Coming over all arty at Buildwas Abbey

The last place we visited during our Easter break was the small-but-perfectly-formed Buildwas Abbey near Telford, Shropshire. It’s definitely in the ‘hidden gem’ category, in fact anyone visiting needs to keep a good look out for the signs or you’ll still miss it, nestled away as it is in a curve of the River Severn, at the bottom of a long hill.


But assuming you make it, Buildwas will definitely repay your endeavour. It’s an absolutely charming example of an early Cistercian abbey, now ruined of course but with some of the chunkiest round pillars the Normans built still standing and a Chapter House that will have you eagerly snapping away with your camera.

Chapter House Buildwas Abbey

The story of Buildwas isn’t about any particular person, rather it’s a demonstration in the landscape of a slice of English/Welsh history.

It’s location is in the long disputed and frequently fought over borderlands between England and Wales. It was originally founded by a conquering Norman bishop (Roger de Clinton) bringing a group of Norman monks from Savigny to England in 1135, it soon after became a Cistercian monastery in 1147 and the remains of the building we can still see date from the 1150s through to the 1330s.

One of the things I love about Buildwas is that enough of its history if known to give you the bones of a story, but there are sufficient grey areas where your own imagination can take over and fill in the gaps. So for instance, in 1340 an unnamed abbot of Buildwas was murdered – but the man arrested staged an escape. In 1350 the abbey was raided by the Welsh who took the abbot and monks prisoner. We don’t know what impact the Black Death had precisely, but in 1377 there were only 6 monks there, and in 1381 only 4 – why?

Then again the abbey’s estates were ravaged during the Glyndwr Rebellion of 1406. By the time Thomas Cromwell’s commissioners visited Buildwas in 1535, there were 12 monks there, 4 of whom were accused of grave moral faults

Now if that isn’t enough to get the historic mystery writers juices flowing, I don’t know what is. (By the way, I heard this sort of writing referred to as mystoric fiction – I hadn’t heard that before, but I thought it was brilliant).

I must admit, even while I was walking around I was thinking about the wonderful Ellis Peters Cadfael novels, you could just see Cadfael in his herb garden there. But the mystery and murder also made me think of the C J Sansom Shardlake novels. Have you read these? They seem perfect companions for Buildwas.

Way back during the early part of Buildwas’s history, the abbey owned a large number of books (by the standards of those days) – estimated at over 100 religious texts – reading being one of the important elements of the Rule of St Benedict and a daily requirement. Apparently over 40 of those books still survive and it’s believed that 15 of those were actually written at Buildwas Abbey. Not a bad legacy for a small foundation in the borders.

As was often the case, once the abbey was dissolved, it quickly declined, having been plundered for building stone and materials. Even the grand Tudor house that replaced part of it has subsequently been lost. Which means that today you see a truly romantic ruin set in the loveliest rural setting, with lots of lumpy earthworks all around certain to make your inner archaeologist desperate to wield a trowel.

I don’t think English Heritage would be too impressed if you actually tried, so instead it’s probably best to let the abbey inspire your artistic streak. Don’t go without your camera or you’ll regret it. And if it’s a nice day and you’re happy working en plein air, you’ll be painting in the footsteps of John Sell Cotman and JMW Turner who amongst many others have all been inspired to paint the ruins at Buildwas.

Finally I should say that I felt an especially lovely atmosphere there, it’s the sort of place I really do think you could sit and meditate quietly. Monastic or otherwise, it has a certain serenity and I adore it. I hope if you visit you do too.

If you’re visiting…

Buildwas isn’t open every day. Check here at the official English Heritage website before you go.

There are portaloos in the car park, no permanent facilities.

The lady at the ticket office made us the very best coffee we’d had for the whole week of our holiday – just saying.

Now, if you want VERY detailed history about Buildwas – and I admit to being fascinated – go to this website – but be prepared.

And last question…

Cadfael – Derek Jacobi or Philip Madoc?







The Year in Books: May


It’s all been in the mind this month…

There have been two reading highlights for me this month, one pure escapist fiction, the other not fiction at all, both have given me and my imagination a great deal of pleasure. Fiction first…

The Good Knight Sarah Woodbury

This was another Kindle late night purchase. The reviews said it would appeal to Cadfael lovers and I was ready for a mix of history, mystery and a light touch of romance.

So, it’s set in Wales in the 1140’s, a similar time period to the Cadfael novels, and the hero and heroine – Gareth and Gwen are out to solve a murder mystery, but I’m not sure that’s enough similarity to endear it to Cadfael aficionados. I’m a huge fan of Ellis Peters and I don’t think we’re on the same page as far as literary style goes – but and it’s a big but, despite the sometimes awkward Americanisms that crop up, I thoroughly enjoyed the read. (Let’s put it this way, if you liked the film A Knight’s Tale with Heath Ledger, with its modern speech and soundtrack, then this book won’t offend – if you prefer your history more in period, it will probably annoy you).

Anyway, this is all a bit beside the point, because what kept me up reading wasn’t the plot, but one of the characters, Prince Hywel. I managed to fall in love with him! Fancy that, a middle-aged woman going gooey over a character in a book. Just goes to show what the brain is capable of given the right stimulus.

Needless to say, I’m already reading the next in the series…

My other favourite for May, was unexpected. It was…

Sane New World: Taming the MindRuby Wax

This is really an exploration of depression and her views as a sufferer on ways to treat it.

I came to mindfulness and meditation via a different route to Ruby, a much more esoteric one, and one she’d probably have no time for, but  what I enjoyed were her facts about the brain and it’s function and the research results that have led to mindfulness being used as a treatment. It was a bit like being given a factual explanation for what you already knew on trust or faith.

It’s written in a very accessible style, not aimed at neuroscientists, but doesn’t dumb-down. It doesn’t give you the techniques in detail, but there are many sources for taking up a mindfulness or meditation practice if you’re persuaded to try yourself. Even if you’re lucky enough not to experience depression, I’ll bet you know someone who does – it’s an interesting read and anything that helps make mental illness less of a stigma has to be good.

Right, off to find out what Prince Hywel is up to…

Happy reading.


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