Conishead Priory, home of the Majushri Kadampa Buddhist Temple and learning and meditation centre, has experienced several incarnations in its own right. On a hot day in August in a secluded corner of the temple’s wild flower garden, it is easy to experience a sense of nirvana.
Built on the original site of a 12th century Augustinian priory, the grade 2 listed Victorian gothic house was for hundreds of years home to many generations of Cumbrian aristocracy. It has also been a hydro-hotel, described as the ‘paradise of Furness’, a convalescent home for miners and was used as a hospital in World War II.
Conishead instantly fascinated me when I first heard about it two or three years ago. I had been meaning to go there since that time, but never got around to it. It was as good as I had hoped it would be and a place I am sure I will visit many more times.
The Priory is about 2 miles from Ulverston Station. On their website, Conishead Priory recommends travelling there by taxi and even provides an ample list of local taxi numbers. Based on prior (no pun intended!) experience of poor taxi services in parts of Cumbria (see Furness Abbey blog) I decided to add no less than ten of these numbers to my mobile before making my journey. It seems you can never have too many taxi numbers to hand when in Cumbria: the first firm I rang had nobody available for 40 minutes; the second had nobody available at all; the third rang through to a recorded message………….at the fourth attempt I got through to a chap who sounded quite put-out that I had disturbed him, but said he would be with me in 10 minutes and was good to his word, though surly with it – and expensive.
I was surprised at first that the Priory house was not older; I had misunderstood the blurb and had thought it was 12th century, whereas that was the when the original Augustinian building was erected. The existing house is early Victorian. Tours are available at a reasonable price, but I didn’t partake.
A short walk across the car park leads straight into the gardens and outdoor dining area. The café is situated inside the conservatory. Buddhist monks and visitors alike sit and chat, appreciating the vibrancy of the garden and enjoying food together. The café offers a selection of vegetarian sandwiches, snacks, homemade soups, cream teas and cold drinks and ice creams.
I liked that the gardens were beautiful in a very understated and natural way, not artistic or flamboyant, but tranquil and vibrant without trying too hard. I particularly enjoyed walking in the wildflower garden (as wildflowers are my favourites) and the many and varied pots on the terrace.
There is a short walk (a quarter of a mile, or 7 minutes as the sign says) down to the beach. The first part of the path is a bit steep, which was fine on the way down but means that the return is more of a challenge. This route is possibly not suitable for some wheelchairs or prams.
The walk through the wood is short and pleasant. The pebble beach at the end is an inlet, though you can see out to open sea. A word of advice to anybody hoping to sit on the beach: bring a lightweight folding chair or a thick cushion. The pebbles are big and uncomfortable to sit on. There is a small number of benches, but probably not enough. The beach is, after all, part of a retreat and not a tourist destination.
In one sense, the temple it is so strangely incongruous in that English-country-house setting, yet it is perfectly at ease there. It wasn’t as large as I had expected and not as ornate. It’s modern and airy and has some religious art and beautiful displays. On entering, I was welcomed and given the choice of removing my shoes or covering them with the disposable covers provided. I chose the former. I would have stayed for one of the meditation sessions, but none was planned to take place during my short visit. Everybody is made welcome, Buddhist or non-Buddhist alike.
After more peace and quiet time spent looking out over the lawns behind the temple, I decided to call a taxi in plenty time to get back to Ulverston Station. My first call was to the same driver who had picked me up on my journey in – no luck there. After three more unsuccessful calls I managed to book a taxi which arrived about 20 minutes later. The driver told me that they were the largest company in the area, but still tiny compared with firms in larger towns.
Conishead is well worth a visit and I would defy anybody to not find something there that appeals to them, be it the grand house, the beach, the temple or the wonderful gardens.