Conservation project reveals Castle Acre Priory’s hidden precinct walls

The remains of the wall around around Castle Acre Priory's precinct has been uncovered after many years hidden by bushes and undergrowth - Specialist builder John Baines works on a section of the wall. Picture: Matthew Usher. The remains of the wall around around Castle Acre Priory's precinct has been uncovered after many years hidden by bushes and undergrowth - Specialist builder John Baines works on a section of the wall. Picture: Matthew Usher.

Thursday, December 19, 2013
6:00 AM

Unseen for generations, the medieval stone wall encircling one of Norfolk’s most treasured ancient monuments is finally emerging from the undergrowth following a major conservation project.

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Castle Acre Priory. Picture by Mike PageCastle Acre Priory. Picture by Mike Page

Castle Acre Priory, founded near Swaffham in 1090, was once a wealthy monastery of up to 30 monks.

But while the spectacular ruins of the priory’s 12th-century church are a popular English Heritage attraction, less is known about the 10-hectare precinct which used to surround it.

The precinct was enclosed by a high flint wall, probably built in the 13th century. But as countless decades passed, the ageing stonework has become hidden behind a dense mat of ivy, whose roots were eroding the medieval mortar.

Now the ivy has been stripped away to reveal the wall for the first time in centuries, thanks to a conservation project being run jointly by the Norfolk Archaeological Trust and the site owners, the Holkham Estate.

The remains of the wall around Castle Acre Priory's precinct has been uncovered after many years hidden by bushes and undergrowth - Specialist builder Paul McKerell works on a section of the wall. Picture: Matthew Usher.The remains of the wall around Castle Acre Priory's precinct has been uncovered after many years hidden by bushes and undergrowth - Specialist builder Paul McKerell works on a section of the wall. Picture: Matthew Usher.

Historians hope it will allow visitors to understand more about the priory’s thriving extended community.

Dr Peter Wade-Martins, director of the Norfolk Archaeological Trust, said: “Medieval walls have been emerging from the undergrowth which have not been seen by the people of Castle Acre for generations.

“It is astonishing to think that in a village like this you could have eight-foot walls that were invisible because they were covered in so much ivy.

“The priory is one of the most beautiful monuments in Norfolk, but it was once part of a much larger precinct, which would have contained everything connected with the running of the monastery.

The remains of the wall around Castle Acre Priory's precinct has been uncovered after many years hidden by bushes and undergrowth - From left, Dr Will Fletcher and Dr Peter Wade-Martins by the uncovered wall. Picture: Matthew Usher.The remains of the wall around Castle Acre Priory's precinct has been uncovered after many years hidden by bushes and undergrowth - From left, Dr Will Fletcher and Dr Peter Wade-Martins by the uncovered wall. Picture: Matthew Usher.

“Outside the cloisters and the sacred areas it would have been a working farm. There were quite a large number of servants and labourers working for the monastic estate, so this meadow would have been quite a hive of activity. There would have been outbuildings, farm yards and, no doubt, a brewery.”

The precinct wall is on the English Heritage’s “Heritage at Risk Register” which made it a target for better management.

Dr Will Fletcher, the inspector of ancient monuments for the area, said: “I always think of Castle Acre as being a bit like a doughnut. We have got the priory in the middle, but there is this whole area around the outside which very little is known about.

“This project is reuniting the priory with its medieval precinct. It is probably the first time these walls have been seen for 200 years, possibly more – and it is very exciting for everybody.”

Before they could begin repairs to the walls, contractors R&J Hogg had to hack their way through ivy up to three metres deep. In some places the walls have survived almost complete, with their triangular flint capping intact, while in other areas little is left above ground and rabbit holes threaten to undermine the foundations.

Enough of the wall has now been exposed to show the impressive extent of the precinct across what is now meadowland. Work is expected to continue until October 2014.

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