“Turn left just past Jesus,” instructed the reception manager. Grabbing my bag with a grin, I wondered what other surprises lay in store for me during my first night in a Nunnery. Seeking a weekend of calm and serenity far from the corporate pressure cooker, I was delighted to accept an invitation to the grand opening of Stanbrook Abbey in rural Worcestershire.
Spread across 80,000 square metres, the extensive Grade II listed Pugin Abbey was formerly inhabited by Benedictine Nuns before being saved from rack and ruin by former Dreams Founder and Amazing Venues Chairman, Mike Clare. Battling red tape as far as the Vatican, the resulting five million pound refurbishment has transformed the Abbey’s fortunes – creating one of the most sought-after corporate and wedding venues in the West Midlands.
Wandering through the sun-dappled cloisters, my eyes are drawn to the bold artworks and sculptures lining the walls which include the aforementioned stunning life-size wood carving of Jesus.
Sympathetically restored, intimate details of daily life – from the marble holy water bowls to the imprint of the nuns’ knees on the chapel floor tiles – provide a fascinating window into a closed community that has endured for one hundred and seventy years. When the nuns finally left in 2009 to move to Yorkshire, it was reported that they covered their coach windows to shield them from life in the outside world. An insight that’s all the more intriguing in light of the recent news that women entering religious life has reached a twenty-five year high.
The clash of a gong summons us to dinner in the Thompson Dining Room where lofty wooden beams merge seamlessly with state-of-the-art glass frontages. Led by Head Chef, Sean Byrne, it’s gratifying to note that the menu is composed of wholesome ingredients sourced from local farms. Arriving in a blaze of crimson, our goats cheese and beetroot starter provides an intriguing blend of sweet and savoury tastes and textures. The main act is a side of deliciously tender Hereford beef dished up with a mouth-tingling, home-made horseradish sauce before the grand finale arrives in the form of a Malteser-esque bomb filled with a decadent rich and creamy ganache.
During the course of the meal, we shuttle back and forth to the Callow Great Hall to experience the Abbey’s live cabaret show. Featuring stars freshly plucked from the West End, the Chicago-esque hits raise the vaulted ceilings and ricochet round the stained glass windows – creating the most astounding acoustic effects. The shows are to become a regular feature in the Abbey’s entertainment programme along with wine tasting events conducted in the basement wine cellar (formerly the bakery), where you can also pot a few blacks in the adjacent snooker room.
Groaning after all this indulgence, we repair to the ordered calm of the Library Bar where cheese boards are swiftly set out before us. Forcing myself out of the plush, leather armchairs, I inspect the wall-to-wall books and discover a few interesting finds including a decidedly unsaintly offering from Danielle Steele.
Retiring to my cell a few hours later, I settle into my small but comfortable room which is swathed in a palette of ecclesiastical mauves and purples. The spacious en-suite bathroom is a far cry from the Spartan conditions of my predecessors who shared four bathrooms to ninety cells. Climbing into my fortress of pillows, I glance guiltily at the framed photos of the Sisters above me before succumbing to the comforts of my Dreams mattress amidst the distant chimes of the bell tower.
Well rested, I set out the following morning to explore more of the 26-acre walled grounds. Paved lounging areas provide the perfect space to kick back with friends and savour a jug or two of Pimms before retreating to your very own wicker pod for some silent contemplation in the company of a good book. A further stroll through the lavender-filled gardens takes you past orchards to the serene Willow Lake where you can enjoy a gentle sway on the garden swing. Active types can also indulge in a spot of archery or a quick zoom on a Segway – arriving later this month.
Returning to the outside world later that day, I feel refreshed and revived and a million miles away from the frantic rush of corporate life in London. Staying in such a unique venue allows a rare chance to experience the comforts of a luxury hotel within the ordered calm of a sacred site of religious devotion. If Stanbrook Abbey was part of the deal, I could just about be persuaded to renounce the office and enter religious life myself.
Stanbrook Abbey is available for weddings, corporate and team building events as well as weekend stays, lunches, dinners and afternoon teas.
Travel connections: Direct trains run from London Paddington to Worcester Foregate Station or take the London Euston train and change at Birmingham New Street for Worcester Foregate station. (My ticket cost £37.00 return, leaving during peak travel time on Friday and returning on Saturday afternoon.)
Taxis to Stanbrook Abbey from Worcester Foregate station take ten minutes and cost approximately £11.00.