The remains of a once highly regarded Benedictine Priory
Wilmington Priory was a cell of the Benedictine Abbey at Grestain in Normandy. It was never a conventional priory with cloister and chapter, the monks prayed in the adjoining parish church where the thousand-year-old yews are testimony to the age of the site. The Priory has been added to and altered in every age and some of it has been lost to ruin and decay, but what is left shows how highly it was once regarded.
A evocative medieval site, with improvements by the Georgians
Staying here you will have the pleasure of enjoying the medieval site with its fine vaulted entrance porch, mullioned window in the wall of the ruined Great Chamber and stair turrets. The entrance porch, leading off the large farmhouse kitchen, makes an atmospheric summer dining room and the monastic ruins are yours to wander.
At the same time you can benefit from the comfort of rooms improved by the Georgians, as well as a sense of adventure if you make your way to bed in the first floor medieval porch bedroom through the unconverted chamber above the kitchen with its open cathedral-like roof and tracery. Once there, look out at the Long Man in this peaceful, unchanged landscape.
The delights of the lanes and villages of East Sussex await
From this ancient place you can go to the opera at Glyndebourne, admire the work of the Bloomsbury group, wander the Lanes in Brighton or perhaps go bucket and spading in Eastbourne. Walks across the Downs start from the doorstep and exploring the lanes and villages of East Sussex away from the throng invariably yields delights. Wilmington itself has much to offer, with its agreeable village street, pub and downland walks, while from his vantage point the famous Long Man all the while surveys the scene.
‘There is a buzz of excitement that lasts 20 minutes or so, when you first enter a Landmark and run from room to room.’
From the logbook
An alien priory
As an alien priory Wilmington is an unusual type of monastic building. Alien priories were religious institutions run by local incumbents but dependent on parent houses, which were mostly situated in Normandy. As such they were viewed with suspicion during the frequent wars with France during the Middle Ages, and they were finally suppressed by Henry V in 1414. The Priory at Wilmington was a cell of the Benedictine Abbey of Notre-Dame de Grestain situated near the mouth of the Seine. It had been founded by Herluin de Conteville and his wife Arlette, the mother of William of Conqueror, lending it considerable prestige.
As it was so conveniently situated for the journey to Normandy, Wilmington Priory became Grestain Abbey's base for managing its extensive English estates. It was never a conventional Priory with cloister and chapter-house, but rather at the height of its fortunes it seems to have housed the Prior and perhaps two or three monks whose chief duties were those of a land agent. At the centre of the Priory today is an open space which is the site of the hall of which the early 13th century entrance still survives. The hall received additions in the form of a wing to the south-east, a two-storey porch, a drum tower, a wing to the north-east with an undercroft and, possibly after the suppression, a great chamber which replaced the western service wing.
After it was suppressed the Priory came into the hands of the Dean and Chapter of Chichester Cathedral and in 1565 it was granted to Sir Richard Sackville. Quite remarkably, from then until 1925 the Priory was never sold but passed by marriage from the Sackvilles to the Comptons and then to the Cavendishes. Wilmington eventually passed to the 9th Duke of Devonshire and it was he who presented it along with the Long Man to the Sussex Archaeological Society in 1925.
The Archaeological Society's architect, Walter Godfrey of Wratten and Godfrey, carried out repairs and opened up much of the Priory as well as creating quarters for a custodian in the south-east wing. A museum of rural life was set up much later in the present kitchen, the large room above and in the porch chamber. By the beginning of the 1990s this arrangement was no longer viable and so the Sussex Archaeological Society asked the Landmark Trust to take on the priory.
As our architect we chose Ian Angus who is a partner in Walter Godfrey’s firm now known as Carden & Godfrey, thus keeping this historical link. Wilmington Priory is one of the most archaeologically complicated buildings with which the Landmark Trust has ever been involved. Alterations have taken place in almost every century since its foundation and the result is a complex puzzle to try and unravel.
A tour of the building
Standing at the front door looking north towards the church, the open space on the left is the site of the earliest part of Wilmington Priory, the old hall built around 1225. This would have been a single storey room open to the roof. To the left of the archway into the porch is the remains of one of its windows in what was then an outside wall. The decorated doorway into the porch with its columns and capitals was originally the entrance into the hall. The area north of the old hall was an additional wing built c1400 with a vaulted undercroft below, which can be entered via the steps from the garden.
The porch was a later addition to the hall and was built c1330. The window in its south wall was at this time the original entrance to the Priory. Surprisingly, the fine vaulting above, with its mask bosses, was added later and you can see how it cuts across the entrance arch. From here you would have entered the hall and on the left would have been the service wing. Today this site is occupied by the ruins of the great chamber added c1450. At the same time the entrance to the porch was fortified by the addition of a portcullis.
From the porch a door leads into the kitchen, a room which was added in the 17th century. By this time the hall was long since derelict and the north wall of the kitchen extended beyond the present one so that the massive fireplace stood in the middle of the wall.
