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Get ye to a nunnery

Stanbrook Abbey in the Malvern Hills of Worcestershire

Stanbrook Abbey

Stanbrook Abbey

First George W. Bush stared at me. Then George Orwell. Followed by George Bernard Shaw, footballer George Best and Beatle George Harrison. And then George Clooney.

And finally, giggling, HRH Prince George Alexander Louis of the royal house of Windsor looked down at me.

I have never been stared at by so many Georges at the same time. But I suppose you should expect that in George’s Bar. But I didn’t expect to go to the gents.

And standing at the urinal be laughed at by a group of nuns.

“This used to be a closed order,” said Graham, the barman at George Bar, Stanbrook Abbey, in Callow End, between Worcester and Great Malvern, and therefore set in the Malvern Hills of Worcestershire.

Stanbrook Rose Superior SuiteStanbrook Rose Superior Suite

“We must be the only hotel with photos of nuns in our loos.”

Augustus Pugin designed the Palace of Westminster and went mad thinking about Big Ben. His son Edward designed Stanbrook Abbey and its 40-metre, 240 stone steps bell tower. The carved choir stalls and confessional boxes came later.

Benedictine nuns used to walk the cloisters and grounds. Now it’s newlyweds and ‘groupons’ collectors. And Georges.

The original Stanbrook Hall, of which Bride’s Manor is the only part standing, was built for its owner, Richard Case, in 1755. It was bought by Cresacre More, descendant of the martyr Sir Thomas More, for the Second English Benedictine Congregation of Nuns who lived austerely there from 1838 to 2009, when they relocated to Yorkshire.

The More family crest and those of the families of several prominent sisters can be seen along the walls of the Thompson Dining Hall which has morphed into “a unique dining and events space”. Its oak fittings in the former refectory were carved by Robert Thompson, ‘The Mouseman of Kilburn’ (1876-1955), who left mice everywhere he worked.

The Stanbrook nunnery is now a luxury £149-per-night country hotel and 26-acre estate. The abstinent lifestyle is hard to observe

Part of the 1920s revival of craftsmanship, inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement led by Morris, Ruskin and Carlyle, he has a museum and company visitor centre in North Yorkshire. He inspired oak furniture makers like  Thomas ‘Gnomeman’ Whittaker, Derek ‘Lizardman’ Slater, Colin ‘Beaverman’ Almack, Wilf ‘Squirrelman’ Hutchinson and  Malcolm ‘Foxman’ Pipes.

Stanbrook back entranceStanbrook back entrance

The Stanbrook nunnery is now a luxury £149-per-night country hotel and 26-acre estate. The abstinent lifestyle is hard to observe. Modern, lay, self-indulgent luxuries include four-poster or king-size beds with the finest fibre pillows, shaving mirrors, vanity kits, heated towel rails, complimentary Fairtrade tea and ensuite hair dryer. If you want to withdraw from the world but still keep in contact with it there is free Wi-Fi.

Self-denial only really arises with the desserts served surrounded by huge arched windows in Sister Charlotte’s Restaurant, where Chef Mark Palmer tempts you with some very secular and bad-for-you toffee pudding and almond frangipane after fleshly rabbit roulade and duck or no less earthly aubergine tian.

Of course, George’s Bar is the best place to nurse or cuddle a Benedictine.

The Callow Great Hall, the former church of the abbey, was consecrated in 1871. A lot of kneeling has left its mark on the uneven floors. The ceiling is vaulted, transverse and ribbed. Blond, highly polished Tasmanian yew wood used. The Nicholson Organ made in Malvern still booms.

The east Rose Window was designed by John Hardman, and depicts Our Lady of Consolation protecting Benedictine nuns. All the original floor tiles are from Minton, Stoke-on-Trent, which also supplied the flooring for the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC.

The small side chapel is called the Chapel of the Thorny Crown, as it once held a relic of thorns from Glastonbury Cathedral. Allegedly, the head of Christ was moved from Jerusalem to Byzantium and then to Venice and France. Holy thorns from the ‘Zizyphis Spina Christi’ plant are kept around Europe. About a hundred thorns remain.

The Brides Manor – the original 1755 Georgian Manor House, then used as the presbytery, has been converted into a five-bedroom private annexe with parlour and fully-equipped kitchen. The Groom’s Room, once the sacristy where the vestments were prepared for the visiting clergy, is now a piano room. Mother Superior’s spartan cell is now the Abbess Suite.

Stanbrook Abbey was also home to one of the oldest printing presses in England. It was established in 1876 and is the only known private press that was working from the 19th century into the 21st. It was originally located in the approach to St Anne’s Hall, now the home to a satellite kitchen and cloakroom facilities.

The church was deconsecrated in 2009. Major credit cards are accepted these days. Rather than vows of poverty and chastity. It has turned into a popular wedding venue. Although novices are still welcome.

Nunneries are relaxing places. But if you are in pursuit of redemption and salvation and wish to scourge yourself and engage in exercises of self-mortification, then you will be disappointed that the abbey has no spa, gym or fitness centre. But the bell tower provides a good aerobic step-up. And an escape from all the Georges.

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Stanbrook Bride’s ManorStanbrook Bride’s Manor

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