Priories and Castle Acre
Route type: Hike
Distance: 10.32km, 6.41 miles. Like (1)
Castle Acre Priory was the proud owner of the severed arm of St Philip, which generated a constant stream of generous pilgrims during medieval times. Folk came from near and far to pay homage to the relic, and to ask for boons and cures, and most left a gift of some kind behind. This made the priory wealthy, along with an Indulgence granted by Pope Boniface IX in 1401, which saw even more penitents arriving at its doors. But interest in relics and pilgrimages waned and, by 1533, the revenue from visitors to the priory was down to a mere ten shillings per year. Few ripples were caused in the 1530s, when the last prior signed away his monastery to Henry VIII. The site then had a number of owners until it eventually came into the care of English Heritage. During its heyday, Castle Acre Priory was one of the finest monasteries in East Anglia, and even today, when most of it comprises crumbling ruins and the foundations of walls in the grass, it is impressive. The site was enormous and was basically a self-contained village. It had bakeries and kitchens, pantries, butteries and wine cellars, and even its own brewery. Standing proudly amid all this was the priory church, and you can see how grand it must have been by looking at its magnificent west front today. Its dimensions are cathedral-like, with some of the most ornate carving anywhere in the county. There were also dormitories and refectories, and - something children seem to find fascinating - a long, multi-seated latrine over a small stream that provided some fairly respectable sanitary arrangements compared to those at the castle down the road. The castle at Acre came first, and there was a fort here long before the Normans built their sturdy motte, bailey and stone keep. The castle was built by William de Warenne, a baron who married one of William the Conquerorâs daughters. He and Gundreda visited the great abbey at Cluny in Burgundy and, when they returned to England, they decided to found a Cluniac house at Lewes in Sussex. Castle Acre was founded as a daughter priory to Lewes, and was richly endowed. Trouble soon erupted between the monks at Castle Acre and those at the Chapter General in Cluny. Cluny wanted power over its daughter, but the Norfolk clerics resisted. Things came to a head in 1283, when Prior William discovered that he had been replaced by Benedict of Cluny. William fortified Castle Acre Priory to keep the detested Benedict out. Itâs easy to imagine poor Benedict standing outside while you explore these remains. While you're there: Visit All Saintsâ Church, Narborough, 5 miles (8km) north west of Swaffham. Here you will see the monument to Clement Spelman (died 1679), who was so proud that he insisted on being buried upright so no one would walk over him. The Victorians opened the tomb and found the coffin was indeed on its end. What to look out for: The Priorâs Lodging is the best of the buildings in the Castle Acre Priory complex. It was built in the 12th century, but was added to during the next 800 years and is in a remarkable state of preservation. After the monastery was destroyed, it was used as a house for the bailiff of the Coke Estate. Where to eat and drink: There are several good lunch options on the village green at Castle Acre. The Ostrich and the Albert Victor both have beer gardens, and both offer a range of food and ales. Between the two, The Castlegate CafÃ© serves home-made soup, sandwiches, pies and cakes in a beautiful walled garden in summer. Further along the green is Willow Cottage, a traditional tea room. Directions: From the green, walk along the lane past St Jamesâ Church until you reach the entrance to the priory. Turn right and then left, after a few paces, down the footpath signed âNar Valley Wayâ. Continue until you reach a pond. At the pond, turn left and go through the kissing gate along the trail waymarked with a white disk. Walk through the meadow, with the River Nar to your left and enter a wood. Keep to this grassy track, continuing through the wood until you reach a gate. Cross the footbridge and keep straight ahead to another footbridge over the River Nar, with the old Mill House on your left. When you reach a lane with a ford on your right, go straight across to the path opposite and walk along a woodland track, looking for glimpses of West Acre priory ruins ahead. Turn left by the circular waymarker sign and then follow the footpath for 0.25 mile (400m) until you reach a lane. Cross the lane and take the footpath opposite (not the bridleway on your left). Go up a hill, under power lines and past a wood. At the crest of the hill you reach a crossroads. Turn left on to the bridleway and continue straight ahead at two crossroads. Look for deer and shy game birds, and note the prairiestyle fields to the left and right. Turn left at the third crossroads, on to an ancient drove road used in Roman times, passing Bartholomewâs Hills Plantation on your right. Keep walking uphill along this sandy track until you see Castle Acre Priory and St Jamesâ Church through the trees ahead. As you descend, go under the power lines again, and meet a lane at the foot of the hill. Go straight ahead on the lane, which is part of the Peddars Way. At the next junction go straight on again, down the lane marked âUnsuitable for Motorsâ. Walk past Church Farm on your right to reach a pebble-bottomed river and a ford. Through the trees you will glimpse splendid views of the priory to your left. Cross the river and continue walking along this tiny lane until you see an acorn sign marking the Peddars Way. Turn right along the Peddars Way and keep walking straight ahead until you see a sign for Blind Lane. Turn left at the junction, then right into Cuckstool Lane with the castle to your left. Follow the grassy path, which skirts around the castle bailey, climbing steeply to arrive at a lane. Turn left and walk along the lane, past the old castle gate, to the village green.