Thanks to the exploits of Henry VIII, a visit to a monastic ruin will generally require us to put our imaginations firmly in gear if we are going to work out what we’re missing – what exactly would we have seen if we’d been here before the Dissolution of the Monasteries?
Some sites, retain enough stonework for us to get a good impression of the size and grandeur of the original buildings; angles of ruined arches give us an easy way to estimate what the whole arch looked like, arcades of pillars, are easily transformed into the naves of grand churches.
At Castle Acre Priory, there’s not a huge amount of the main church building still standing, so your imagination will have to work extra hard. But what does remain, is substantial parts of the other buildings, which once butted up to and supported the Priory church. In particular, the Priors Lodgings are wonderfully preserved.
And so a visit to Castle Acre Priory, somehow always makes me wonder more about the very physical lives of the Cluniac brothers who lived here, rather than their spiritual habits.
It’s like someone lifting the veil and giving you a glimpse of what real daily life was like in the centuries before the Reformation – a tantalising prospect.
At Castle Acre, what you see in the ground, are the remains of the buildings that made life in this remote part of Norfolk sustainable for these men. You explore the rooms where the brothers slept, where they ate, where they worked and even where they went to the toilet!
I don’t think I’ve been to any other monastic ruin, where I felt the presence of the monks themselves, busily going about their day-to-day business, quite so strongly. I hope they don’t mind that it feels more secular than religious to me.
And perhaps because all this is now sitting in tranquil Norfolk meadows, we forget the importance these landowning establishments once held for our ancestors. Today a visit to Castle Acre Priory is a treat, somewhere to relax and absorb the bucolic atmosphere. I wonder if it was always quite so serene – were the brothers always blessed with good humour and gentleness, or did petty rivalries, bitching or bullying, disturb the peace? – but that’s just where my imagination flows – probably read too many Brother Cadfael novels, or CJ Sansom’s Shardlake.
I’ve been to Castle Acre lots of times over the years, it never fails to delight. Even the children love it – it’s an absolute paradise for hide ‘n seek. I’d recommend going on a warm day, you don’t want to rush, because you’ll be surprised how much there is to see and somehow it’s a place that makes me think of languid summer afternoons.
If you do visit, don’t leave before you make your way to the other end of the village, where the Castle remains dominate. The Castle is always accessible, and fairly eerie at dusk – tremendous. If the Priory is all charm, the Castle leaves you in no doubt as to its purpose, and charm doesn’t come into it.
You can warm up afterwards in the pub.
Castle Acre Priory – step back a few hundred years – you won’t regret it.
For more information
Castle Acre Priory is in the care of English Heritage – see here for details about visiting.
I love this review of Castle Acre – all the historical context you could need.
If you’ve never been to a pub called The Ostrich, this is your chance. I’ve eaten here a couple of times – and played ping-pong in the garden too.