GOTHIC MASTERPIECE - Lancaster Life September 2004
Even after it stood on the verge of collapse after years of neglect, Conishead Priory remained what it had been for 150 years – a majestic masterpiece with a ‘wow’ factor few other buildings can match.
Its Gothic towers, ornate stonework and intricate carvings once symbolised the power of the English aristocracy, but when the stunning 80 room mansion near the edge of Morecambe Bay was first seen by its new owners, decay was so well advanced that this spectacular structure look doomed.
More than £1 million has since been invested in saving Conishead Priory in the last 28 years but more costly work is urgently needed soon to secure its future as one of the most distinctive mansions in the north-west.
The credit for saving Conishead Priory, tow miles south of Ulverston on the A5807 coast road to Bardsea belongs to a Buddhist community who paid £70,000 for the building at auction in 1976 and have since dedicated themselves to the heroic challenge of restoring it to its former glory.
Apart from its beautiful stonework and landmark 100ft high lantern towers, Conishead, which took 15 years to build, was famed for its carved animal figures on the roof, elegant bedrooms, 177 feet long cloister corridor, baronial style hall, suits of armour dating back 600 years, a dining room finished in carved oak, a 78 feet long conservatory, superb gardens and 50 acres of woodland.
As well as raising more than £1 million, the Manjushri Kadampa Buddhist Centre has invested thousands of hours of voluntary labour to eradicate dry rot and bring back into use what had been a derelict building, described by English Heritage as ‘a very important Gothic revival country house with few peers in the North West.’
Now, to prevent further risk, urgent restoration work to the outside of the building is needed. This includes reinstating the roof, gutters and parapets to their original quality and rebuilding the octagonal towers. The first phase of the work will cost £1.5 million and so far the Heritage Lottery Fund has given £100,000 towards development work costs. A further £900,000 has provisionally been pledged, enabling work to start shortly, but a major fundraising campaign has been launched to make up the difference.
The Conishead story would have been so different had the building been left much longer. After four years of dereliction, rain water poured in through the roof, dry rot was well advanced, fungus had spread rapidly to the point of reducing timbers to powder, and by 1976 other parts of the building were close to collapse.
Urgent work was carried out by the Buddhist community. Beams were replaced, rotting wood; bricks and plaster ripped away, fungicide injected into the walls and the remaining timbers were chemically treated.
A £500,000 appeal fund was launched in 1991 to fully restore the interior of the building. Whole floors and walls were replaced and the top floor was converted into accommodation for the growing community.
With visitors from all over the world arriving at Conishead every year for festivals and courses, the building has been put to a very different use than the one for which it was intended. It was built for Col. Thomas Bradyll, of the Coldstream Regiment of Footguards, whose family had lived in the 16th century house on the same site for more than 100 years.
Thomas wanted something special, even ostentatious – and he got it with the eye catching style of architect P W Wyatt who designed distinctive features like a grand entrance with towers on either side; an arched organ gallery; cloisters beneath the five bedroom west wing; extravagant marble chimney pieces; luxurious bedrooms, dressing rooms and boudoirs; a vaulted hall measuring 60 feet by 24 feet high decorated ceiling; and an octagonal vestibule opening from the cloisters to the East Terrace, with views through glass doors to the river estuary, Chapel Island and Cartmel.
Thomas and his family did not have long to enjoy the stylish living he created at Conishead, with its 78 feet long conservatory, acres of splendid flower gardens and arboretum, an ornamental summer house and a lake stocked with trout. The end came when he was made bankrupt after heavy losses in the family owned Durham coal mines and the whole estate was bought by Henry Askew who built the clock tower on the west side with its distinctive clock and chimes.
The sale was no panacea. For some time Conishead stood unoccupied and neglected and in 1878 the mansion was acquired by a Scottish syndicate who used it as a hydropathic hotel until 1925 when it was bought by Dr John Wishart and Rev Dr J C Gibson who were foiled in their attempt to turn it into a holiday centre.
