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?







A little Brown and Robinson…

Two names seem to have cropped up repeatedly around here lately – Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and Sir Tony Robinson…

We’ve been watching Tony Robinson on TV – he’s got a new series on Channel 4 – Britain’s Ancient Paths – walking some of the old routes, talking to historians and staying in rather nice pubs (they didn’t ask me if I’d like to do it – I’m a bit miffed), but also there seem to be repeats of his previous history programmes on practically every time I zap the channels.


And purely by coincidence and for no good reason, I’d only recently started following him on Twitter (@Tony_Robinson if you’re interested), so for a while I’d begun to feel he was becoming part of the family.

Then again, he’s been something of a constant companion in many ways over the last 30 years or so, from playing Baldrick in the Blackadder series during the 1980s, the wonderful and hugely missed TIme Team era from 1994 until 2013, the post-Time Team documentaries and last but not least his narration of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld audio-books and his voices on the Discworld video game (what, never played it? You haven’t lived…)

The last episode I saw of Britain’s Ancient Paths had Tony walking a stretch of the Ridgeway which is claimed to have been used by locals and every invading army for over 5000 years.

Watching him, it immediately brought to mind a public information film I remembered seeing when I was at school back in the Dark Ages. It had made such an impression at the time, especially the disappearing lady with the Timotei hair, that I felt compelled to search YouTube and see if it still existed anywhere there – and lo! Look what I found…

Crikey I can’t tell you how this took me back (I’m beginning to sound like an old-dear I know, but still…)

Anyway, as a result, inspired by Sir Tony and the Timotei woman, off I went up onto the Ridgeway a couple of Sundays ago, to swish my hair and admire the odd autumnal view.


The autumn colours were just beginning to set in – we’ve had a very late-onset autumn this year don’t you think? More of a very long summer. But it’s definitely changed over the last two weeks and so it was time to make our annual pilgrimage to Stowe Landscape Gardens to gasp in awe at the colours and play trains in the fallen leaves.


Which brings us to the other gentleman who’s been cropping up – Capability Brown (I’m not going to use his Christian name if you don’t mind, Lancelot for me will always bring up visions of John Cleese in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and we don’t need to go there today)…

Capability Brown as I’m sure you know changed the way we think about the English landscape by creating classical romantic idylls for his rich patrons in the eighteenth century. Stowe was where he first cut his garden design teeth and whatever your take on the politics of that era, there’s no denying the beauty of what he created.


Brown went on to create well over 100 more of his ‘landscape gardens’ and many of them remain to this day.

One which I had never visited previously is at Croome Park in Worcestershire, now owned and being restored by the National Trust. On Monday we headed over there to meet up with my big brother and what a fabulous surprise we had – Croome is just gorgeous.

I’m sure the golden autumn colours and faint haze from the morning fog added a special filter, but nevertheless, what an amazing creation.


Every new vista seemed to make me giggle with the complete loveliness.


What a place…

So much thanks to Brown and Robinson, I’m feeling well set up and ready for the colder months, embracing the seasons and indulging in my own version of hygge.

Happy November…

Where do you like to celebrate autumn? And what does autumn mean to you? Do you have any special family rituals at this time of year?


The Year In Books: July & June

A literary pick ‘n’ mix…

So it’s summer and of course that means we’re all sitting by the pool, reading something light and airy.

Or maybe not…


To be entirely truthful, my reading over the last few weeks has been extremely patchy. I’ve certainly downloaded and read a lot of sample chapters on the Kindle, but as for actually reading through a whole book, ummm, well.

The trouble started when I decided after buying the next Gareth and Gwen novel, not to read it straight away. I’ve gulped down so many series novels over the years, I suddenly thought I’d wait and read this later in the winter. But what to read instead?

I won’t bore you with all the titles I tasted. In the end, on the Kindle I have lined up the following;

  • The Passion – Jeanette Winterson (thank you to My Search For Magic for the recommendation)
  • The Gospel of Loki – Joanne M Harris
  • The Enchanted April – Elizabeth von Arnim (guaranteed to make you feel good)

While I was dithering about what to read, Jo at The Hazel Tree posted her review of the classic The Old Straight Track – Alfred Watkins.  This is one of my favourite books, so after reading her post, I dug out my copy and promptly starting dipping in again. Not only is it a fascinating read, but for me it’s quite nostalgic, bringing back lots of happy memories.


