Along The Moors
Just over 50 years ago, the northern and western outskirts of Wellington were dominated by the ancient country estates of Orleton Park, Dothill Park and Apley Castle. Over the course of many centuries, each of these houses played a significant role in the life of the town, influencing its development and, in at least one instance, providing a focal point for major events to unfold that influenced the course of English history. Although Orleton is now the only one of these properties still in existence, there are still many reminders of Wellington’s stately heritage en route to the Weald Moors…
Travelling northwards on Whitchurch Road, the route is lined along some of its length by the former boundary walls of Dothill Park and Apley Castle. The Apley estate, which lay to the east of the highway, was first mentioned as an outlying farmstead belonging to Wellington Manor at the time of Domesday in 1086, although the name itself may have derived from the phrase ‘Apple-Lea’ and is probably Anglo-Saxon in origin. Throughout its long history, the fortunes of Apley were synonymous with the Charlton family, whose considerable influence around Wellington can still be seen today — in the names of its streets, pubs and the town coat of arms, which contains a portcullis representing the castle.
It is not clear when the Charlton’s acquired Apley, although the first members of the dynasty to which any detailed records relate are the family of Robert Charlton, who lived in the late 13th Century. His son Alan, knighted in 1324, eventually inherited Apley and set about improving the property, after receiving license from Edward II to fortify his manor house ‘with a wall of stone and lime’ in 1327. While no trace of the mansion that Sir Alan built survives, archaeological evidence suggests it was located on the same site as the edifice that replaced it, which was begun in 1567 by Andrew Charlton using stone from the original building. This castellated structure was apparently based on Sir Alan’s original design, with a central hall and cross wings, but was much larger than its predecessor. It seems construction work was somewhat protracted and the new Apley does not appear to have been completely finished until 1620, although it was not long before large parts of the house came tumbling down again.
Wellington or Bust
As the only defendable property of any size within the vicinity of Wellington, Apley became a prime target for Parliamentary forces during the English Civil War. When the house was first garrisoned by Royalist forces in 1643, the town had already staged King Charles’ declaration of war on his Parliament (which legend decrees he made the previous September at Orleton Park) and a number of minor skirmishes subsequently took place in the area, with much of the attention centred on the Charlton’s home. Apley fell victim to a number of sieges and was eventually slighted by the Royalists in 1645, so that it could not be used as a garrison by the Parliamentarians again. It is difficult to ascertain what happened to the house after the conflict ended but there is enough evidence to suggest it did not become the uninhabitable ruin some histories of the estate claim.
While Apley may not have been completely restored, it was still assessed at two pounds and four shillings in the Hearth Tax of 1672 and documentary evidence from the mid-1700s shows coal was still being sent to the house for ‘burning in the rooms with pictures in them’. By then, Captain St John Charlton Chiverton Charlton (a former naval officer) had already built a new home in Wellington itself, called The Vineyard, which was completed around 1721. However, the family did not reside in town for long and it was Captain Charlton’s son, St John (who inherited the estate in 1742), who eventually paved the way for a move back to the ancestral residence. He bequeathed the residue of his estate to his son on the proviso that it be used to build a ‘convenient manor house with proper offices and improvements, on the site or near Apley Castle, for the habitation of himself and family’. Plans for a new house were drawn up in 1791 that, on completion, would become one of the finest stately homes in Shropshire.
Apley’s late 18th Century renaissance was not a particularly unusual occurrence in the context of the period and, just across the other side of the Whitchurch Road, another of Wellington’s historic seats underwent a similar transformation. Like Apley, Dothill Park was listed in the Domesday survey as an outlying farmstead belonging to Wellington Manor but its fortunes eventually became linked to a local family whose influence and patronage also extended well beyond the confines of the estate walls. The Foresters, hereditary wardens of the Royal Forest of The Wrekin, appear to have moved to Dothill around 1602 after disposing of Old Hall, their former home on Holyhead Road, and set about making great changes to the property during the early 18th Century.
Sometime before 1726, seven acres of formal gardens were laid out around the house, creating open vistas of the surrounding area and adding other notable features, including a grass amphitheatre and a canalised moat. A house had stood within this rectangular enclosure since at least the middle ages and it, too, was modernised in the later half of the century (between 1763 and 1765), when a north-facing, brick extension of five bays and three storeys was added to the existing property; which probably consisted of a five-bayed range, hall and west wing recorded in 1626. Sadly, most of the garden features appear to have reverted to grass by the end of the 1700s, while the older parts of the house itself were demolished not long after. Yet, across the road at Apley, one of the most opulent edifices of the Georgian age in Shropshire was beginning to take shape.
Apley Mark III
The third and final incarnation of Apley Castle was constructed between 1792 and 1794, to a plan drawn-up by JH Haycock of Shrewsbury, the architect who was also responsible for designing the county town’s Infirmary and Shirehall. The imposing 16-bedroom Georgian mansion, replete with classical columns and pediment, was completed at a cost of just over four and half thousand pounds and incorporated a large lake at the west front that had initially been excavated to provide the clay from which its bricks were made. Seemingly, Apley was not considered quite grand enough for later generations of the Charlton family and in 1856 Captain St John Chiverton Charlton made extensive alterations: adding a new French Gothic style east front to the house, turning the former entrance into a formal garden and extending the wooded parkland around the property.
After centuries of constant upheaval, Apley then enjoyed a brief period of respite before a series of events unfolded that culminated in destruction on a scale never before witnessed within its boundaries. The final chapter in Apley’s chequered history began in 1953, when the estate passed to WTC Meyrick, a descendant of the Charlton’s by marriage, who was still a minor at the time. Upon reaching the age of 21, Meyrick, who reportedly had no interest in living at Apley, decided to dispose of the house and its contents, which were auctioned off in November 1955 by Barbers of Wellington; in a sale that included: 15000 square feet of flooring, 3000 blue Welsh slates and even the portico adorning the west front of the building itself! Worse was to follow, however, and, after the fixtures and fittings had been removed, Apley Castle was bulldozed into its cellars early the following year.
Apley & Dothill Park Today
While the Georgian mansion is no more, much of Apley’s inner park has remained intact, providing a diverse habitat for local wildlife that also houses a rich botanical heritage where over 71 different tree specimens are present, including a 300 year old yew walk and two Lime avenues. Ironically, the only notable traces of the ‘castle’ that now survive are those of the Elizabethan edifice; which was partially demolished and converted into stables and offices after the later house was finished. These buildings, which lie on the edge of the inner park, have been restored as private dwellings but retain a doorway and window that appear to date from Sir Alan Charlton’s 14th Century house, from which its successor was re-modelled. Other architectural evidence of old Apley can also be found nearby in the well-preserved remains of a walled garden, icehouse and dovecote associated with the 16th Century hall.
Further afield, much of the outer estate has been re-developed for housing and industry and the white Georgian gatehouse located at the former western entrance to the estate now sits isolated on Whitchurch Road, just outside Wellington town centre. Sadly, Dothill Park, which lay on the other side of the highway, endured a similar fate to Apley and was demolished by Wellington Urban District Council during the 1950s, after the estate became subject to a compulsory order for a large-scale housing project. Since then, much of the former park has been swallowed up by urban development, although Dothill Pool and the Tee-Lake have survived and continue to serve as a reminder of the area’s stately past.