Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Wilmington Priory with Wonderful People

In spring last year, I went to an Open Day at Wilmington Priory, a beautiful 11th century building not far from Polegate/Eastbourne, owned by The Landmark Trust. Despite it being only half an hour's drive from Brighton, I had never noticed it, even on previous visits to The Long Man of Wilmington. When I discovered that it was possible to rent the whole place out for 6 people to stay in, I realised it was the perfect venue for the next annual get-together with some of my best friends.

I contacted The Landmark Trust, paid the £632 rental and within a few weeks, it was all sorted. I was off to stay in a (haunted) priory for three nights in January with Cathy, Ed, Sid, Julia and Mike. We're the final hangers-on of what used to be a fourteen or fifteen-strong group of friends who all worked at Gatwick Immigration (or were connected to someone who did). Over the years, naturally, people have moved away, had kids, emigrated or simply fallen off the radar, leaving this small group of reprobates to keep up the drunken shenanigans of a weekend away!

So last Friday afternoon, we packed our various cars and converged on Wilmington (well, once poor Sid had found her car which had been helpfully moved by the council to a different street after they'd suspended the parking where she'd left her car!) Despite all coming from different directions, we pulled up outside the property within about 15 seconds of each other, found the cunningly hidden key and emptied the contents of the cars into the flagstone hallway. Strangely enough, there seemed to be much more alcohol than anything else in our packing! We tucked our cars away in the private car park down the lane and went back for a good old explore of the house. I'd seen it before, of course, but had honestly forgotten just how marvellous it is!

Much of the priory itself is in ruins but there are parts of it still standing both outside and within the main walls of the property. The beamed ceilings in the kitchen and two of the bedrooms are original and there is a high vaulted beamed ceiling in what is now the table tennis room. And then of course there's the crypt (or undercroft, depending on which guide you read). From the garden, a tiny flight of stairs disappears down into the darkness, leading to a vaulted cellar which is, especially if you don't turn the lights on, a little bit spooky!

We claimed our bedrooms (Sid and I shared the twin room in the oldest wing, walking through part of the original priory wall to get to the room). It's a great room if you don't mind the freezing walk from the room and down two lots of stairs to the nearest bathroom but it does have this view:

Once the nice man from Tesco had delivered all our breakfast goodies, crisps, dips and snacks, we squirrelled them all away in the kitchen and settled ourselves in for the evening. Sid made a delicious veggie shepherd's pie, Cathy had brought divine tiramisu, apple crumble and cream, so we chatted over dinner and drinks before retiring to the living room in front of a roaring fire for more chat and several games of cards. Before we knew it, it was 2.30am and time to hit the sack.

Saturday dawned a little dull but at least not pouring with rain. After a bleary-eyed breakfast feast of veggie sausages, Quorn bacon, fried eggs, baked beans, toast, Marmite, mushrooms, tea and fruit juice, we were ready to head out. Ed had identified a host of walks which went right past the door so we didn't even have to take the cars anywhere. From our front door, we headed cross-country, walking the three miles across partly flooded fields to Alfriston where we had planned to have a cream tea. However, we'd only finished breakfast a couple of hours earlier and none of us could manage more food so we had a wander around Alfriston and then continued the circular walk. Another three miles brought us up to the head of the Long Man of Wilmington, where we met a man who was out walking his dog and exercising his Harris Hawk! That's not something you see every day. It was a magnificent bird, swooping about in the sky and then elegantly coming back to rest on the ground nearby or on his hand. From there, a thigh-muscle-killing steep walk down brought us back to The Street and to the priory.

After tea and crumpets, showers and several games of table tennis, we headed off to The Giant's Rest, a pub just at the end of the lane. It was, without question, one of the best pub meals I've ever had - mine was a shared baked camembert followed by sweet potato, mushroom and peanut stew, which were so huge there was no room for the treacle tart I'd been eyeing up most of the evening. Everyone was very happy with their food - huge portions at very acceptable prices. The pub had a lovely atmosphere, wasn't overly busy for a Saturday evening and I look forward to going back at some point.

