Period Property of the Month - February 2010
The Abbey House in Tewkesbury has seen dramatic times over the centuries but all is now calm, reports Simon Went.
Two faces:one history
Tewkesbury is famous for its grand Abbey and its well-preserved medieval buildings situated on a spur of land close to the Rivers Severn and Avon. Abbey House sits at the west end of the Abbey and is generally agreed by scholars to be one of the best surviving medieval former abbot's houses in England. It was deliberately built above the flood plain, thus surviving some terrible recent flooding in the area, and is now lived in by the vicar of Tewkesbury, Paul Williams, and his family.
During the Dissolution of the Monasteries, when Henry VIII was determined to break the power of the Catholic Church, the order to dissolve Tewkesbury Abbey was actually signed in the Great Hall of the house. Rather than let the Abbey be demolished or fall into disrepair like so many others, the people of Tewkesbury rallied round and bought it from the Crown for £400 to use as their parish church. At this time, Abbey House was bought privately by a wealthy local man, William Read and there was therefore no vicarage in the town for many years.
Moving forward three centuries, in 1883 the descendants of William Read decided to sell Abbey House. So began a high profile appeal. The president of the Society of Antiquaries, based at the Royal Academy in London, was tipped off and wrote to the Times newspaper, urging that Abbey House should be bought and used as a vicarage. Later that year, at a crowded auction in the local hotel, Abbey House was indeed purchased by the parishioners for £10,500. There must have been widespread interest and keen bidding as this was a considerable sum at the time.
The origins of Abbey House could date back to the 1300s and there is strong evidence to suggest that it would once have been joined to the west end of the Abbey by a two-storey extension. The evidence to suggest this link can be seen in both the west wall of the Abbey and the east wall of Abbey House.
In the 1800s, a wall that formed part of the corridor linking the house to the Abbey would have still stood on the churchyard side of the house, running at first floor level past the oriel window. There is also the presence of some other ancient stone windows around this impressive window. These smaller windows may well have provided light for a corridor.
The oriel window, incorporating much decorative splendour, is particularly fine and this would have made a clear statement to locals and visitors alike that Abbey House was a property of importance. In previous centuries, anyone visiting from the Abbey would have entered the house through the corridor, passing this imposing feature.
In medieval times, when a visitor first arrived at the house in winter, he would have been ushered into the splendid hall to warm himself around a blazing open fire or "open hearth" in the middle of the room. Oak stools and benches would have been grouped around the fire and against the walls, trestle dining tables would have been stacked away when they were not in use. A screen would have hidden the service area, buttery, pantry and kitchen and also provide some comfort from chill winter draughts. The screens passages was vital in the planning of all medieval houses and it provided a mirror to medieval society by separating the lord and his guests from his peasants.
With its two distinct 'faces', the house is not only striking, but also unusual. From the garden side, the appearance is Georgian with a fine brick fašade and large, prominent sash windows. Then, from the opposite side, overlooking the churchyard, the house is quite Gothic. Here, all the surviving medieval features are in stone. When it was built, stone would have been the material of choice for the great majority of important buildings.
Old manuscripts tell us that in 1732 the top of the wall had the remains of battlements for most of its length. By 1795, these had been replaced by the present eaves, leaving only the portion of battlements attached to the chimney. Battlements were often a purely decorative architectural feature, however they also feature on the neighbouring gatehouse and may have been an early status symbol. In more turbulent times, the use of defensive battlements needed a licence from the king.
Today, Abbey House still nestles quietly under the protective gaze of the Abbey and in the knowledge that the timely actions of the people of Tewkesbury, all those centuries ago, saved it from certain destruction. Although gently altered over time, it lives on not only as a family home, but also as an important part of the local community. What could be better?
Simon Went is a director of Quatrefoil Consulting Ltd, conservation advisors. Tel: 07717 290462
. Tracery: stonework used to support the glass in a stained glass window. When used in windows, it is usually supported by carved vertical shafts
. Battlement: (also called a crenellation) generally found in medieval defensive architecture such as that of city walls or castles.