By local historian David Lloyd
Head south from Ludlow’s medieval Ludford Bridge on the old Leominster road and, after a mile-and-a-half, you will pass the gates for Moor Park.This substantial country house has nestled quietly on the Shropshire/Hereford border for nearly 300 years – and history has rolled quietly over and around it. And yet, like many similar country houses of England, it has an intriguing story.
Moor Park is one of a group of country houses in the Ludlow district linked by one family, the Salweys. The oldest (surviving) house is Haye Park situated in the midst of the Mortimer Forest. Colonel Richard Salwey, at one time Secretary to Cromwell, built Haye Park in the mid-1600s. Another Richard Salwey (‘of Ludlow’) built the core of the present Moor Park in about 1720 and other members of the family built Elton Hall, on the Wigmore side of the Mortimer Forest, and the Lodge at Overton, barely half-a-mile from Moor Park. At this time, the family also owned a town house in Broad Street, Ludlow.
The Salweys continued to live at Moor Park until the 1870s when the greater part of the estate, including the main house, was sold. In 1861, the then Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, visited Moor Park with a view to buying it as his country estate. He eventually chose Sandringham because of its proximity to London and, reputedly, greater number of pheasants! In the early 1850s, the house was let for a year to an American family from Boston and the daughter subsequently wrote an intriguing account of their visit describing Victorian life in rural England – from an outsider’s point of view.
Major Johnston Foster bought the estate in 1874 and proceeded to construct a new building around the Queen Anne house. The influences of key fashions of the day, including William Morris, de Morgan and the architect Norman Shaw, can still be seen but the original Queen Anne style was largely retained. Norman Shaw is reputed to have designed the lodge at the main gate and was certainly engaged to build the ‘new church’ in Richard’s Castle (1892) as a memorial to Major Foster.
The Fosters’ eldest daughter married a young Irish nobleman, later Lord Inchiquin. His family were the hereditary Kings of Munster and reputedly descended from Brian Boru. The wedding was a very grand affair and incorporated the whole village. The festivities lasted for four days! The Inchiquins did not live regularly at Moor Park and in 1939 moved permanently to Ireland. During the war, the house became Lancing College which had been evacuated from Sussex, and thus began Moor Park’s conversion to a school. A famous pupil of Lancing was Tom Sharpe. His novel ‘Blott on the Landscape’ is loosely based on Moor Park and the Foster family.
After the war, the mansion and immediate grounds became St. Margaret’s girls school. The Headmistress, Miss Nugent-Thorpe, or ‘auntie’ to the girls, was a famous local character and a great eccentric. The estate was sold off over a number of years, the main block of farms (over 2000 acres) being sold in 1952. However, St. Margaret’s continued until Miss Nugent-Thorpe retired in 1962. The following year, the main house and immediate parkland were bought by Hugh Watts and Derek Henderson who founded the present Moor Park School. Starting as an all-boys boarding school with nine pupils, Moor Park is now a co-educational, mixed day and boarding school for over 250 pupils ranging from 2 1/2 to 13 years.
Moor Park represents continuity for the local community. Although physically midway between the village of Richards Castle and Ludlow, the house and its families are an integral part of the village: the Salweys and one member of the Inchiquin family still live in the parish. While it is over 60 years since the house has fulfilled the role of the local manor, it still symbolises stability and permanence, quintessential features of the English rural community which are increasingly under threat from the pace of modern life.
A key feature of Moor Park today is its unique atmosphere; a warmth and peace, almost informality. For a large house (there are over 80 rooms), it exudes a very domestic feel – almost like a family home. This, combined with its marvelous position in the glorious Shropshire countryside, has provided some 3,000 children with a wonderful start to their lives. A fitting tribute to a little-known but very fine country house and, perhaps, a much needed resource in the rapidly changing world of the future.