of the library, and still a work in progress. It gives a taste of the quality of the craftsmanship involved in the restoration-creation work, the newly made shelves that will house a life-time’s collection of books on art, philosophy and history. Also niggles apart, we did appreciate the gracious hospitality of Mrs. de Wet who showed us around with such enthusiasm, and then treated our party to tea and some very delicious cakes in the Venetian Room. So very English!


copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

1. Ernest Samuels Henry Adams: Selected Letters  1992 p 69

2. Florence Emily Hardy The Later Years of  Thomas Hardy  1930

3. Henry James Portrait of Places

4. Vivien Bellamy A History of Much Wenlock  2001

Lady Catherine Milnes Gaskell Spring In A Shropshire Abbey  1904

Wenlock: “A Rip Van Winkle Kind Of Place”





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A Rip Van Winkle kind of place – that’s how Shropshire writer Mary Webb described Much Wenlock around a century ago. It was the home town of her teenage years, and the place where I now live and indeed have known for much of my life. Even when we lived in Africa we would visit Wenlock whenever we were on ‘home leave’. We had friends who drew us, and finally led us to settle here on our return to England.

And once we had arrived, we soon found that many of our neighbours, pitched up from far-flung places themselves, had also lived and worked all over Africa. I was therefore only briefly surprised to find that Henry Morton Stanley had once been in Wenlock, staying as a house guest of the Milnes Gaskells, the local gentry who once lived in the old Prior’s House and owned the ruins of Wenlock Priory from which the town had grown up throughout the Middle Ages.

Stanley is not a man I admire, although his brute tenacity is certainly impressive. We also have him to thank for selling the idea of the Congo to another brute of a man, King Leopold II of Belgium, a circumstance from which that Central African state has probably yet to recover.

Still, I won’t go into that now, but I do have a mind’s eye image of Stanley sitting up on Wenlock Edge (the Milnes Gaskells took all their guests there), and picture him scanning the Shropshire plains below as he contemplated the writing of In Darkest Africa.

The landscape that spread before him, with its distant ranges of Welsh hills, could well have reminded  him of that continent. I have seen such vistas in East Africa. But he was a man who ever took his darkness with him. And this makes me wonder. What might our grim legacy have been, in PR terms that is, if he had written of ‘darkest Shropshire’; would the tainted words still be sticking to us today?

It’s a rhetorical question obviously. And I mention all these dark tones and undercurrents only as counterpoint to the  quaint, quiet images above. Much Wenlock definitely has ‘chocolate box image’ tendencies in its now gentrified, ancient streets. I find it good to remember, once in a while, that all is not necessarily what it seems.


This post was inspired by Paula’s Black & White Sunday Challenge: ‘surreptitious photography’. It is a fascinating theme. The role of surreptitious photographer is something I rather relish, but rarely put into practice. I have a feeling that in this Rip Van Winkle place it risks becoming an obsessive pursuit and, as a writer, I already have enough of those.

But please visit Paula at the link above and be inspired by her photographs. There’s still time to take part. Also check in HERE to see her gallery of  slide shows of all participating photographers’ work. It’s a real treat.

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

Sun Setting Over Wenlock Edge ~ Or Did The Earth Move?


From my house I often watch the late-day sun slip behind the Edge. But which of us is moving: me, or the sun? It’s the sort of displacement-activity question I ask myself when I should be doing something more constructive. It also makes me think about the Edge, the fact that something so apparently static is, of itself, an embodiment of movement; a geological exemplar of extreme process and change.

The limestone ridge on whose foothills we Wenlockians dwell, is 425 million years old. It runs for some twenty miles while rising up to three hundred feet above the land.  And so it goes without saying that a structure of this size cannot help but evoke a sense of monumental immobility.

How can it  move?

Yet move it has, and move it does, although these days not on quite the colossal scale of the Silurian Age when it was formed.  Its constituent parts, the sea-creature fossils that have fascinated the world’s geologists enough to earn them their own Wenlock Epoch, clearly indicate that our Edge is neither where it was, nor what it was in the aeons before fish were invented.

In fact during the Silurian era, and some 200 hundred million years before one cosmic hint of a Stegosaurus or Diplodocus was abroad, the strata that would become Wenlock Edge were quietly forming. Layers of dead and decomposing corals, sponges, sea lilies and molluscs were building up beneath a shallow tropical sea, and in a location somewhere off present-day East Africa and well south of the Equator.

