A garden walk takes us past pastel-shaded cottage-garden style borders, through a community allotment area, an orchard, rose garden and bosky wood. The allotments are bursting with produce and colour, the fruit trees heavy and pendulous. Beyond the woods, the Wiltshire landscape beckons: a flock of sheep cotton-balls its way across lush, green, fields; we merely await the imminent arrival of Little Bo-Peep to turn the whole place into a pastoral idyll. A step along tree-lined paths to what might have been an old fish-pond ends abruptly at a ha-ha, where a couple sit, deep in intimate conversation; like guilty voyeurs, we turn quickly away and are relieved to be confronted with a wonderful view of Lacock Abbey.
Lacock Abbey was established between 1229 and 1232 by Lady Ela, Countess of Salisbury. Ela founded two religious houses: Lacock, for Augustinian nuns, and Hinton Charterhouse in Somerset for Carthusian monks. Both were in memory of her late husband, William Longespee who, in addition to his little problem (sometimes a sleepless knight?), was an illegitimate son of King Henry II. So William was half-brother to kings Richard I and John. He and Ela were a well-connected, powerful, couple and, rather disappointingly, Longespee actually means ‘longsword’. Anyway, Lady Ela became Abbess of Lacock in 1240, lived to 74, a ripe age in those days, and was buried in the abbey church. Much later, her tombstone was moved to the cloisters and reads: "Below lie buried the bones of the venerable Ela, who gave this sacred house as a home for the nuns. She also had lived here as holy abbess and Countess of Salisbury, full of good works."
The abbey prospered through the Middle Ages, largely due to revenue from wool - occasionally referred to as ‘white gold’. It sustained a community of between 15 and 25 nuns, mostly ladies from well-to-do families, as well as the lay sisters who did most of the menial work. When Lacock Abbey was dissolved during the reign of Henry VIII, it was bought by a Sir William Sharington in 1540 for the sum of £783.00. Sharington, an ambitious courtier, demolished the abbey church and converted the remaining buildings into an elegant home – though he largely left the ground floor intact.
Thanks to the Sharingtons and Talbots, you can wander about the preserved abbey cloisters and adjoining rooms. And, as you do so, you can picture yourself at JK Rowling’s fictitious Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry; for Lacock Abbey’s film credits include ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’ and ‘Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince’. The sacristy, where the abbey’s valuables would have been kept, was turned into Professor Snape’s potions class; the chapter house was where Harry found the unsettling Mirror of Erised and the Warming Room (which contains a real Tudor cauldron) became Professor Quirrell’s defence against the dark arts class. You might recognise the cloisters, too, where Harry, his friends and Mrs Norris the cat, wandered. Lacock Abbey has also been featured in other film and TV productions, including ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ and 'Wolf Hall' as well as episodes of ‘Robin of Sherwood’.
Once you’ve done with all that, you can tour what is now a largely Victorian mansion on the first floor and pop into Fox-Talbot's photography museum. Lacock is about 3 miles south of Chippenham in Wiltshire, and a magnet for tourists from all over the world. The village, seemingly suspended in time, has featured in countless period dramas, including Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Moll Flanders and Cranford.
Linking to InSPIREd Sunday.