Then my yoga teacher lent me her copy of Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving Into Stillness – Erich Schiffman, so I’m gradually reading through that too.

Which would probably have been more than enough to get my teeth into. But then, a few days ago, I happened upon the new Marc Morris history book – The Norman Conquest. What is a history junkie supposed to do! I like Marc Morris’s style, and I thought before I buy the new book, I’ll re-read his previous one, about Edward I – which I did.


And then – big mistake, I looked Marc Morris up on the Kindle and found he’d written another book, about castles – Castles: A history of the buildings that shaped medieval Britain. It’s at times like these someone should take my Amazon account off me. Naturally I demonstrated no self-control whatsoever, not only did I order Castles, I also found a copy of Prof R Allen Brown’s classic, English Castles online, which I’ve also ordered.

Which would have been alright I suppose, if I hadn’t then decided I might as well buy The Norman Conquest anyway – which I have…


My name is Anny and I am a history-bookaholic.

Happy reading

Harvington Hall, Worcestershire

A house of secrets…

One very hot afternoon last week, I headed up to Worcestershire to carry out a couple of family errands and to reward myself with a visit to my all-time-favourite historic house – Harvington Hall.

harvington hall

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about it. After a Christmas trip I wrote a post for Mists of Time explaining some of the historic background – which in essence is: Elizabethan moated manor, incorporating older hall section. Famous for having at least seven priest hiding holes, created by NIcholas Owen, none of which ever gave up their secrets during the time they were being used.

Oddly enough, in all the many years I’ve been going to Harvington, I don’t remember going before on a sunny day. I wondered how it would affect the atmosphere, because although I’ve always loved it, you couldn’t really call it a particularly warm house. The word I’d usually used to describe the Hall was brooding.

But I may have to revise my opinion after the latest trip.

I get the impression that Harvington is having a bit of a resurgence. Back in the 1960s when I started going, it felt as if it was only a few winters away from ruin, now it almost feels inhabitable!

And now instead of an overriding atmosphere of broodiness and secrets, it actually feels warm and welcoming. The creaking floorboards sound like people having a good time rather than ghosts shuffling across a room.

I’m going to stop waffling on now about how wonderful it is and just show you a few of the photos I took.


This is new – now you can really see how a Tudor kitchen might have looked.


I loved this little touch (although I think they should have some adult sizes too).


One of Harvington’s secrets here. This isn’t really a fireplace, just a dummy which conceals one of the hiding places – neat!


And there’s another hiding place here – but you can’t see it – a clue: the vertical panel on the top right rotates to give access to a hide. It would have been hidden behind a bookcase originally.


The herb garden has been created in a tiny space between the Hall and the moat, you can’t tell it’s there unless you know where to look – a green secret.

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Years ago I couldn’t imagine wanting to spend the night at the Hall, but now, I’m not so sure.


The original staircase was stripped out and reused by the Throckmorton family at Coughton Court – this is a recreation. Oh and there’s a hide under the stairs too.

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One of the new secrets about Harvington is that the food served there is absolutely wonderful. You can eat in the tearoom which is in the oldest part of the Hall, or take your lunch outside – beware the rapacious ducks.

The Elizabethans were singing and playing. I’m not generally a fan of this sort of thing, but on that afternoon it felt perfect. My eldest daughter says that if she were ever queen, she’d insist on being accompanied everywhere by minstrels…

And finally, the secret of the wall paintings. They’re very faint, you might want to click on the gallery to have a better look. Imagine just how amazing this old brick and timber house would have been in its painted hey-day.


Well, I couldn’t end without another window… looking out over the moat.

Harvington Hall is owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Birmingham and obviously greatly loved and cared for by a host of devoted, friendly and enthusiastic people. It may not be the grandest house, it may not have any major works of international renown, it may not be on many visitors top-ten attractions list, but it is and always will be my favourite – summer and winter.

For visitor information, see this link here.