Then, mercifully, came a period of stability and improvement as Conishead was sold for £35,000 to take on a new role as a convalescent home for Durham miners, with £10,000 a year set aside for its upkeep. Miners, many suffering from respiratory diseases, drew lots to decide who would enjoy the benefits of a stay there, and with Turkish baths and an electric lift installed, plus hot and cold running water in every room it was a popular refuge from pit life with more than 2,800 residents a year.
In World War Two Conishead became the biggest military hospital in the North West before it was handed back to the miners to be used for a further 25 years.
The fate of the building looked to be sealed in 1972 when it was auctioned and left abandoned for four years for a decision on a plan to demolish it and build a holiday village on the site. The outcry that followed helped to secure one last chance – a chance the Buddhists were determined to seize as they set about the task of saving a building that stood on the site of a 12th century priory where the ‘Black Canons’ looked after lepers.
Recent excavations of the site have revealed information on the location and structure of the original buildings. The main church stood on the site of the present south lawn. The hospital, almshouses and domestic buildings occupied the site of the present house. Carved sandstone blocks from the medieval chapter house can still be seen in the south wall.
Spokesman Kelsang Pagpa, said: ‘Everyone who lives in or visits the priory is experiencing the many benefits that have come from all the dedicated work on the building over the last 28 years. This responsibility now continues in order to secure the long-term future of the Priory for many generations to come. In this way Manjushri Kadapma Meditation Centre will continue to be a place of great peace and inspiration for the thousands of people who visit and stay here each year.
Conishead today exudes confidence and vitality and with further restoration firmly in place its Gothic charm looks certain to carry on drawing gasps of admiration for generations to come
ULVERSTON MAYOR’S SPEECH ON THE OCCASION OF THE LAUNCH OF THE CONISHEAD PRIORY RESTORATION PROJECT 7 APPEAL 14th MAY 2003.
I would like to thank Pagpa for inviting me here today.
I am very proud to be here today celebrating with everyone present the excellent news of the development grant received from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The Priory is a superb building with a varied history but none more important than with the arrival of the Manjushri Buddhists. This group has worked tirelessly towards rebuilding, improving, and fundraising to restore the Priory to its original splendour and much more. It is a major attraction for Ulverston and fetches thousands of visitors to help the local economy.
No other group could have achieved so much with the Priory and it is a great credit and honour that they have made their home with us.
Fundraising must still go on to cover the next stage of restoration and I hope everyone will do their very best to support the Buddhists with money towards their work.
Thank you all.
FELL TREK AIMS TO RAISE £16,000 FOR BUDDHISTS
Sixteen walkers are reaching for the skies in a six-day hike to raise funds for a well-known Furness landmark.
They are aiming to conquer the highest peaks in the Lake District during their 76 mile hike to raise funds for Conishead Priory, which has become home to a flourishing Buddhist community centre since 1976.
The first phase of restoration work at the Manjushri Kadampa Meditation Centre, which is costing £1.3m, is due to start in October. It is hoped the walkers can raise more than £16,000 for the restoration through sponsorship.
Priory spokesman, Kelsang Pagpa, who is a Buddhist monk, said the sponsored walk is called the Mountain Mandala Trek.
He said, “This walk is to raise money for the restoration project due to start at the end of October. It is quite a major undertaking.
“It is a six day walk. Covering 76.5 miles and the total ascent is 29,300ft, approximately the height of Mount Everest. There are actually 37 peaks, including all the big ones over 3,000ft such as Scalfell Pike, Scafell, Skiddaw and Helvellyn.
“Then there are all the others such as Great Gable and Coniston Old Man which are between 2,500 and 3,000ft. We have 16 people signed up for the walk and we’re hoping to raise £16,000.
“We’ve already raised £4,400 from our centre in Hong Kong and £4,000 from our American centre.
The trek is being led by trained mountain guide David Butler from Kendal.
Walkers set out from Coniston on Sunday August 29 and finish at Ambleside on Friday 3 September.
The centre is waiting for final confirmation its £900,000 grant from the National Lottery towards the cost of restoration. The first phase will take about a year and involves replacing the main roofs and restoring the high stone work.
The second stage involves restoring the two towers. The cost of both projects will be about £2m.