Friday, 21 April 2017

Ewenny Priory

Located off the beaten path down a series of meandering lanes Ewenny Priory is one of many hidden gems to be found throughout the Vale of Glamorgan.  Although only a ten minute drive to the nearby town of Bridgend, Ewenny Priory has the feeling of yesteryear about it due to its pleasant rural surroundings and the fact that it is very much a working estate.  With a few small exceptions it would appear that little has change at Ewenny Priory for centuries. 

Ewenny Priory was founded around 1116-1126 on land given to the Benedictine religious order by William de Londres, one of Robert Fitzhamon's followers, who had by the year 1107 firmly established himself in the area by building nearby Ogmore castle to control his new fief.  William's son Maurice it seemed further endowed the priory and his tombstone records him as being 'the founder'.

At the heart of Ewenny Priory is the church of St Michael which for the most part has remained unaltered since its construction making it the most complete surviving example of Norman architecture in South Wales and certainly the most impressive; impressive enough that William Turner felt inspired to make sketches for a full blown painting when he visited in 1795.  Two gentlemen antiquarians who paid a visit during the 1830's were also enthralled by their sojourn to the church of St Michael which was expressed in their 1840's publication 'The Tourist in Wales' stating that 'every admirer of antiquity will be highly gratified in examining its simple and impressive architecture'.  We couldn't agree more.

(Ewenny Priory by J.M.W Turner 1797)

Equally as impressive are the fortifications which surround the priory, constructed during the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, one might well be forgiven for thinking that they belonged to a castle befitting that of a marcher lord than a religious establishment; a testament to the turbulent times in which Ewenny Priory began its existence.

The visitor however must be content to view this medieval marvel from the exterior as despite being able to access the church, which is owned by Church in Wales, the majority of the medieval Priory forms a part of the private grounds of the Turbervill family who have owned Ewenny Priory and its surrounding lands since the beginning of the Eighteenth Century. 

We were therefore surprised upon one of our previous visits to discover that the current owners of Ewenny Priory had decided to throw open their doors and invite the general public into the grounds of their private residence, for a limited time, which afforded us a rare opportunity for a wander around this fascinating place, something we had always wanted to do.

Upon entering the grounds one is greeted with several outbuildings, several of which bear the date 1871.  These buildings are of an obsolete function as they were intended to house horses and coaches and now form a quaint reminder of times gone by.  Contiguous is a large building ostensibly of Nineteenth Century date but containing both medieval and Tudor period mullions set in its walls betraying its antiquity. Described by our Victorian antiquarians as being 'ruinous' at the time of their visit, this building from what we saw was in a tolerable state of repair, although it did look like it hasn't been modernised at all, right down to sporting its original sash windows, behind one of which an archaic Victorian gas lamp is still in situ. 

(View of Tudor and medieval features)

This building was most likely a service wing to the main residence and once originally formed part of the medieval cloister and presumably a part of the now vanished Tudor mansion that was built by the Carne family who purchased the Ewenny Priory from the crown in 1545 for the sum of £727. 6s. 4d. 

The main residence which is contiguous to the service wing is a stately looking Georgian mansion replete with neat rows of sash windows and dates to the early Nineteenth Century.  Our Victorian gentlemen visitors it seemed also appreciated this building describing it as a 'handsome mansion', although like the adjacent service wing this building has earlier antecedents and possibly incorporates medieval structures in its fabric.

(Ewenny Priory House)

It was in the environs of Ewenny in the year 1770 that local gentleman Henry Knight (esq) felt aggrieved enough by another local gentleman, one Thomas Bennet, to write him a formal letter inviting him to settle a score and we could not help but to think of this as we approached..

'Respect to the company prevented my taking the proper notice of the insolence of your language yesterday at Ewenny, but it were disrespect to myself not to resent it now.  I therefore acquaint your self-importance that you behaved like a fool and spoke like a liar-which I am ready to make good as a gentleman ought, when and wheresoever you think proper to appoint'

We tentatively walked across the neatly kept front lawn of the house, ever conscious that we were visitors on private land, half expecting an irate grounds man to come storming over to eject us, but of course that was not to be.  In fact, with the exception of a few other curious people we barely saw a soul.

