You have to have a certain courage to visit Mount Grace Priory – the access is a fairly abrupt left turn (if you ‘re travelling north to south as we were), off the very busy A19. Not likely to be a problem if you know where the turning is, and if you don’t happen to have a 48 tonne truck sitting in the boot of the car – nevertheless, we made it – which is good, because Mount Grace Priory is certainly one of those special places, definitely worth seeing.
Now I’ve been to quite a few ruined monasteries in my time, and they can be remarkably evocative places. I thought I’d got a pretty good idea of how monastic life worked in these places, after all I’ve read all the Brother Cadfael books…
But Mount Grace Priory is different.
Mount Grace Priory is a Carthusian monastery and unlike other orders of monks such as Cluniacs or Cistercians, the Carthusians didn’t live a communal lifestyle. While other orders ate their meals together in refectories slept in communal dormitories worked and worshiped together, the Carthusians took an almost solitary approach, living almost as hermits, in individual cells, built around a central courtyard and meeting together in the church about once a week.
Sound a bit odd?
On paper perhaps it does, but after visiting Mount Grace Priory, it was clear to me, that if I ever had to choose a monastic way of life, I’d opt for the Carthusian set up any day.
These men (OK, a slight issue there for me I suppose, but we’re talking hypothetically), each had their own little house. In fact the house (properly a cell), wasn’t all that small by modern house building standards. They had their own bedroom, main living room, oratory and large upstairs work room.
Meals were provided for them, so they didn’t have to waste time cooking. And each cell came with its own garden, including a fruit tree, and a covered cloister area for contemplation. Imagine – your meals cooked, a garden, a place to sit and admire your garden/nature/etc… and a lovely large room to weave cloth, illuminate books or whatever monkly pleasure your heart desired!
In reality, I’m not sure I’d have liked the Carthusians – they seemed to have been far more interested in saving themselves for eternity than doing good for their fellow-men, but here I admit to very little understanding.
Suffice to say, I like their way of organising themselves and I suppose you could substitute any kind of spiritual practice into their style of living.
Admittedly, there isn’t a huge amount of ruins to see, but one cell has been reconstructed, which makes it so much easier to understand the overall layout of the site. When we visited, we had arguments about which cell we would all prefer – I wanted the one in the corner that I thought would get the most sunlight in the afternoon/evening.
The bonus of Mount Grace Priory, is that after the Priory was done away with by our friend Henry VIII, a large manor house was built on the site of the Priory guest house. This seventeenth century house although presented in Arts & Crafts style (which I normally like, except when it replaces real Jacobean decor), is a little gem all on its own. I thought it had a family feel – the perfect place for children to play hide and seek in. They’ve just opened the attics, and as ever, getting to see these areas gives you a more rounded feel for life in old houses.
I’m so pleased to have been to Mount Grace Priory, but part of me wishes that instead of simply opening it to the public, it should instead be turned into a retreat spa. I’d just love to stay in the house, wander around the ruins and contemplate life the universe and everything. Perhaps if they had loads of money, they could rebuild a few more cells and we could start using them again for their original purpose. I’m not sure I could manage a lifetime of solitude, but a week or two at a time sounds perfect.
For more information
For visitor information, this is the link to the English Heritage website page for Mount Grace Priory.