We walked back by torchlight to the house, lit a fire and spent another late evening/early morning playing cards and chatting.

Sunday delivered unexpected bright blue skies and sunshine. I was awake at 8 so I left the others sleeping and snuck out to take some pictures of the grounds, and then to the church next door. The 1600-year-old yew tree in the churchyard looked stunning in the early morning sunlight and I spent a happy 15 minutes in the small church reading up on the history of both the church and the priory. In July 2002, the church suffered a fire which destroyed an entire section - the cause of the fire has never been ascertained but the local papers and the guestbook at the priory talk of between one and three mysterious American guests who could not be located after the event!

Soon after my return, everyone was up, we had another giant cooked veggie breakfast and planned the rest of our day. We drove to Birling Gap, parked up a couple of miles past it, and then walked the breathtaking clifftop path back to Birling Gap for a drink and a cake in the newly-refurbished National Trust café. We then walked back the other way towards the car but continued on a little further in the direction of Beachy Head, before turning back to the cars. As Cathy, Julia and I headed back in one car, we spotted the start of a gorgeous sunset so we pulled over and went to watch and photograph it. It had been a lovely day from start to finish. It's easy to moan about living in the UK and how it rains a lot and it's a bit nippy in the winter but on a day like this, with the winter sun beating down from a bright blue sky, shining on the undulating hills and clifftops of the South Downs and with the gleaming white cliff faces, offset by the red and white stripes of the lighthouse, I can honestly say there's nowhere I'd rather be.

On our return to the priory, it was time for tea and crumpets again, and for me to finally take two games of table tennis off Mike! After a delicious dinner of baked potatoes with veggie chilli courtesy of Julia, we retired yet again to the living room to toast marshmallows and chestnuts over the fire. Cathy and I had also finally got around to lighting candles in the combination inside/outside room (part of the old hall) and it was a beautifully clear night so we took ourselves off to stargaze and to drink wine and look for hibernating bats in the ceiling of the hall. It was a shame we didn't use the opportunity to have at least one meal out there as it was really atmospheric and cosy under candlelight. A bit chilly perhaps but that's what coats are for! Outside, the skies were twinkling with stars and constellations and with help of my NightSky app, we realised that one of the brightest was actually Jupiter! Mike spotted a bat flitting around our heads but Cathy and I didn't see one until we went back into the candlelit al fresco room where one was zooming round and round before finally heading out in search of insects.

We realised there was one thing left to do from our list of planned activities - the séance! Whilst there aren't any specific reports of hauntings at the property, we worked on the assumption that an 11th century priory must stand a pretty good chance of some activity. There were plenty of entries in the visitors' book about dogs refusing to go in certain areas of the house too. It wasn't really practical to take ourselves off down into the crypt with its freezing and slightly damp floor and no even surfaces. So Mike set up the Scrabble letters alphabetically around an upturned glass, we lit two candles and then four of us sat around the table to see what happened. And? Nothing. Nada. To be fair, I'm not sure we were all taking it too seriously and there had been quite a lot of wine drunk so the questions we posed to the ether weren't exactly, as Mike later said, conducive!

Far too soon, the fire had died, we'd run out of marshmallows and chestnuts and, shock horror, almost run out of alcohol so we headed up the various wooden hills for our final night's sleep.

Monday morning consisted of scoffing toast, packing, clearing up, divvying up the leftover food, sorting out what we owed the housekeeper for kindling and firewood and settling up our food bills with each other. The weekend had gone far too fast as usual but it had been fun, relaxing, laughter-filled and a lovely way to spend a long weekend with good friends. One thing I will say is - if I ever hear "the Barbara Streisand" song again, it'll be too soon!

All my photos from the weekend can be found here.