Access to the interior of Ewenny Priory afforded us a look at the rear of the church, which contained as we expected an abundance of Romanesque architecture. One particular arch was a source of curiosity as it seemingly exits in isolation to the church and forms the entrance to a small garden.  As we approached something large quickly flittered its way across the other side of the arch.  Our ears were almost immediately assailed by a loud squawking sound.  A quick look revealed the source of this noise and before us stood a rather magnificent looking peacock with its wings fully stretched; something you don't see every day.

(Romanesque Arch in isolation)

To the south of the Romanesque arch is a substantial medieval tower which was probably constructed during the mid to late Twelfth Century and formed a part of the original defensive circuit that surrounded the Priory.  Despite the fact that the tower is roofless it is in very good condition, we were however surprised upon entering to discover that this building had been converted into a dovecote sometime after its use as a defensive structure had ended.

 (Late Twelfth Century tower)

The original Twelfth Century curtain wall had once extended to the west of this tower but was unfortunately torn down during the early Nineteenth Century to afford the owners of the newly rebuilt house a better view of the deer park, which is where we decided to explore next.  We walked the entire precinct of the park which is now in use as arable farmland.   

(View of Ewenny Priory from the deer park)

We re-entered the Priory precincts through the south gatehouse, something we have only been able to glimpse from the road outside on previous visits.  This gatehouse is in very good repair and looks like it has hardly been altered since it was built during the late Thirteenth Century.  We noted a number of murder holes in the vaulted passage but no grooves for a portcullis such as the north gatehouse exhibits.

(The south gatehouse)

To  access the upper part one has to climb an external stone staircase which leads to a narrow corridor.  To the right of this corridor is the chamber directly above the vaulted passage below.  This room was very plain and austere displaying no internal features of note whatsoever, not even a fireplace.  The floor tiles looked Victorian in date and the walls washed a yellow colour.  Following the corridor leads to a medieval garderobe, or latrine and with that a dead end.

The other part of the gatehouse is to be accessed from downstairs, and with very good reason, as it is missing its upper floors and roof.  Its seems an incongruous sight to see a late Victorian fireplace, with a much earlier fireback bearing the date 1719, which probably was taken from the big house surmounted half way up the wall. 

(Interior of south gatehouse complete with Victorian fireplace)

Our next port of call was a large garden which lies immediately west of the south gatehouse.  This garden is surrounded on three sides by the original medieval curtain wall, which one could walk if feeling adventurous enough, although we decided against it.  With the exception of a row of bee-hives located against the north wall, it seems that this garden is utilized for very little else at present with its current state being unkempt, which we thought lent it a certain charm. 

There was however a curious stone built feature to the south of the garden that attracted our attention which looked a bit like a large well with a set of steps leading down into a pool of water.  This feature is most likely contemporary with the medieval priory although its function puzzled us somewhat.

(The garden as seen from the north gatehouse)

Our last stop was the north gatehouse which we have viewed many times from the outside.  A short walk up a stone spiral staircase to the rear of the building and we were in the room directly above the vaulted entrance.  It would seem that this building unlike the south gatehouse had not been utilized during the Victorian period but like every other medieval feature we have come across was in excellent repair and looked almost exactly how it looked when it was first constructed.  Behind this room is another smaller room accessed by a very low door, which I banged my head on more than once being quite tall, with alcoves set in the south wall reminiscent of the dovecote we saw earlier.   A doorway on the opposite side of the main room lead to a garderobe which was unprotected by iron bars so we didn't get too close, and then out onto the curtain wall. 

(View of the curtain wall from the north tower)

The current owners of Ewenny Priory must be commended for this generous act and hopefully we will see the medieval Priory of Ewenny open again at a further date.

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