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Old data tells new story

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I found the lost medieval priory house of Appuldurcombe, Isle of Wight, UK, by curating a data lake – a centralised raw data storage repository – over 30 years.

The exact location of the old Appuldurcombe Priory house has eluded experts since its demolition between 1690 and 1720. Visitors have picked my brains on the location since 1982 when, aged nine, I became a schoolboy guide there.

Appuldurcombe Priory was founded in 1090. It became the seat of the Worsley family in 1529 when Henry VIII’s whipping boy Sir James Worsley inherited the lease from his wife Anne’s parents.

Sir Robert, 4th Baronet Worsley of Appuldurcombe, demolished the priory and built a masterpiece of Baroque architecture.

I became more determined to find the site of the priory after conducting guided tours of Appuldurcombe in 2018 for Company-X co-founder David Hallett and 2019 for senior software developer Rob Scovell.

The second question any visitor to Appuldurcombe asks is where was the priory house. In 1720 Sir Robert wrote he had not ‘left one stone standing’. In 1781 Sir Richard Worsley claimed, ‘the old priory house was situated a small distance from the present mansion.’

The first question any visitor asks is why the current house is in ruins. It suffered catastrophic damage during the Second World War and stripped for building materials before the Government halted demolition on the grounds of its architectural merits.

I embarked on a combined textual criticism and data validation exercise during the last COVID-19 lockdown.

Three vital pieces of data helped solve the puzzle.

Sir Robert’s annotated drawing of the old priory house, estate accounts kept by the Steward of Appuldurcombe Caleb Dowding, and Lady Anne Worsley’s letters to her father Lord Weymouth of Longleat House.

They suggest the old priory house was demolished and rebuilt Baroque-style one wing at a time.

The accounts show construction was well underway by November 19, 1701, when Sir Robert paid “Mr Fisher, Stonecutter” for putting up chimneypieces, one in the “best chamber over the chapel” and another in the dressing room.

Lady Worsley’s letters suggest Appuldurcombe’s new chapel, best chamber and dressing room were built over the priory’s northeast wing containing the stable and chapel.

“The Chappell goes up apace,” Lady Worsley wrote in 1701. “I wish he would let them go on as fast with the rest of the building, that we might see an end of it, which I hard hope to do.”

The accounts show when the chapel block was completed Sir Robert moved onto the Great Hall at the centre of the building. First, he repaired the hall, following the Great Storm of 1703, and then rebuilt it. Archaeologists suggested, early this century, that the internal ground floor wall of the Great Hall may be from the old priory house.

Sir Robert left more than one stone standing.

He finished by demolishing the southern wing of the priory containing the Great Drawing Room and Library, building the south elevation of the new house containing the southeast pavilion (Drawing Room), Library and southwest pavilion for Dowding to occupy.

The function of rooms in Sir Robert’s new Baroque house mostly matches those of the priory proving, beyond reasonable doubt, that one is constructed on top of the other.

Archaeologists uncovered foundations of an earlier building beneath the southern elevation of the current house in 1986 as well as Tudor rubble.

Architectural historians describe Appuldurcombe as eccentric, unusual and strange on account of its large protruding pavilions dominating the central block. Pavilions are usually set back into the main building, or completely separate of it. One reason for such an unusual footprint is that it follows the footprint of the original priory house.

My work shows poor quality data in insolation can tell a very misleading story, and an abundance of good quality data can set the record straight.

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Chris Gardner

Chris Gardner is a freelance communications professional.

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