Today Mr Paisley Pedlar and I spent the morning at Michelham Priory near Upper Dicker in East Sussex. Owned and maintained by Sussex Past (www.sussexpast.co.uk) the priory was founded in 1229 by Gilbert l’Aigle (d’Aquila) from Normandy, who most likely founded the priory to show his devotion to God and to secure in perpetuity prayers for his family. The priory was operated by Augustinian canons (known as Black Canons because of the colour of their habit) who were ordained priests who followed a disciplined communal life as set out by St Augustine of Hippo who believed that the true purpose of religious life was to balance contemplation and prayer with service outside the community by providing priests to local churches for preaching and evangelising. This way of life continued until around 1440 when it became clear that the canons were not observing the rule of silence and were also frequenting the tavern outside the priory gate. By 1478 this religious decline was fully evident when at a Bishop’s visit it was found that the vestments were in very poor condition, the canons were not eating together in the refectory, some were chatting during services and one even admitted fornicating with a local married woman! The troubles of the modern day church may seem to pale into insignificance after discoveries such as these! (Information from Sussex Past Guide Book).
The priory today is hidden from view from the road by trees and hedges and it came as a complete surprise on walking to the end of the car park to be met by a most impressive and imposing gatehouse.
Gatehouse Approach to Michelham Priory
Through the gatehouse and into the grounds the priory building stands in front of you surrounded by a moat, a mile long and 12 feet deep. Covered in lilies and rushes it is very picturesque.
The gardens wrap around the house and are bounded fully on all sides by the moat such that the priory is in effect sitting on its own private island. The gardens themselves are laid out informally and are well maintained, and on the day we visited there were several sculptures of different subjects (by local artists and all for sale) sited at various points in the garden.
Monk herbalist statue by local artist
To one side of the main building is a Physic Garden, although not an original feature, it was created in 1981, it is well planted in beds that each have a specific function. Among these functions are herbs for childbirth and children’s diseases; herbs for rheumatism, gout and sciatica; herbs for the household; herbs for the heart, lungs and blood; herbs for depression; insomnia and nightmares; herbs for broken bones; herbs for bites, stings, burns and poisons and herbs for the head, hair and skin. Each bed is marked with a plaque bearing a cheeky illustration of uses.
One of the things which impressed both Mr Paisley Pedlar and I was how child friendly this place is. Our own children are now adults and we didn’t bring them here and that is a shame because there is so much on offer for young families. The gardens have wide open space which is perfect for small people to run about, across the moat (reached by a footbridge) is a fabulous picnic and play area with fantastic climbing, swinging and sliding equipment, great for youngsters to let of some steam in a safe place while parents can sit and take a break. In part of the main garden is a small outbuilding which has been converted into a sort of DIY learning centre. Lined with information posters depicting UK wildlife – butterflies, insects, small mammals, birds, flowers and grasses there are supplies for children to make and create collages, draw pictures and make rubbings of bears paw prints!
Collage display in the education room
Some of the planting makes patterns with the architecture while quirky sculptures appear in the most unexpected places.
Butterfly sculptures in a box hedge and Mr Paisley Pedlar sits in his throne!
The kitchen garden is bursting with produce and butterflies, juicy apples hang from branches while at ground level fleshy rounded pumpkins add a cheery brightness to the foliage.
To the Kitchen Garden and a lovely Comma Butterfly sits on Allium seed heads
Inside the priory building are displays to show the layout of the estate from its beginnings,
part of timeline of the priory showing when the moat and gatehouse were built
while the rooms are furnished in period styles from medieval to Tudor and as it was during World War 2 when the priory hosted evacuees.
The Tudor Dining Room and a Witches Bottle with its contents on glass dishes
One of the more interesting artifacts is a Witches Bottle. This particular bottle was found standing upright by the original west porch and was buried in the mid 17th century as a counter measure to witchcraft by throwing back any spell that had been cast. The bottle was filled with pins and there was a wax effigy which also had pins in it. Other types of witches bottle have been known to contain sand, stones, knotted threads, feathers, shells, herbs, flowers, salt, vinegar, oil, coins, or ashes.
Throughout the priory are interactive areas where visitors are encouraged to touch objects, open drawers and cupboards or try on costumes. In the kitchen you can try your hand at grinding corn, pulping spices and herbs and turning the handle which runs the spit over the open range. There are costumes for children and adults alike both medieval and Tudor.
Display of wild and garden flowers and cast iron dog silhouette forms the handle of an upstairs window
War time posters offering advice for boys and girls to help win the war
Old oak door with unicorn head carving and Agapanthus; door knocker with sign directing visitors to the front door
In a courtyard to one side there is a working forge and a small museum dedicated to rope making.
The blacksmiths workshop and a row of snails made from iron creep slowly along a beam
The rope making museum and a painting of St Catherine, patron saint of rope makers (painted in the Pre-Raphaelite style)
Michelham Priory is small but interesting, with plenty to see and do for all ages. A full programme of events runs through the year featuring things like a medieval Weekend, Hazees Crazee Circus, Archaeology Day, Teddy Bears Picinc, Craft Fairs and a Classic Vehicle Show, so pretty much something for everyone really.