A beautiful building set within a breathtaking landscape is at risk.
Deteriorating Milton Abbey requires more than £300,000 to fix its roof, which was seriously damaged in the recent winter storms.
The iconic 1,000-year-old building, near Dorchester, is failing to attract enough visitors to generate revenue for the required repair and restoration work.
Things have got so bad that the abbey, nestled next to independent Milton Abbey School, is now on English Heritage’s At Risk register.
Although a bid for £700,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund could be approved in September, a boost in visitor numbers will be needed to build new facilities and make the abbey and landscape financially sustainable in the long term.
The ancient abbey is set within a 300 acre landscape designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, and is thought to be one of the top 10 ‘Capability’ schemes in the country.
The perfectly framed vision of moving hills and flowing lake looking down into the valley towards the abbey is described as ‘looking into the cradle of England’.
The Earl and Countess of Wessex recently visited to hear details of the work needed, which will involve repairing and restoring the guttering, walls, ceilings, windows and floor of the abbey.
But just why are visitors staying away?
Michael McAvoy, head of the abbey’s fundraising committee, said: “The building isn’t about to fall down but it has a lot of problems requiring about £300,000 to be spent on it.
“The reason why it hasn’t been dealt with is because there’s limited revenue coming to this place because we have very limited visitor numbers.
“Our problem is that people don’t know the abbey is here.”
Antiques Roadshow expert Paul Atterbury, who lives in Dorset, recently unveiled a new exhibition focusing on the history of the abbey and Augustus Pugin, the designer of the great stained glass window in the abbey.
It would appear as though the building has no problem attracting international visitors.
Hendrik Mesman and Henk Huisman were visiting from Antwerp, Belgium.
Despite the abbey’s hushed and seemingly formal grandeur, pianist Henk was invited to have a go on the abbey’s piano.
Hendrik said: “We’re staying at a B&B in Marnhull because we’re here for the Boogie Woogie Festival in Sturminster Newton.
“Our landlady recommended Milton Abbey to us. It’s very interesting to see and I like the fact that it is often used for services and concerts.”
The visitors’ book records visitors from as far afield as Australia, Singapore, Bangladesh, New Zealand and the USA. Among the comments are ‘larger and grander than anticipated’, ‘a hidden gem off the beaten track’ ‘an unexpected delight hidden by the school’ and ‘an absolutely breathtaking place’.
Cynthia Smith, visiting from Northamptonshire having moved from Christchurch, New Zealand, wrote: “This is England, how beautiful and quiet this valley is.”
One visitor, with the initials JQ, wrote: “My darling Chloe sang to me in the abbey and I was blown away.”
Michael, who has written a book on Milton Abbas and Milton Abbey, said there is a lot of work ahead for the abbey’s awareness campaign.
“We need to make people more aware of the importance of the place and we’re just starting off this long term process. Hopefully we will complete the renovation scheme, including greatly improved visitor facilities, in time for Capability Brown 300 in 2016 when 300 years of his designs will be celebrated,” he said.
Even further into the future, Milton Abbey supporters want to create a cafeteria and longer term dedicated car parking. The abbey seems to hold particular resonance with couples. Some of them get married there and return each year for their anniversary.
Natalie, Dean and family wrote: “Myself Natalie and my husband Dean were married in this beautiful abbey last year by Ray – such a lovely, kind man.
“We will be coming back here every year because we have such wonderful memories. We now have a beautiful baby boy to complete our family with Jessica.
“This place means so much to us and our future happiness.
“Words can’t thank you enough.”
- The Pugin and 1000 Years of Milton Abbey exhibitions will be open until August 31, daily from 10am to 5pm People who feel passionately about the abbey can help by joining the Friends of Milton Abbey on its website, see miltonabbey.org