It’s not often you discover that a cracking eleventh century monument has been hanging about modestly in your back yard, waiting to be noticed. Actually it’s probably only happened the once. Sure, I’ve always been aware, on a vague semi-conscious level, that there is a ruined thingy near Southdown Sports Club. I’ve even been there a few times during An Improving Walk For the Children, which usually turns out to be A Lesson In Futility For the Parents. But I’ve never really taken much notice of it. Ruined walls, yeah, whatever. Mind the dog poo, kids. I said MIND THE… damn.
Then came the pre-Christmas snow, and someone suggested the Priory as a great sledging spot. And it was. Not just because there was a little nursery slope for cowardy custards and a steep scary one for show-off dads. (Plus a Cresta Run for teenagers: to speed through the arch without being knocked senseless against the beautiful ancient walls.)
But it was also terrific because an incredibly sensitive restoration had quietly turned the ruins from meh into blimey! The protective fences had been taken down so you could walk right up to the walls; there were benches and steps and paths; and all around were excellent information boards explaining how it might have looked, back when it was a big player in the world of priories. Thing Two loved the boards so much he made me trudge round in the snow reading them aloud. Our favourite was the one about the monks’ toilet facilities. Big high-five to Andy Gammon who drew the monk about to sit down, his robe slightly raised.
Standing at the top of the slope, looking across to the Downs, sun glinting through the magnificent arches, it was one of those glad to be living in Lewes moments. And I didn’t even have to be dog poo monitor because it was all safely buried under snow.
Later, I wondered how the changes could possibly have improved the site so much, and decided it must just have been the snow. Snow is very flattering, which is why ladies of a certain age always wear it. Or am I thinking of diamond earrings? Anyway, when the snow melted we returned to the Priory to check. Weirdly, it was even more magical. Wandering amongst the creamy yellow stones, the long shadows slanting across the grass, hopping over dog poo, we went all dreamy and poetical. I honestly don’t know how they’ve done it, but hats very much off to the Lewes Priory Trust.
It’s happened with such little fanfare, too. I see from the website there is to be a Grand Opening in the Spring, but until then, it’s getting great word of mouth. Everyone you talk to says, ‘Have you seen the Priory ruins since they became good?’ and while a few people might reply, ‘Why, is there a Starbucks there now?’ the rest of us know to take a flask, and a dreamy frame of mind.
Beth Miller, 19th January 2011. Published in VivaLewes.com and in Viva Lewes magazine, February 2011. Photograph by John McGowan