Today, however, this former sea bed is an up-tilted escarpment, a steeply wooded ridgeway of ash, birch, hazel and oak trees. It bisects a temperate, rural Shropshire in the middle of England, which as most people know, is and often feels hugely north of the Equator. The power of tectonic shift and uplift is thus truly marvellous.

For the last couple of millennia, though, it has been humans who have been responsible for the Edge’s biggest movement. They have hacked, drilled, and blasted out the limestone with dogged persistence. At first the spoil would have been carried away on packhorses, then on carts, and finally by train and truck to wherever it was needed. Chunks of fossil sea bed hauled off to build grand monastic houses, feudal mansions, churches and cottages; limestone mortar to make them weather-tight; limestone to burn to make quick-lime for fertilizer; crushed limestone to pour into the top of massive blast furnaces, and so draw the impurities from smelting iron.


One of the many old lime burning kilns on Wenlock Edge


In such ways did Wenlock’s broadcast and reconstituted Edge come to play its part in Britain’s Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions. Yet way before this, in the late 600s AD of Saxon times, it probably also gave us our curious sounding name. In those days it was the habit to paint the early Christian religious houses with lime-wash so they glowed luminously white against surrounding terrain.  It was also around this time that Milburga, daughter of a Mercian king, became abbess of a dual monastic house of monks and nuns that stood where the town’s parish church now stands .  Gwen/Wen means white, and Loc/Lock means chapel or religious house. So there you have it – Wenlock – the place of the white church.

In more recent times, aggregates for highway construction have been the Edge-product of choice, and supplies are still outstanding in one of the quarries. At intervals convoys of motorway construction trucks come rattling through the town to fill up – and all this so more and more traffic can rush about the place.

The mopping up of the aggregates marks the end of quarrying,  although the quarries themselves have now been occupied by other industries  – garden fencing  and woodchip fuel producers, paint and packaging companies – all taking advantage of the huge spaces left behind by the evacuated limestone.



Yet where the old workings and exploded cliff faces have been left to themselves, there are signs that the vegetation is reasserting itself, slowly extending the habitat for the Edge residents: deer, badgers, hares, weasels and mice.

I find the old quarries fascinating in a  morbid, Edgar Allan Poe-ish kind of way. Ravens like to nest there for one thing, which adds to their brooding allure. However, if you turn your back on the quarries, and look the other way, through breaks in the tree cover, you will see broad sweeps of Shropshire’s hills and farmland. And this, for most people, is the main reason why the twenty-mile-long vantage point is one of the county’s great treasures. The National Trust who own a long stretch of the wooded slopes, and manage the woods and paths, want to ensure it remains that way – a valued public resource.


This  view looks towards the Welsh borders and, in the past, would have been gazed on by writers such as Thomas Hardy and Henry James, and by Africa’s darkest explorer, Henry Morton Stanley, all of whom were, at various times, guests of the Milnes-Gaskells, Much Wenlock’s erstwhile gentry who lived in the Prior’s House at Wenlock Abbey. The Milnes-Gaskells were good hosts and tour guides and made sure that their visitors always took in the best views.

On reflection, though, I’d say that this particular fieldscape would have looked very different a good century ago – smaller fields, many more hedges and trees back then. Much bigger trees too, for all the huge oaks were culled by the late nineteenth century, and those of us alive today have never seen their like other than in old photos, where their magnificence has been felled and stacked up, ready to serve some apparently pressing human purpose.

Life for ordinary people would have been tough too – with many more labourers working the land, horses pulling ploughs, vistas of scenic rusticity that did not fool Thomas Hardy for one moment. He is said to have been mightily appalled by the impoverished state of Wenlock’s workers.


And so back to the setting sun/moving earth where this post began. The Edge then, is still in motion, although mostly in ways not much noticed by us. The limestone scarps are degrading. Rock becoming soil and mixing with the leaf mould to create new niches and microclimates, the old lime kilns, moss and ivy coated, weathering into the earth, the quarry scars and debris gradually being colonised by trees and plants.

Then there are the kinds of movement that I observe day after day behind our house: the march of clouds, weather; the change of light, dawn , dusk, the stars, the seasons, the rooks and jackdaws going out, and coming home. Everything shifting, transforming, recycling as the earth rotates around the sun. I find that thought – the revolving planet and the endless motion of its life forms – very joy-making. It is good to stand still and watch, and especially as the sun sets, or the earth moves.



Rooks and jackdaws coming home


copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

Jennifer Nichole Wells: sun