The Loveliest Mix between an Abbey and a House 

What makes Lacock Abbey a unique place is the concept of conservation. It started when William Sharington bought Lacock Abbey and the estate around it. Unlike other new owners who got their hands on nunneries, monasteries or abbeys and demolished them to build proper stately homes, Sharington tried to convert the old convent into a house and still maintain its ancient essence.

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A couple of generations later when the Talbot family occupied the estate, they followed Sharrington’s example (more or less) meaning that Lacock Abbey House is probably one of the most exciting combinations of a house and a nunnery in the country. This unique result has attracted many television and film productions to the house and in one of them, Lacock Abbey was portrayed as part of the Hogwarts school of wizardry in the first Harry Potter film franchise.

The history of Lacock Abbey begins with a fascinating character called Ella, the Countess of Salisbury. Her husband was an illegitimate son of King Henry II and when he died, she became one of the richest women in England. She decided to build the abbey in 1232 and after it was built, she became the first abbess. During that period, the monastery was also used as a sort of hotel for the wives of the barons and knights who had departed on the crusades to the Holyland. Their husbands paid handsomely (mostly with land) for their accommodation, making the nunnery very profitable.

The abbey thrived for 300 years until Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. It was the last abbey in England to be dissolved. Sir Henry Sharington bought it for around £0.5M in today’s value, and as already mentioned, did not demolish it but converted into a house, keeping the ground floor almost as it was. 

Sharington was a real character. He had a job in the Bristol Mint and since he kept buying land, he needed a lot of cash and so he ended up using his position to forge coinage and almost ended up executed. His brother inherited his estate and through his daughter’s marriage, it arrived in the hands of the Talbot family (the same family from Margam Castle in South Wales). They held it for almost 300 years until it was given to the National Trust along with the village nearby. During the days of the Talbot family, this house had the only lasting copy of the Magan Carta that was signed by King Henry III in 1225. 

In the 19th Century, Lacock Abbey was the home of Henry Fox Talbot who was one of the early inventors in the field of photography. A photograph that he took of one of Lacock Abbey’s lattice windows in 1835 is considered to be the earliest negative photo ever made (and you can still see the window today…). 

When you visit the estate today, Lacock Abbey can seem like two separate houses. The ground floor still looks like a medieval nunnery while the top levels look like a sort of Tudor/ stately gothic home. The most significant update to the house was undertaken in the middle of the 18th century in a gothic, Georgian style and included a new great hall decorated with several statues. The most interesting one consists of a goat with a strange sugar lump on its nose. Apparently, it all started as a prank joke over 100 years ago, but it became a sort of good luck charm so the National Trust volunteers maintain that tradition up to these days. 

Luckily for us, the conservation, in this case, did not end with the house and the estate, it also included parts of the village next to it. Lacock Abbey village still offers a unique atmosphere with no TV antennas or street lamps making it – again – a fantastic location set for the original series of ‘Pride and Prejudice’, three different Harry Potter films and more.

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A Great Day Out. Still, Something is Missing.

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We visited Lacock Abbey during an early spring weekend. There were two different attractions to explore: firstly, you have the mansion itself and from its name, you could trace its origins way back to the days before Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. Outside the house, you can explore the heart of the village which is also managed by the National Trust. 

We started our visit to the house and its gardens on the banks of the Avon river. When you visit the ground floor, you can see a great cauldron, a little souvenir from the Harry Potter history of the house. On this floor, you can also explore a small historical exhibition about the house and about Ella, the woman who built the abbey in 1232.

I already mentioned in my Lacock Abbey overview that this is one of the most exciting mixtures of a house and an abbey that we have visited so far. There wasn’t any tour on offer, but like every National Trust property, there were many volunteers in the rooms who were happy to have a chat about the house. I believe that having a tour in such a unique home is very important to understand its evolution. Once you have finished exploring the house and the gardens, you can also explore the Fox Talbot museum dedicated to the development of photography.  

Next, it was time to visit the village. Unlike the house, the village is free to visit even if you are not a member of the National Trust. There is an excellent map with a trail to follow around the village to see some of the locations that were used in the Harry Potter films, such as the house of Harry’s parents or the home of Professor Horace Slughorn. Still, it is not a big village and it can get crowded. Between the house and the village, you can also find a nice climbing frame. 

With so many things to visit and explore, Lacock Abbey is definitely one of the best places of the National Trust we have visited so far. However, I still feel that something is missing. The National Trust is trying very hard to increase its appeal to wider audiences: this includes purchasing the childhood homes of John Lenon and Paul McCartney, for example. Here at Lacock we have a great example of a place where you could really provide kids and teenagers with something exciting, like a TV and movie on-location tour, but nothing is on offer. Still, Lacock Abbey is an enjoyable day out and If I were to employ my regular method of comparing castles and houses to restaurants and adapting the Michelin guide rules, I would say that this place is worthy of one star.

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