Herefordshire is well served for historic churches and the manor houses that have accompanied them. One notable but lesser known example is Wigmore Abbey, found off a small lane between Wigmore and Leintwardine in Herefordshire’s rural north. An historic site, it lies just west of a Roman road and south of Brandon Camp, an Iron-Age hill fort.
As the name suggests, it was a religious foundation before the destruction of the Reformation having been conceived by Ranulph de Mortimer and brought into being by his son, Hugh. Consecrated in the 1170s by the Bishop of Hereford, some say that it was largest monastery in the county, bigger than Leominster and Abbey Dore. The Mortimer family, the patrons of the Abbey, were buried at Wigmore, as were five Earls of March but with the Dissolution its decline began, after being transferred to the Palmer and then Cockerams families. Over passing centuries it faded into its landscape and its stones were looted. Now the principal remnant is the Abbot’s House and taking the place of the abbot today is John Challis, author of this wonderful book.
Challis and his wife, Carol, came across the Abbey whilst flicking through the property pages of Country Life. Then living in Richmond, serendipity took a guiding hand: Carol’s ancestors had been the Cockerams, resident at Wigmore for 200 years after the Dissolution. With this association, the fate of Wigmore (and the Challis’s) was sealed. The restoration was a lengthy, frustrating, and costly learning curve. An early approach using a main contractor ended in disaster but then the capabilities and understanding of local craftsmen came into their own. By the early 2000s the majority of the work to the house had been completed and attentions were focused elsewhere – the revival of the garden is as much worthy of note as the house. It has been compartmentalised, much like a medieval garden, and today is rich in flowers, fruit and roses, including at least once spectacular example of the enormous Himalayan Musk. Meadow flowers and grasses have been planted along with local and ancient varieties of apple – Downton Pippin and Hereford Beefing to name just two (those particular varieties being sampled already by many HHCT members in the pressed apple juice of our chairman).
At Wigmore, knowingly, or just instinctively, the Challis’s followed in the footsteps of Ruskin and Morris and the great body they founded, the SPAB. Unsympathetic and incongruous modern alterations were removed or reworked, but the evolution of the house was made prominent with its early medieval masonry and timber, the later oak panelling, the Georgian sashes and the flamboyant Victorian Gothic chimneypieces all celebrated. The interior decoration has a Robert Kime feel to it. It is gracious, not-quite-rustic, timeless and eclectic. In this book, Alex Ramsay, the Prestigne photographer, has captured the essence of the house, its farmstead, garden and historic location. John Challis has been its biographer, in turn telling his own story and that of his wife and their deep connection to Wigmore. This book is an engaging and beautifully illustrated account of a house and its restoration – a rich and eloquent pictorial record of Wigmore Abbey today.