Only four miles outside the modern day bustle of Shrewsbury town lies the amazingly peaceful site of Haughmond Abbey. When the first religious community settled here in the latter part of the 11th Century it must have been a remote and inaccessible part of the Shropshire countryside. During the 1130's William Fitzalan founded an Augustinian priory here but, having established itself as one of the Order's more influential houses, Haughmond was given 'Abbey' status in 1155. Indeed, there are believed to have been some 24 canons residing at Haughmond Abbey by the end of the 12th Century and, from the architectural evidence surviving today, there is little doubt that it was once a thriving and prosperous community.
The site plan of Haughmond Abbey looks crowded and confusing at first, and is unlike the standard monastic layout of that period. Restricted by the rocky escarpment on the eastern side of the site, the usual range of buildings to be found in this location have had to be re-sited at the southern edge of a second cloister. It is also fascinating from the point of view of how richly decorated the buildings were, suggesting that the abbot lived in a relatively grand style by the 14th Century.
Surviving remarkably well, the Abbot's lodgings provide a wonderful example of the lavish decoration and skilled craftsmanship employed on the abbey buildings. Standing to a good height, the long walls of the hall boast a fine array of large Early English windows with unusual bar tracery, and the house is fronted with a late medieval bay window. Appearing quite out of character with the other monastic buildings, it is not surprising to learn that these lodgings were subsequently used to form a country mansion, after the Dissolution.
Apart from a few walls, little else has survived from the western side of the site and, at the northern edge, the abbey church has completely disappeared. But even among the sparse remains there are some beautiful Romanesque arches and shafts to be seen, and several examples of decorated capitals and foliage carvings. A single Norman arched doorway, leading from the nave of the church into the cloister, has survived and again shows fine foliage moulding, with the sculptured figures of St Peter and St Paul either side of the opening. Possibly the most breath-taking sight is that of the magnificent 12th Century Chapter House entrance. Three richly moulded arches, each with triple shafts, and further enhanced by 14th Century carved figures of saints set beneath canopies. Internally, the Chapter House at Haughmond Abbey appears to have been rebuilt early in the 16th Century, and the addition of the bay window and the Tudor beamed ceiling lend a very domestic feel to the former monastic administration centre.
Discovering Haughmond Abbey was a pleasing, if somewhat surprising, experience. Although there is a lack of documented history about the site, the wealth of architecture and the unique monastic ground plan made for an extremely interesting exploration. With extensive demolition of Haughmond Abbey following the Dissolution in 1539, further destruction of the converted mansion house during the Civil War, and some 200 years of farming encroachment, it is nothing short of a miracle that any of the abbey buildings survived. It was placed in the guardianship of the government body in the 1930's, and English Heritage continue to look after the preservation of this remarkable site.