This is the second of a two-part feature; the first was published last week
The Abbey House first came into view as we walked along the old monastic apple orchard, heading through a huge 13th-century broken colonnade towards a magnificent-looking priory. I winced as I saw medieval transept mullion windows replaced with white gloss-painted frames and plain glass. I turned to my friend, Mowbray, beside me. “What an incredible house that I never knew existed,” I said. “If I didn’t live at Upton Cressett, this is the sort of magical place I would want to live in. I wonder who lives here?”
The answer was nobody. Beside the old front door was a plaque saying “Abbey House Sports Club”. It turned out that the former medieval priory, near Much Wenlock in Shrophire, was now a recreation club for local workers at the Buildwas Power Station. In the 1960s, the former lodging had been turned into a social club – with several bars, a cricket pitch and billiards room – by the owners of the Central Electricity Board. Members were playing bowls on the lawn and enjoying pints of beer on the flagstone terrace.
I walked into the entrance hall and saw a school-style blackboard standing up with the following words scrawled in chalk: “Due to imminent sale, all items in the club will be sold at a boot sale next Sunday.” A brief enquiry to the barman established that the owner was the German energy giant E.ON. Although it wasn’t on the market yet, within a few days I had an advance copy of the sales brochure.
What was clear from my first viewing was that the Buildwas Abbey House estate was one of the most important ecclesiastical estates to come on the market for a generation. What was even more extraordinary – which I only noticed on my first formal viewing – was that the library drawing room contained exactly the same ornamental plasterwork motifs as in our Gatehouse at Upton Cressett, including the inscription “Jesu”, the portcullis and Prince of Wales feathers. This was almost certainly an Elizabethan form of religious symbolism connecting the Catholic houses of Shropshire.
I don’t know what it was exactly that caused me to lose my head over Buildwas. Perhaps it was the romance of the history, the plasterwork, or maybe it was when the agent told me that the other main interest for the property was from a local developer who wanted to gut the Grade I building and turn it into their “Telford corporate offices”. I felt a conviction to pursue her like I’ve only ever felt before when chasing a woman that I was besotted with. Yet I ended up jilting Buildwas at the altar, pulling out of the sale just hours before we wired the funds. I could have bought it – taking out a vast mortgage on my family home – but I would never really have owned the place, not in the sense that Henry James envisaged in his private fantasy of “moving in” after his visit in 1877. My “bridge lender” bank would have owned it. Any breach of the terms and conditions of the loan (which included not being able to reach me) and the bank could have seized the property – actually both the Abbey House and Upton Cressett.
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