Wenlock Abbey 3457

Much Wenlock, Shropshire, England

Brief Description

Wenlock Abbey, a house created from the Prior's Lodge of the medieval priory, features formal gardens and once had wooded parkland.

History

Wenlock Abbey was the prior's house of Wenlock Priory, built around 1500. After the dissolution in 1540, it became a private house, and has remained in private ownership since. It was altered somewhat in the 17th century, when in the possession of the Lawley family. By the mid-19th century it had become a decayed farmhouse. The formal gardens were created in the late-19th century, when the house was restored.

Detailed Description

South of the ruins of Wenlock priory is one of the finest 15th-century domestic buildings in England, Wenlock Abbey. It was once the prior's lodgings, and since the Dissolution has been used as a private house. Its gardens are mainly of the mid to late 19th century, although they incorporate medieval features and boundaries.

Within the angle of the house is a lawn and flower garden. The main formal garden is enclosed with tall evergreen hedges. East of the house is a pond, probably a monastic fishpond, with an island and statue. The pond is fed by a fountain of uncertain date. South and east of the house are the Market Garden and the Lime Walk. These once belonged to the Wenlock Abbey property, but no longer.

The Lime Walk, which runs along atop a huge medieval contour dam, borders a richly pastured valley bottom running east from the house and the priory ruins. That may have been the 'well timbered park' noted in the late 19th century, although it was not mapped as parkland a few years before.

The following is from the Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest. For the most up-to-date Register entry, please visit the The National Heritage List for England (NHLE):

www.historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list

Late 19th-/early 20th-century garden with topiary, shrubberies and specimen trees created around major monastic buildings.

DESCRIPTION

LOCATION, AREA, BOUNDARIES, LANDFORM, SETTING

Wenlock Abbey and the priory ruins (the latter an English Heritage Guardianship site) stand on the east edge of Much Wenlock, a medieval planned town. To the west they are bounded by the churchyard of Holy Trinity, Wenlock's parish church, and to the north by the lane which runs north-east from the bottom of the Bullring. The area here registered is c 3ha.

ENTRANCES AND APPROACHES

The priory ruins are entered via a visitor centre, opened in 1998, at the north-east corner of the site. This is approached by the lane off the Bullring. The main, late C19 gates to the Abbey also lie on this lane. A drive leads south from them, before turning east, past the south side of the Refectory, to a gravelled area before the main, south-east front of the Abbey. In the later C20 the everyday approach to the Abbey was via a back drive off Barrow Street.

PRINCIPAL BUILDING

Wenlock Abbey (listed grade I) is an L-shaped building comprising those parts of Wenlock Priory left upstanding as a private house at the Dissolution. Both ranges are of stone and two storey; one is conventionally interpreted as the monastic infirmary, the other as the prior's lodgings. Over both is a massive stone-tiled roof. The house remains in private ownership. The remainder of the priory ruins (also listed grade I) lie immediately to the north, and are separated from the Abbey by a tall stone wall. Still standing to full height are parts of the transepts of the priory church, massively rebuilt with royal patronage in the early C13. The cloister lies in a conventional position to the south of the nave. Within it are the remains of a lavatorium. It, and Chapter House on the east side of the cloister, are C12 and elaborately carved.

GARDENS AND PLEASURE GROUNDS

Under Lady Catherine Milnes Gaskell a garden with lawns, topiary, shrubberies and specimen trees was created around the Abbey and amidst the priory ruins, then all one property. Although considerably simplified, much of this garden survives.

The greater part of the courtyard in the south-east angle of the Abbey is filled by a rectangular lawn, around which runs a stone-flagged path with flower beds between it and the Abbey. Against the west end of the Infirmary, and between it and the east end of the Refectory ruins, is a small cobbled courtyard with a circular lily pool. From the courtyard there is a view down the approach drive, until c 70m to the west it tuns north, out of sight. As it leaves the courtyard it runs between to the north the ruins of the Refectory, lawned and the walls planted with climbing shrubs and figs, and to the south the low grass bank beneath the wall of the Bee Garden. This is a 30m square flower garden, quartered and with an Italian capital or well-head at its centre. Elaborate wrought-iron gates of c 1900 give access from the centre of the north and south sides of the garden. A massive, and now irregular, 6m tall yew hedge (early C20 photographs show it to have had clipped domes along its top like the hedge south of the Prior's Lodgings) runs from the north-east corner of the Bee Garden to the south-west side of the courtyard.

An iron gate in the north wall of the Refectory leads to a straight gravel path around the west and north sides of the Cloister. These paths are partly lined with clipped yew bushes, other examples of which lie west of and parallel with the west path. The tall yew hedge west of the latter bushes was planted c 1893 (photographic evidence).

