The Nuns of Usk Priory
A Monmouthshire Christmas
By Maria Hubert
Published by Sutton Publishing 1995
o Christmas is complete without its complement of ghost stories, and Monmouthshire has its fair share. Never one to take such stories too seriously, I still cannot quite believe what happened to me on my first visit to Monmouthshire in December 1970.
One bright Winter's day, shortly before Christmas, I went to Usk Priory . The property, a twelfth-century foundation, had in Post-Reformation times become a gentleman's residence. After a fire, it was put on the market and that is how I found it. Looking for something unusual to turn into a restaurant and hotel, here I had it all: even the adjoining churchyard was a place of pilgrimage - `Goody, pilgrimage teas,' I thought.
I had decided that I would buy the place even before I looked around. There were some builders working on a large house nearby, and I stopped to ask them the way into the ground `You going in there alone?' asked one. I thought he was afraid for my dainty ankle on the upper floors, damaged by the fire! `Of course,' I answered. `I hope to buy it.'
`Needs a bit of doin' to it,' answered my companion doubtfully who had indeed become so, escorting me through the grounds and to the house door. `Are you sure you ought?' He seemed anxious not to come into the house, but said that if I did not return in half an hour, he would come and check on me.
'Leave it an hour, I want to get the feel of the place and take some measurements,' I rejoined. `Don't worry, I'll scream if I fall through the floor.' I grinned at him as I turned the huge iron key in the lock.
I could not decide whether he was after a building job or whether he had taken a shine to me in my Christmassy- red hooded top - and a nose to match, no doubt. Anyway, I began my tour of the house. Five enormous rooms downstairs, a kitchen with a door leading out to the court where I planned to have my pilgrimage teas. Along a corridor here which was obviously part of the old monastic cloister to a wonderful library, it turned the corner to a dead end, with signs of what was once an arched stone doorway, where the cloister would have carried on to meet the side door of the church, which still served as Usk parish church. I spent some time in the library, a big sunny room with huge Elizabethan windows. It was wonderfully welcoming, even in its poor state. After sandwiches and hot chocolate from a flask, I went upstairs.
The rooms here were just as impressive. The bathroom left a lot to be desired: just big enough for a bath and toilet, It was within the thickness of the wall over the cloister. There was also a narrow staircase leading up to the attics. Three times I started to climb that stairway, and yet could not continue. I was gripped with a fear which I could not explain. I am not a claustrophobic person - I hid in cupboards and holes as a child, and still like cosy poky corners. The room at the end of the house, over the library, was boarded off because this was where the fire had been. It had been the nuns' private chapel in the original convent, but subsequently, I assume, just another bedroom. There were no details about it on the estate agent's sheet.
I went back to the first room, and stood looking down on the courtyard, planning my restaurant, wondering if the church bells would edify or annoy hotel guests, and toying with the idea of asking my building acquaintance to come and give me an idea of costs to get things started. Then to my annoyance, in the dusk, I saw five nuns walking from the far end of the house, by the library, towards the church. `Blow it! I thought. `Obviously someone else is after the place too.' The estate agent had said something about another interested party, but had I known nuns were after it, I would not have bothered getting all steamed up about the place. It was a perfect convent setting in the twelfth century, and still was in 1970, and I was not one to oust a convent of nuns just to have restaurant!
When I left, the nuns were not in sight - probably looking round the church, I thought. Going round by the builder, who was packing up as I passed, I called to him that I was OK, and took the key back to the agents. They had already closed, as it was just after 6 p.m. so I put the keys through the letterbox and went into the old pub on the square in front of the priory walls. Curiously the locals began asking questions, the whys, whos and wherefores of my visit somehow they already knew I had been up at the priory.
`You'll get plenty of help locally,' commented one. `We're all keen to see the old place come to life agin'
I said that I was very keen but would not make a decision unless the nuns who were there did not buy. There was a strange silence and a few guarded glances. then one said in a quiet but confident, blustery way `Oh they old biddies won't buy, they bin there long enough already!'
As it happened, dry rot, a shortage of cash for the basic repairs and a few rules about not being able to have paying guests without all sorts of health and safety certificates which Usk Priory would definitely not get, spoilt my plans.
In recent years, I have moved back into Monmouthshire, and began looking into local history and lore Apparently, the original convent at Usk was for five nuns of the Benedictine order. At the suppression of the monasteries the five nuns were pensioned off, having given their allegiance to the king thereby saving their lives and the probable destruction of the priory. The arched doorway I saw by the library was indeed part of the cloister, and the walkway where I saw the nuns was the way to the church. At 6 p.m. on a winter's evening they could have walked along there to attend Vespers, Several people have written about the sightings of the nuns, always along that walkway, or on the upper landing going to the house chapel. But I swear that I knew nothing of the history of the priory, nor the stories of the ghostly nuns when I visited just before Christmas in 1970!
Copyright Maria Hubert 1995