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.
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