, , , , , , , ,

It was Richard’s birthday in the middle of August and to celebrate, he decided he would like to visit Castle Acre Priory in Norfolk.  The Priory is a ruin which is cared for by English Heritage.

Because of Covid-19 restrictions we had to book a ‘slot’ and pre-pay for our visit.  We were so happy to have Alice staying with us for a week; she had arrived the day before and accompanied us on our trip.  We made a picnic lunch to take with us and set out at 11.00 am as our ‘slot’ was at 1.00 pm.  I drove us there and because the traffic was light we arrived in very good time.  We ate our picnic sitting in the car in the car-park;  it was a dull, cool day and the only benches and tables were beyond the reception building.  We had liked the look of Castle Acre village as we drove through it, (it also has a castle and an interesting-looking church) but it was very crowded with visitors wandering about the narrow lanes.  We will return in happier times, I think.

We donned our masks and presented ourselves at the reception desk where we were given a map of the priory and I bought a guide book.  Just outside the reception building was a charming herb garden.

Castle Acre Priory herb garden

There were a couple of stands of plants for sale. I resisted buying from them with difficulty!

This was our first view of the priory ruins on leaving the herb garden

Castle Acre was chosen by William de Warenne, a Norman knight who had fought at the Battle of Hastings, to be the headquarters of all his newly acquired Norfolk properties.  The castle, the priory and the massive 12th century town defences were all built by successive generations of the de Warenne family.  The building of the priory was begun in 1090 by de Warenne’s son.

The west front of the priory church

Just look at this exquisite blind arcading!

Have a closer look…

Carved archway in the west front

More intricate carving, with a couple of grotesques

We always seem to visit a place which is currently having work done to it!  Last year we visited Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire because I wished to see its stunning facade.  ‘Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall’.  When we got there (in the pouring rain, I might add) the whole of the front was covered in scaffolding because of on-going restoration work.

This time, a number of projects were being worked on at the priory which restricted where we were able to go.

The Prior’s chapel is to the left as you look at the photo and the Prior’s great chamber/study is on the right with its fabulous bay window, added in the early 16th century.  Further round the corner on the right side of the building you can see the side view of an early 16th century oriel window.

The Prior’s study with the oriel window is on the left and a late 15th century two-storey porch is on the right. The taller building behind the porch is the Prior’s lodging. You can also see the connecting passages and galleries of the west range joining the lodging to the Prior’s chapel behind the great chamber.  The Prior’s chapel was also connected to the Priory church so the Prior had no need to go outside at all, unless he wished to.

Another view of the Prior’s buildings

This is part of the decoration on the oriel window. It must be a portrait of someone, don’t you think? Such a wonderful face!  Apologies for the poor photo.

From left to right; entrance to the west range of the priory, then a kitchen and behind it the refectory and then the building on the far right is the reredorter or latrine block.

Restoration work is being done to the bridge (in the foreground) over the leat and also to the south boundary wall. The leat is a diversion of the River Nar; this leat was used by the monks to take the waste away from the reredorter. They dug the channel close to the priory and then built the latrine block over the top of it. The leat is dry at present.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Castle Acre Priory was a Cluniac priory, a daughter-house of the great monastery at Cluny in Burgundy.  With the support of kings and nobility many Cluniac priories were created in England between 1076 and 1154.  During the wars with France the Cluniac priories had restrictions placed on them because they were ‘alien’ even though most of the monks were, in fact, English.  Gifts to the priory were reduced and the French monks were repatriated. Only after obtaining English or ‘denizen’ status did their situation improve again and their numbers increase.  Castle Acre was suppressed by Thomas Cromwell during the reign of Henry VIII and the deed of surrender was signed on 22 November 1537.  Thomas Howard, third Duke of Norfolk acquired the lease of the priory’s site, lands and rights.  By the following summer the priory buildings were being demolished, though the Prior’s lodging was retained as a house.

Richard and Alice at the Priory

My girls!

Elinor with the reredorter in the background. You can see clearly here how the building straddles the leat.

Richard, Alice and Elinor

It started to rain, and we decided it was time to go home.

Alice and Richard approaching the bay of the south aisle of the priory church under the south-west tower

The ceiling of the bay under the tower

Arched exit from the south-west tower

View from under the south-west tower looking towards the inside of the west door and onwards to what would have been the north-west tower

As usual, I also took photos of the plants living on and near the ruins.

A Willowherb. It could be Hoary Willowherb ( Epilobium parviflorum) because of its very hairy stem and leaves. Growing on a wall would account for its small size.  (There are other willowherbs which are hairy which accounts for my doubtful ID).

Many plants growing on one of the walls

White Stonecrop (Sedum album)  I find its red leaves most attractive

White Stonecrop

White Stonecrop

Horse Chestnut ( Aesculus hippocastanum) These leaves are badly affected by leaf blotch caused by a fungus.  Horse chestnut trees are also often badly attacked by Horse chestnut leaf-mining moth larvae

Wild Teasel ( Dipsacus fullonum)

Wild teasel

Maidenhair spleenwort ( Asplenium trichomanes) Recognizable by its black midrib

I think this might be Roseroot (Sedum rosea).  Not a plant one would expect to find in this part of the country

Harebells ( Campanula rotundifolia) and Black Medick ( Medicago lupulina)


Common liverwort/Umbrella liverwort (Marchantia polymorpha )  Common liverwort is a thallose liverwort; it has flattened leaf-like structures (thalli) with forked branches.  Common liverwort is also dioicous – it has separate male and female plants. This photo is of a female plant as it has star-like umbrella structures some of which are showing yellow mature sporangia or spores.  Common liverworts can also reproduce asexually by ‘gemmae’ produced in gammae cups which can be seen centre bottom of the photo on the thalli.  The gemmae are knocked out of the cups by splashes of water/raindrops.

Lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum )

Wallflower ( Erysimum cheiri)

I think this is Common calamint (Clinopodium ascendens )

Common calamint

We had a very enjoyable few hours at the priory and I hope to return to Castle Acre one day to look around the village and revisit the priory.

To end this post, I have added the following English Heritage guide to Medieval Monastic life….

and, here is the Salve Regina, a chant that would have been sung (probably not to this tune) when Castle Acre Priory was in its glory.