Who would have thought that the accidental discovery, while out on a Sunday walk along the River Severn, that a run-down priory was for sale could end up costing so much? Not just financially and emotionally but also in terms of a private sense of loss – both aesthetically and, above all, in terms of my own sense of judgment.
Looking back, was my doomed quixotic quest to restore one of the great Cistercian estates of the Midlands in the months running up to my 50th birthday just a madcap middle-age identity crisis? A subterranean retirement fantasy escape to the familiar arched cloisters, pointed-arch windows, Romanesque colonnades of the monastic buildings in which I spent much of my boyhood and teenage years (Jesuit and Benedictine)?
Or were there darker forces at work in my 10-month whirlwind love affair with Buildwas Abbey, near Much Wenlock in Shropshire? Was I just another romantic victim of what the German scholars call “ruin lust”?
English aesthetes are particularly vulnerable to being struck down with this condition. The writer Candia McWilliam wrote in her autobiography, What To Look For in Winter, that no less than three times in her life – at particular low points spiritually and emotionally – she was “rescued by architecture”. I felt the same sense of aesthetic need and vocation when I first glimpsed the Abbey House’s ivy-covered, half-broken Cistercian colonnades, set against the grandeur of the stone ruins and well-kept lawns of Buildwas Abbey.
What follows is a cautionary tale about the real “English disease”. Not charm, as Evelyn Waugh suggested, but the romantic quest for rescuing property – and in the process of restoration somehow restoring not just the stones of the past but often also something within ourselves. So we buy (or try to buy) property we can’t afford. Property we don’t need. Property we have no real modern use for. Property we can’t afford to run or keep up, even when we do somehow pull off the renovation miracle.
The English have a very different relationship with property than our European friends, which is why you can still buy a crumbling palazzo in Italy or French religious ruins and edifices so cheaply compared with in Britain, where a “romantic wreck” can be sold at a premium as a “historic character property”. The Germans, French and Italians don’t really understand this Peter Mayle syndrome: restoring an old farmhouse, chateau or abbey until we are driven into the financial grave. Our relationship with property is more emotional than economic.
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