Passing through this room you enter what was the south east wing built at the same time as the hall or very soon afterwards. This wing would have provided fine lodgings for the prior and his guests on the upper floor, whilst the ground floor rooms, which would have had lower ceilings than they do now, served as store rooms. However, it now has much more of the character of an 18th century farmhouse. This wing originally extended further east towards the road but was truncated c1450.
Upstairs is the mezzanine landing under a lean-to roof added by Walter Godfrey after 1925 to accommodate the custodian’s bathroom. Passing upstairs to the next landing there is a bedroom on your left and straight ahead another room. Back in the 13th century this would have been a chapel for use by the prior. The roof timbers are medieval and this room illustrates the contrast between this period above, and the Georgian character lower down reflected in the sash windows and their shutters.
Returning to the mezzanine you enter into the room over the kitchen. This, like the kitchen below, was also one of the main museum rooms and we have deliberately left it unconverted. From here a few steps lead up to the chamber over the porch which contains the remains of a decorative 14th century window. This would have been a high status room, originally reached from the great chamber opposite.
With support from the Heritage Lottery Fund
It was not until 1999 that the Landmark Trust was able to commence repairs thanks to support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, English Heritage, several charitable trusts and the many donors who responded to our appeal. The custodian's quarters had consisted of a kitchen and sitting room on the ground floor, a bathroom on the mezzanine level and two bedrooms on the first floor. We removed the cramped bathroom from the mezzanine and formed one instead in the custodian’s kitchen which has made the staircase and landing airy and spacious.
In the new bathroom we have left the fireplace from the old kitchen. The door that used to connect through to the sitting room has been sealed but shown expressed. On the east wall there are the remains of a grand stone-mullioned cupboard. The floor of the entrance hall has been laid with Purbeck limestone slabs to give a simple politeness to this end of the building.
The sitting room has an 18th century appearance due to its window joinery and shutters but the marble fireplace is Victorian. The fireplace was leaning away from the wall and its iron cramps had rusted. We removed years of soot accretions, carefully cleaning it with a wet snakestone. As this part of the building has the atmosphere of a plain farmhouse, we decided against putting up a picture rail and have stained the floor boards black, whilst the walls have been distempered.
From the hall there is a step down to the new kitchen which marks the division from an 18th century feel to the 17th century. The main work here is the new north wall, which is intended as a modern intervention at the same time as improving the room's appearance and letting in more light. It allows you to imagine how the kitchen extended north with the fireplace then central to the room. We removed a pier that had been inserted into the fireplace in about 1895 probably for a range.
Archaeological investigation of the kitchen floor revealed footings of no fewer than three ‘south’ walls with the present one at the furthest extremity from the courtyard. A new floor was laid using bricks made locally at Godstone. They are laid on sand without a sub-base or damp proof course so as not to interfere with the archaeology. The ceiling has been strengthened and the walls limewashed.
The treatment of the chapel bedroom was the subject of more philosophical debate and discussion than any other room in the Priory. Until the 18th century there was a wall (as there is now) between the space where we have the shower and the bedroom itself. When the room was given its Georgian windows, the wall was removed and by 1851 a ceiling had been put in which obscured the roof timbers. By putting back the wall we have made sense of the roof, now once more revealed. We have plastered around and painted over the lesser timbers and the plasterer has left his motif (a Tudor rose) in the top west corner of the ceiling. As we needed a WC/shower room upstairs, we have fitted it, together with a new rooflight, into a space where there is nothing to reveal or protect.
We hope that the result is a sensible compromise of the two very different periods in this room. Below the tie beams of the later 18th century ceiling, most is Georgian; above it, most is medieval. David Martin, our archaeologist, discovered the remains of a jamb of a lancet window in the splay of the south-east window which can be seen by opening the tiny door inside the left shutter housing. As we believe that this room was a first floor chapel with the floor three feet lower than today, it is likely that there would also be the remains of a piscina within the 13th century lancet.
The kitchen chamber has been left as an open space before going upstairs to the porch chamber. Its roof has deliberately been left unfelted - the tiles fixed with oak pegs in the traditional manner. Within the porch chamber, we thought at length how to treat the east window. The initial scheme, to glaze it and make it part of the room, was shelved as the main sash window to the south gave the room an 18th century feel. By making a lobby, we have created a linen cupboard in the corner and it makes an excellent platform from which to spot the crown-post roof above the small bedroom and shower room.
The entire roof of the Priory was completely stripped, repaired and recovered. The timbers were found to be nailed together rather than jointed. The salvaged tiles have been used up on the south side with the northern side, hips and ridges being made up with new Keymer tiles from the nearby village of Ringmer. The roof slopes are very uneven and the pitch varies which made this job extremely challenging.
On the south and west faces of the south-east wing, the cement based render has been removed and replaced with one based on lime. The garden path from the lane had been raised over the years and so we have removed some steps and made a gentle slope downwards, which has improved its appearance. The ruined parts of the Priory have been consolidated and the wall heads protected.
All this work was carried out by Quadric Ltd of Eastbourne, who had recently finished work on nearby Michelham Priory, also owned by the Sussex Archaeological Society. The result is another phase in the Priory’s long history with the result that it can now be rented all year round through the Landmark Trust.
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