When I can’t sleep at night I have a failsafe remedy. I think of a place I love and I take my unquiet mind on a slow tour of its every element. As I lay last night, my brain flitting like a fly between thoughts, I summoned up Woodspring Priory, the Landmark Trust building on the Somerset coast where I spent my birthday last summer. The weather was extraordinary. It was 32 degrees day after day and the soupy waters of the Bristol Channel washed bathwater-warm over the wide sands. Our party was a composite one, old friends and their families, a jumble of godchildren and flatmates, tutorial partners and best-friends from decades past. As I lay in the dark I pushed open the heavy door into the sunlit courtyard. Before me rose the great tower of the priory, majestic in lichen-specked stone. In my mind I turned the giant key in the lock and slipped silently in.
Woodspring Priory was just that, a church which was turned quickly and pragmatically into a house soon after Henry VIII abolished the monasteries. It has remained one ever since, brought back from near-dereliction by the Landmark three decades ago. It is a topsy-turvy treasure, bedrooms inserted into the crossing tower, Tudor windows gazing through blocked up medieval chancel arches, rooms jettied out into the priory church. From destruction and the subsequent adaptation a remarkable, messy marvel was created.
In my midnight meander, my friends were somewhere beyond, and I caught only distant noises. Children’s high-low laughter, the thunk of footballs being booted, birdsong, the murmur of adult voices. Through the whole building warm air drifted, its intense heat sapped by massive stone and ancient oak. The sweet dry smell of wild thyme and rush seated chairs and summer. Beyond the high airy sitting room lay the cloister, its trees providing shade, lush grass dappled with Indian cotton throws, paperbacks and discarded shoes. Culturally incongruous Cuban folk music from a distant speaker. The last sensation I remember as sleep engulfed me the smooth stone threshold on my bare feet, worn into a hollow by generations gone.
Woodspring Priory has seen turmoil - reformation and civil war, plague and pandemics - many times in its five centuries. Its quiet splendour has endured and it is a monument to the capacity, even in such times, for the sun to rise and set, the seasons to change and life to go on. I can’t help feeling that the power of such places will seem all the greater when normal life resumes. Absence from them, and the beauty and happiness that they bring, only makes the heart grow fonder.