Blythburgh Priory, Blythburgh, Suffolk
Blythburgh Priory, Blythburgh, Suffolk
2006 – A start

Our first few months or so were spent patching up the house, stopping water coming in, essential repairs, tidying the site and really feeling our way around, whilst we consolidated our ideas and plans for the renovations. Having moved into an unheated house in the December 2005 with frost on the ground and having spent most of the winter months in a ‘coats-on’ house, a heating system was very high on our list and in July 2006,with the help of Chartered Architect, Alan Greening, AADipArch, RIBA, FFB, AABC, we applied for consent.

Alan was extremely helpful in guiding us through these initial hoops. He also prepared a significant Conservation Statement to accompany this, our first application to the SCDC. This had been prepared from a combination of historical research and on-the-ground analysis and I had the pleasure of joining Alan through his inspection of the house finding carpenters marks, piecing together the obvious stages of build around the C17 core; [although no clue as to how it was ever split into two cottages*]; all interestingly were surprisingly accurate to the selling agents particulars, and, of course, the formal Grade II Listing.

*on repairing the frontage pebble-dash [roughcast render] in…we did uncover the original front door opening of the C17 “mariners house”, centre south elevation.

The Ruins gradually appear from the undergrowth

Alan Greening was naturally very keen to see the ruins, which up to now had still been way off our agenda; we were much more interested in having some heating and a new kitchen more appropriate to the house and larger than the shoe box we were currently cooking in. But, as part of his Conservation Statement inspection, Alan could not be restrained and we set off into the undergrowth through 80 years of brambles and ivy. It was slow going and to our amazement behind what looked like an ivy clad tree was a tower of mortared core-stonework, 25 feet or so high.

On discovery of this very overgrown and strangulated stonework Alan was in no doubt we needed to meet urgently with English Heritage to see what could be done before the ruins were finally lost to nature. Close inspection revealed various walls and fallen debris. The ruins were most certainly ‘at risk’.

As were the villagers, kept away from The Priory, the Ruins were definitely ‘off-limits’ to the public and most definitely English Heritage, and with the exception of some passing romantic interest by Seymour-Lucas [Lutyens seat, vine-eyes, and planters] it seems these were left for nature to take them back after Seymour-Lucas’s death in 1923 when the house was passed on down the Grubbe family line.

Interestingly the Ruins didn’t come into the ownership of The Priory until 1953; we found a lease in the Priory papers from the Blois Estate to daughter Marie Ellen dated 1925, but can find nothing earlier, although it seems likely he had an earlier agreement with the Blois Estate.

For the record his granddaughter Margaret, who bought the Ruins in 1953 also bought ‘Abbey Cottage’ in 1954. His son Sydney bought ‘Priory Lodge’ and ‘Traverse Cottage’ and the piece of ground [known as the ‘Triangle’] in 1928.

Enter English Heritage…and a history lesson

Looking back, it would be fair to say, that Susan and I were extremely naïve by not anticipating the likely financial and energy-sapping impact of these issues; after all, I ran a building company and had dealt with Listed Buildings before; but this was not just a Listed Building. The obligation and extent of effort needed to achieve tackling a Listed/Historic Building and/or Scheduled Site is not to be underestimated; ‘The Priory’ [house] was Grade II Listed, the Ruins were also Grade II Listed and The Site was ‘Scheduled’ and each of these Listings has a great bearing on what you can and cannot do and we certainly needed help, so based on Alan’s advice we met with John Ette, English Heritage, Monuments Inspector and, like Alan, he was thrilled to get an opportunity to finally see a glimpse of the ruins.

This first meeting during the summer of 2006 with John Ette, lasted over three hours and in addition to clear and concise guidance regarding delicate clearing of the site away from the ruins, he explained how English Heritage might be able to assist with certain clearance, maintenance, and repair issues, which would also enable a first accurate recording of the ruins, which was the first step in a possible understanding of the layout of this Augustinian site.

It also became clear, as the penny finally started to drop, that not only were we looking at a site, which was almost certainly 900 years old, but also there was a strong likelihood that it could be one of the earliest Christian sites in England, maybe as a C8th minster. At 9 years of ownership [at the time of writing] our fraction of custodianship was barely 0.7% and the major task of renovations of the house was now paralleled with an additional project of getting our newly discovered historic ruins from their current state of disorder to order.

The major difficulty in trying to ‘restore’ the Seymour Lucas ‘Priory Place’ and gardens was the various regulations that applied to the site; things we all take for granted, like putting in a fence post, planting a tree, repairing a drain; it all needs consent and when disturbing the ground beyond a spade depth, it needs archaeology, or more appropriately archaeological monitoring, so the need to engage with English Heritage became urgently paramount.

What was I saying about never underestimating the obligation and extent of effort needed to achieve tackling a Listed/Historic Building and/or Site? It was very much a case of in for a penny, in for a pound and we had little choice other than to add the restoration and understanding of the Ruins to our project list - actually, to be truthful in our escalating enthusiasm we rather embraced the prospect.