South of the Prior's Lodgings is the 50m long Topiary Lawn, defined to the east and west by tall yew hedges. The top of the latter is clipped into domes, that of the former into animals. Across the south end of the lawn is a stone wall. Another lawn runs along the east side of the Prior's Lodgings. Across its north end is a 4m tall stone wall, buttressed and with ball finials. At the east end of the wall is the Gazebo, an octagonal, red sandstone summerhouse of 1900. The main views from this are east, over the park-like valley below the priory. Returning south from the summerhouse is the low, rough stone wall along the east side of the lawn. East of this the ground is lower. First is what in 1998 was an uncultivated compartment, c 30m square and with tall beech hedges (post-1961: photographic evidence) down its north and south sides. East of this is the Stew Pond, a rectangular pool, c 70m long from east to west and 35m wide, and with a narrow island along its centre. A plank bridge gives access to this from the garden. Around the edges of the pool are mature pine trees.

To the south of the uncultivated compartment, and screened by its beech hedge, is a small vegetable garden and orchard.

A belt of mature specimen trees, including coniferous species, runs around the west and north sides of the priory ruins, connecting with the Sycamore Grove, a small block of rough woodland which lies between the eastern half of the back drive and the Bee Garden. Most of the specimen trees were planted c 1900.

Sequences of photographs taken during Lady Catherine's lifetime, notably those by Frith & Co, show the creation of the garden in the early 1890s and its gradual maturation.

PARK

There is no park attached to the house. At much the same time that the topiary gardens were created however the countryside around the Abbey was made more attractive as parkland and specimen trees were planted. On the east side of the Abbey grounds the gardens overlook open countryside, with a view down the shallow valley within which the priory was founded. This is laid to permanent pasture, and contains, as does the large field north of the priory, parkland trees planted c 1900. In the Middle Ages a large pool was created in the valley east of the priory, retained by a contour dam. This survives as a prominent, 300m long linear earthwork. A lime avenue along it was planted c 1900; since that time, if not before, the path along the top of the dam has been known as the Monks' Walk.

KITCHEN GARDEN

A walled market garden lies south of the back drive. This is not included within the registered area.

REFERENCES

Lady Catherine Milnes Gaskell, Spring in a Shropshire Abbey (1905)

Country Life, 21 (20 April 1907), pp 558-64; 128 (15 December 1960), p 1492

L Edel, Henry James: The Conquest of London (1962), p 336

M Watson and C Musson, Shropshire from the Air (1993), p 84

The Victoria History of the County of Shropshire, x, (1998), pp 416-17

Maps

OS 6" to 1 mile: 1st edition surveyed 1881-2, published 1884

OS 25" to 1 mile: 1st edition surveyed 1882, published 1882; 2nd edition surveyed 1901, published 1902

Archival items

The Shropshire Records and Research Centre hold a collection of photographs.

Features
  • Country House (featured building)
  • Description: Wenlock Abbey is an L-shaped house originally built around 1500. It was converted from the prior's lodgings into a private house soon after the Dissolution, around 1540. To the west it is faced by a two-storeyed gallery, which must replace a former cloister walk. The house features two-light windows with buttresses between each. On the interior there was a chapel, the prior's private oratory, the hall, the kitchen, and a spiral staircase.
  • Earliest Date:
  • Pond
  • Description: East of the house is a pond, probably formerly a monastic fishpond, which features an island and statue.
  • Walk
  • Description: South of the house there is a Lime Walk, which runs along the top of a huge medieval contour dam.
  • Earliest Date:
  • Latest Date:
  • Lawn
  • Description: In the angle of the L-shaped house is a lawn and flower garden.
  • Earliest Date:
  • Latest Date:
Topiary, Shrubbery, Specimen Tree
Authorities

Civil Parish

  • Much Wenlock
History

Detailed History

The following is from the Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest. For the most up-to-date Register entry, please visit the The National Heritage List for England (NHLE):

www.historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list

HISTORIC DEVELOPMENT

The Cluniac priory of Wenlock was dissolved in 1540. In 1545 the priory site and demesne lands were sold to the royal physician Agostino Agostini, who later the same year sold them on to Thomas Lawley (died 1559). He, a local man, moved into the prior's lodgings, which soon came to be considered as Much Wenlock manor house. The property passed through various families until 1858 when it was bought by James Milnes Gaskell. By this time the Abbey (as it is erroneously known), had become a decayed farmhouse. However, under Gaskell (died 1873) and his son C G Milnes Gaskell (died 1919), it was restored as a 'gentleman's country house' (VCH 1998, 416). The latter's wife, Lady Catherine, was an ambitious social hostess, who invited guests including Thomas Hardy and Philip Webb to Wenlock. She laid out new gardens around it around 1900, and also planted the surrounding fields with parkland trees. She owned the manor in her own right from 1919, and died in 1935. The priory ruins later passed into the guardianship of the Ministry of Works, but the Abbey remains in private hands as of 1998.

Contact
References

References