Zoe Chamberlain reflects on changing times at a former nunnery in a peaceful part of Worcestershire.
For more than 200 years no-one set foot inside Stanbrook Abbey in this quiet corner of Worcestershire.
This imposing property at Callow End has housed a strict order of more than 100 Benedictine nuns.
Then, in 2009, the number of nuns had dwindled to just 25 so they decided it was time to sell the abbey and for them to move to a modern, purpose-built nunnery in Yorkshire.
Last summer Mike Clare, the former owner of Dreams bed shop, bought the stunning property and is now renovating it to be used for corporate and community events, such as banquets and concerts.
Vicky Kinasz, operations director for Clare’s company Clarenco, says: “After selling Dreams, Mike didn’t want to put his money into stocks and shares, he wanted to invest in a project he and his wife could enjoy doing together.
“And so they started Amazing Retreats, buying historic houses, trying to maintain their history and beauty so that other people could enjoy them, be it for family breaks away, hen weekends or large corporate banquets.
“There’s a 13th century castle in Scotland, a Napoleonese fort and an Elizabethan cottage.
“There’s an Arts and Crafts castle called Beaucastle in Bewdley, People get to hire the whole building for a few nights. It may cost about £3,000 but between 20-odd people that works out the same as booking a weekend away at a hotel.”
Stanbrook Abbey is, understandably, a somewhat different venture to a simple country cottage.
It has 100 ‘‘cells’’ – the nuns’ sparse bedrooms with just enough space for a single bed, a bookshelf and a sink. They shared a bathroom between about eight cells. There remains a quiet stillness to the place and some poignant suggestions as to the women who lived here before: a battered old chair in the garden for silent reflection, a series of low-hanging lights said to be so because all of the nuns were short in stature, and small indentations beneath the wooden pews where they used to kneel and pray.
And, most remarkably, the bells in the bell tower which ring every seven-and-a-half minutes – day and night – a reminder of just how long the nuns would have had to pack their belongings and escape when they were being persecuted in France from where they relocated in 1835.
The property was originally a Georgian house called Stanbrook Hall and is now called the Presbytery,” Vicky explains.
“The nuns had an awful job trying to buy it because at that time people weren’t allowed to deal with Catholics.
“So they had to go through a third party who bought it on their behalf and sold it on to them.”
Over the years a local architect called Charles Day enlarged the hall and chapel and, since then, additional buildings have been added.
It was completed in 1871 and the chapel was consecrated.
The nuns established the Stanbrook Press in 1876 and they used to publish religious books. One of the nuns was a particularly well-known author called Dame Felicitas Corrigan.
Day-to-day life was very strict for the nuns, as Vicky explains: “As Benedictine nuns, theirs was one of the strictest orders.
“They weren’t sworn to a wow of silence but they were encouraged to be quiet, to work and to pray for most of the day with only 30 to 60 minutes recreation time.
“In the chapel, they used to do a Gregorian chant which was specific to them.
“For more than 200 years, no-one had seen inside the abbey.
“Until 1971, the nuns could only come into individual rooms to see their family through a metal grid.
“Then they took the metal grids down and the nuns would come through a door and sit at a little table with their family. There are several of these little meeting rooms in a line, and the family could never see through to the cloisters behind the doors.
“It’s like something from the Sound of Music.”
Clarenco held a carol concert last Christmas, with a 90-strong choir, and invited the local community to come and see inside the abbey.
Vicky says: “There’s always been such intrigue surrounding the abbey, a lot of people had aunties and nieces in there.
“It was packed – there were 160 people in the chapel. It was amazing.
“Earlier this year we put a pop-up restaurant for people to enjoy dinner in the chapel.
“The chapel was de-consecrated in May 2009 which means no religious ceremonies can be held there again.
“We hope to hold music concerts, banquets and even perhaps wedding receptions there. We also hope to introduce a swimming pool and spa.”
Alan Dudley has been caretaker at Stanbrook Abbey for the past six years.
His grandfather was a caretaker for 27 years before him.
“When my grandad was here, the nuns were completely self-sufficient,” says Alan, who still lives on site in the old Presbytery.
“They had milking cows and chickens and they grew their own food. By the time they left there were only around 25 nuns and they had food delivered from a catering firm.
“I would see the nuns as I worked and we would say ‘good morning’ but never anything more.
“The only people I had dealings with were the cellarer, who was my boss and dealt with the money, and the abbess.
“They always wore their habits and wimples although they had lighter weight habits for when they were working.
“A chaplain used to come every morning to take the first service. There were about four to five services in the chapel every day. It was always very quiet, there was never much noise.
“The bells have always automatically rung every seven-and-a-half minutes day and night. It never really phased me, you soon get used to it so you hardly notice them at all.
“I know the nuns would start their day at 5am, they would have their services and their meal times but I never really knew what the nuns did with their time.
“I know they had their own jobs, such as seamstresses, running the bookshop, cooking the meals or working on the presses.
“Lights out was at 10pm. There wasn’t any socialising in the evenings. After dinner there would be time for evening prayers and quiet contemplation.
“The stuff they had was very basic but they also kept a lot of rubbish. They never threw anything away. Even if it was broken, they’d put it to one side rather than throwing it out.
“There was just one television in the common room but they very rarely tuned in. They may have had a CD player but they never seemed to use it.
“One sister would walk down to the village shop every morning to pick up the papers for them to read. They did keep up to date with what was going on in the world.
“All of the light fittings are low, simply because most of the sisters were quite short. I don’t know why, they just were. It means I’m always banging my head as I walk round.
“Before they moved, the nuns had a car boot sale to sell off their furniture.
“More than 1,000 people turned up – I think they thought they’d have a chance to look inside but the nuns held it all outside and no-one got to see in.
“The community have always been quite intrigued about what goes on here, most people had no idea until they came to the carol concert.”
* For more information see www.amazingretreats.com