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.
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?