Buildwas Abbey, Shropshire

Founded in 1135 as a Savignac monastery, but later merging with the Cistercian Order, this modest abbey situated on the banks of the River Severn was colonised from Furness Abbey. Buildwas Abbey was never classified as an important religious house, its community not exceeding 12 monks at its height but more usually numbering only half that figure. From time to time Buildwas Abbey suffered at the hands of Welsh raiders but, with the exception of one notable incident, the monks followed a relatively uneventful existence. The murder of the abbot in 1342, by one of the Buildwas Abbey monks, must have been quite a shock however.

The traditionally built late 12th century church remains substantially complete, albeit roofless, and virtually unaltered since its original construction. A row of sturdy Norman nave columns emphasise the power and dignity of the relatively small Cistercian church, and appear as stark and imposing today as they would have done in the middle ages. Probably, the only structural change to the church was the replacement of the east end windows in the early 13th century. Notably, the abbey church had no west door, because of the low-lying land, and the cloister was positioned on the north side of the church instead of the usual south side.

Much of the north and west range lie unexplored in the grounds of a private house. However, most of the claustral buildings along the east range can be fully investigated. There is a vaulted crypt beneath the far end of the north transept, and a Sacristy survives at ground level. Most impressively, a fine Chapter House remains substantially intact, entered through a large doorway from the cloister, with five steps down to the floor level. Completing the surviving section of the range is a small rib-vaulted parlour, and the undercroft of the dorter.

At the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Buildwas Abbey was surrendered to the Crown in 1535 and, subsequently, the estate was granted to Lord Powys. At a later date, part of the abbot's house and infirmary were incorporated into the building of a private house. A large collection of books from the library were saved, and are now housed at Trinity College Cambridge.

Despite being one of the smaller foundations, both in physical size and status, Buildwas Abbey presents a formidable sight as it stands bold and beautiful against the backdrop of a wooded Shropshire valley. Simplicity is effectively its strength, and the arcade of stocky piers along the length of an austere nave cannot fail to impress. We have visited Buildwas Abbey on several occasions in recent years, and are still thrilled to find delicate fragments of carved detail amid the severity of this early Cistercian monastery.

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