Traditional event will carry on, say ruined priory’s new owners

Celebrating Blythburgh Day - Nikki Wong

Celebrating Blythburgh Day - Nikki Wong - Credit: Archant

Standing in the footsteps of a congregation whose hymns fell silent almost half a century ago, a gathering of church-goers attend an open-air service in the ruins of Blythburgh's 12th-century priory.

Evarist Saliba (Chiara's father), Susan and Nick Haward and Chiara Saunders

Evarist Saliba (Chiara's father), Susan and Nick Haward and Chiara Saunders - Credit: Archant

This magical scene, in the glades of the Suffolk countryside, marked the start of the annual Celebrating Blythburgh event.

A celebration which began in 2011 thanks to previous owners of the Augustinian priory, Nick and Susan Haward, it is seen as a unifying event for a community divided by the A12 road.

It is also an opportunity to promote and enjoy the abundance of history and nature which are normally hidden from public view in the garden of a privately-owned house in Blythburgh.

It is an event set to continue, according to the priory's new owners, Matthew and Chiara Saunders, who are keen to learn more of the medieval site's past.

Chiara and Matthew Saunders new owners of Blythburgh Priory ruins

Chiara and Matthew Saunders new owners of Blythburgh Priory ruins - Credit: Archant

Mr Saunders, 50, originally from Lowestoft, explained: 'Looking to the future, we want to continue everything that is here today.

'We want to make sure the priory remains open to the village as it allows both villagers and non-villagers to meet and learn more about the history and nature of the area.

Most Read

'It's just a bit special in the story of the village and we really want to delve further into the history of the priory as there are many parts which are yet to be surveyed, particularly the medieval chapel, which we are keen to look into with the help of English Heritage.'

The Saunders's five-bedroom property was first constructed 200 years after the Augustine monastery, located in the property's gardens, closed in 1537 during Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries.

And in 2008, an investigation by Channel 4's Time Team unravelled some of the mysteries of the ancient site.

Through the discovery of human remains, council surveys confirmed the existence of a mid-7th century church on the grounds.

The main house was reworked by the artist Sir John Seymour Lucas in the 19th century and comes with a self-contained annex known as the Little Priory – once a chapel with 14th century foundations, adding to the jigsaw puzzle of historical layers making up the property.

In 2005, the Grade II listed building was purchased and restored by Nick and Susan Haward, who received two English Heritage grants and discovered a skeleton two years later in the foundation trench of a planned kitchen extension.

Mrs Saunders, 52, added: 'We moved into the property just after Easter this year.

'The last few months have been lovely if a bit chaotic when we first moved in but the villagers have been very welcoming and warm.

'And it has been lovely to carry on the tradition and the house certainly lends itself to an event like this.'

Mrs Saunders also explained she and her husband had previously owned a weekend cottage in nearby Westleton and had fallen in love with the Suffolk coastline after enjoying a coastal drive on their first date as a couple.

Following the service led by local resident the Rev Malcolm Doney, on August 21, there was live music, refreshments and a barbecue in the priory garden.

There were also guided tours of the ruins by local historian Alan Mackley for attendees to enjoy and free river boat trips run by Natural England.

Adam Burrows, 48, senior Suffolk Coast reserves manager at Natural England, said: 'A large chunk of the reserve is in Blythburgh and as part of Celebrating Blythburgh Day we are giving people the opportunity to see a different part of the reserve not normally open to view such as the chance to see the highland cattle calves born on Blythburgh Day last year.'

David Tytler, 75, chairman of Blythburgh Parish Council, added: 'We started through a £500 grant from the Olympic Committee but now what is here today is all self-funded.

'Consistently we attract between 200 and 250 people to the event and today has been a great success and it is great to see people learning and enjoying the nature and history of the village.'

Do you have a heritage story? Email