Monastery, showpiece, family home
Few houses in Dorset can match either the beauty or the interest of Forde Abbey. John Newth has been to visit it.
Published in August ’13
After Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1539, the monastic buildings at Sherborne, Christchurch, Cerne Abbas and Milton largely disappeared but their churches were left. The opposite happened at Forde Abbey: the church was demolished but most of the rest of the Cistercian monastery survived, so it is the best place in Dorset to see monastic buildings converted to domestic use. It is also outstandingly beautiful in its architecture, in its glowing Ham Hill stone and in its setting beside the River Axe, close to the point where Dorset, Somerset and Devon meet.
The buildings probably survived because they had been newly reconstructed and so were worth preserving; it has been suggested that as at Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, the last Abbot saw what was coming and purposely invested the monastery’s wealth in its buildings. That Abbot was Thomas Chard, who created the Great Hall and in 1528 built the imposing porch with its double-storeyed oriel window reminiscent of, but larger than, that on the Abbot’s Porch at Cerne Abbey. The Great Hall has the feel of a hall of an Oxford or Cambridge college, its outstanding feature being its painted ceiling. In a niche here are all that remains of the church: 14th-century statues found during drainage works in the 1970s. One, of St Catherine, has lost its head. The other depicts St Margaret, who became Queen of Scotland but was born an Anglo-Saxon princess.
There was something of a schism among the Cistercian community in the 15th century when the strict rule against eating meat was relaxed. At Forde, the Upper Refectory was built above the original Refectory to accommodate the carnivores. Today its outstanding feature is an oak table 21 feet long and made of three planks from a single tree on the estate. Its width is 2¼ feet and should have been 3¼ feet, but the carpenter misread the terrible handwriting of the house’s owner!
Once the Cloisters would have been a rectangle with the church forming the southern side, but today only the northern side remains. Thomas Chard had them re-faced, but the original 13th-century work can be seen on the northern wall. This is a light and airy space, usually filled with luxuriant, colourful plants, but nowhere does one feel closer to the monks of 500 years ago. To discuss business, those monks would meet in the Chapter House, at the eastern end of the buildings. Its 12th-century vaulted roof remains, but today it is used as a chapel in which a service is held once a month and on Easter Day, with a special candlelit carol service on Christmas Eve. It is open every day, even when the house is closed.
After the Dissolution, there was a century of neglect during which the Abbey passed through various hands. In 1649, however, it was bought by Edmund Prideaux, MP for Lyme Regis and the second great figure after Abbot Chard in the development of Forde Abbey as it is today. It has been suggested that he employed Inigo Jones, but this seems unlikely as Prideaux was a committed Parliamentarian who ended up as Cromwell’s Attorney General, while Jones was a rabid Royalist.
Prideaux’s greatest achievement was the Saloon, converted from a storage area and guest bedrooms of the monastery and described by a previous occupant of the house with justified pride as ‘the best room in Dorset’. Pevsner refers to the room’s ‘noble restraint’. The plaster ceiling is very fine, the windows are majestic, but most striking are the Mortlake tapestries, copies of those commissioned by Pope Julius II for the Sistine Chapel and woven from cartoons painted by Raphael. They show episodes from the lives of Saints Peter and Paul.
To lead from the Great Hall to the Saloon, Prideaux installed the Grand Staircase, unusual in that the dado is painted to reflect the design of the heavily carved wooden balustrade. Like the Saloon itself, the Grand Staircase reflects the heyday of English Classical architecture and foreshadows its development into Baroque.
Prideaux shortened the Great Hall to extend the family rooms in the former Abbot’s lodgings, and created formal bedrooms above the Cloisters. Next to them, in the older part of the building, is the Bentham Room, so called because it was used by Jeremy Bentham, the philosopher and founder of Utilitarianism, when he rented the house for some years from 1815. The bed in this room was specially made for a visit by Queen Anne, but she died before she could make it. It was also Prideaux who converted the Chapter House into a chapel.
His son, also Edmund, had James II’s son, the Duke of Monmouth, to stay in 1680, hospitality he came to regret when in 1685 he was put into the Tower by Judge Jeffries, who assumed that he must be a supporter of the Monmouth Rebellion. His freedom cost him £15,000, equivalent to about £3 million today. His daughter married Francis Gwyn, who became Secretary of War to Queen Anne and who inherited Forde via his wife in 1702. Only now were the Mortlake tapestries in the Saloon, which had been commissioned by the first Edmund Prideaux but impounded because of his son’s alleged treachery, allowed to come to Forde.
The last Gwyn died in 1846 and after a period of deterioration, the house was sold to a Mrs Evans, who repaired the property and made some minor alterations; her portrait hangs at the top of the Great Staircase. The house descended to her son and then to a cousin married to Freeman Roper, who took over in 1905. His descendant, Mark Roper, remains very involved in the management of the house and estate, but some years ago he moved out of the private rooms of the house, which are now occupied by his daughter and son-in-law, Alice and Julian Kennard, and their three children. Having both attended Cirencester, they involve themselves particularly in the farming of the estate’s 1600 acres; they are currently making something of a speciality of goats, of which they have 2500, producing 2.5 million litres of milk a year.
Mark Roper built on the work of his predecessors in developing the gardens in particular. There is huge variety in the thirty acres, which include an excellently-run nursery. The most spectacular feature is the Centenary Fountain, installed in 2005 to celebrate the family’s 100 years in the house. Powered by a 55kW pump originally used for the irrigation of soft fruit, it sends up a jet 150 feet high, the tallest powered fountain in England.
Alice Kennard respects her father’s decision to move out of the house because, having grown up there herself, she wants her children to have the same experience of knowing it as a home: ‘If you’re going to take it on, you’ve got to have grown up here,’ she says. She describes Forde Abbey as ‘a good house and an interesting garden – but with no sideshows’. Certainly those wanting safari parks or other gimmicks must look elsewhere; the more discerning who come to Forde (45,000 of them each year) find there a combination of historical interest and physical beauty matched by few other houses in Dorset.
- Forde Abbey is emphatically on the Dorset side of the River Axe. To visit, though, put Forde Abbey, Chard, TA20 4LU into your SatNav.The Gardens are open every day throughout the year from 10.00. Last admission is at 4.30 and they close at 6.30. The House is open on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Sundays, and Bank Holiday Mondays until 31 October 2013 from 12.00; last entry is at 4.00. There is a tearoom in the Undercroft, and there’s an exhibition of the work of the Eeeles Family Pottery for paying visitors. Entry is free for under-15s, £11 for adults and £10 for over 65s. Dogs are allowed in the garden on a short lead, but not in the house. For more information, visit www.fordeabbey.co.uk or call 01460 220231.