The monks have long gone, but one of my absolute favourite places to visit in Cambridge is Anglesey Abbey, (previously Anglesey Priory and built in the 12th century by a community of Augustinians). I first visited over thirty years ago and it has long stayed in my memory, not for the priceless objets d’art, but for it’s homely and comforting feel. It’s the kind of house you can really imagine people living in, kicking off their shoes and curling up on the sofa by the fire with a good book, rather than simply being a showcase to their wealth. Of course, there are acres of gardens to stroll around (96 in total), with or without a dog at your heels and herbaceous borders to admire, but all of a style and size that are relatable and on a more human scale.
Then there’s the library. And what a glorious library it is too. Unlike the grand libraries of the likes of Chatsworth, you can actually see, smell, but sadly not touch the books. You can imagine yourself spending hours and hours in there, reading and writing completely undisturbed by the interruptions of everyday life….
The last owner, Lord Fairhaven was indeed a lucky chap. He travelled the world in order to collect beautiful artefacts and furnished Anglesey Abbey with impeccable taste. Admittedly, he inherited a fortune of £10 million in the 1900s, (around £300,000,000 today), which enabled him to do so, but he must have enjoyed the peace and quiet, the beauty and harmony of this glorious hideaway full of interesting painting and clocks, objets d’art and furniture, for it still exudes an air of cosiness, of being a sanctuary and a well-loved home.
Born in the US during its golden age, Fairhaven was educated at Harrow, and was later trained at the Military Academy and entered the 1st Life Guards. For all this privilege, he was a cripplingly shy man who never married, and little is really known about him (he didn’t like to be interviewed and gave little away about himself). However, it would seem that he gained a meaning for his life through travelling and collecting, and through entertaining small groups of people with whom he wanted to share his good fortune.
Thankfully, his social conscience meant that on his death he left the house and all its contents to the National Trust. And I’m so glad that he did.
But looking around the house, at the objects of interests, the collections of pictures, memorabilia from the races at Newmarket, I wonder, is it the essence of the man that lingers fifty years after his death? Or is it the seclusion and spirituality of the Augustinian priors who built the Abbey brick by brick and lived there so many years before him, or their simple ways of life and their closeness to God, which perhaps for all his wealth, he secretly craved?