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Vicar's sex cult excites buyers' interest in rustic Abode of Love

Louise Jury on the colourful past of a Victorian pile now up for sale
For Sale: Large des res in the Somerset countryside. Nine bedrooms. Asking price: pounds 157,000. Name: Barford Gables, aka Agapemone (or the Abode of Love). History: deflowering of virgins, taking of "soul brides" and scandalising of Victorian society. Intriguing extras include woman ghost, and the bodies in the garden.

Barford Gables in the village of Spaxton, near Bridgwater, has a more colourful past than most properties currently on the books of Taunton estate agent Gribble, Booth and Taylor.

Though used most recently as an old people's home, it was for more than a century the home of the religious cult of the Rev Henry Prince, who claimed to be the Son of God and proclaimed that the end was nigh.

In the style popular with cult leaders of the present century, Mr Prince advocated celibacy while apparently practising the reverse. In 1856, he was said to have dressed in ceremonial red robes and deflowered a virgin in front of an adoring congregation including his wife. He proclaimed the act a Great Manifestation, "the mystic union of flesh and spirit", and denied responsibility for the girl's subsequent pregnancy. The rumours multiplied.

Proving mortal after all, Mr Prince died in 1899, but another wayward cleric, John Smyth-Piggott, took over his mantle and lived at the house with a number of "soul brides".

When the end manifestly failed to be nigh, the cult dwindled into old age, became a respected part of the community and eventually died out. The estate was sold in 1958. The chapel became home to the creators of The Trumptons and other children's animations.

Dennis May, 41, knew nothing of all this when he fell in love with Barford Gables five years ago. Made redundant in London, he moved to the West Country to start a new life with his wife, Barbara. The house was an old people's home. "We took it on purely as a business," he says. "We knew nothing of the history. The owners said, did I know this was the Agapemone, that means the Abode of Love? I thought, Christ, what have I walked into here?"

He soon began to find out. Stories about the Agapemone are legion. In the Lamb Inn, Spaxton, everyone knows something of the strange sect. Ray Stokes, a police public relations officer, remembers how his grandmother would never speak of the goings-on behind the tall estate wall. "She refused to mention the Rev Henry Prince. 'Dirty devil,' she called him. It wasn't discussed in polite circles."

A favourite tale is how Mr Prince would choose his next female companion by sitting on a revolving stage and seeing who was in front of him when it stopped turning. The young ladies were said to have stripped naked to bathe him.

The sect had its fair share of defections, even suicides. One dissenter, a Rev Price, left, but his heiress wife refused to leave with him. Returning with dozens of armed men, he attempted to break in and take her. She was nowhere to be found.

Popular legend also claims that the departed Agapemonites were buried vertically so they were prepared for resurrection when the moment came. When the last soul bride died in 1956, the gravediggers dug deep just to check on Smyth-Piggott who had passed away 27 years earlier. There were no obvious signs that he had risen again.

There is, however, a ghost. Mr May said: "There's a woman coming in and out of the kitchen, but she's not there. Sometimes you feel a presence behind you, sometimes just catch her in the corner of your eye. When someone else - one of the kitchen staff - brought it up, I thought, 'Thank God, it's not just me'." One night, when he was downstairs laying carpet, someone hit him on the backside, but there was no one there. Another night, he thought his wife was banging on the wall from their bedroom, but went in to discover her asleep and baffled by his enquiries as to what she wanted. Then the knocking started from the outside wall - which is 22in thick. He was on the top floor.

Joshua Schwieso, a social psychologist and university lecturer, stumbled across the Agapemone when he moved into a house next to the Lamb 10 years ago. His fascination was to turn into a doctoral thesis, a copy of which now lies in Taunton library alongside the writings of Mr Prince and other books rescued from Barford Gables when the estate was sold.

The Bridgwater Times of 1848 described the Agapemonites as an "eccentric community". Dr Schwieso said they were like many modern cults. "All the same kind of things come up - the families of people who joined say they were estranged, they were worried about the Agapemonites getting family money. It was very middle-class."

Mr May is saddened he has to sell. A shortage of social services referrals left the home running at only half-occupancy last year and he was forced to cease trading. But the sale has prompted a flood of new revelations about his strange predecessors.

Tim Bennett, the estate agent, said the history was creating a lot of interest: "There are not many other Abodes of Love on the market at present."