Michelham Priory

Embroidered Pillows and Knee-High Socks

Heather Park

I do often wonder if I’m old before my time, and quite often, my conclusion is yes. I’m not mad on clubbing, modern music isn’t something I greet with overly open arms, and I’ll happily leave my phone dead in my handbag for several days without worrying.  I’m a woman who enjoys living in the past, and where better to do that than a place with over 700 years of stories in its walls?

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Michelham Priory has been everything from a monastery to a Tudor house to a refuge for wartime evacuees. To me, it’s the simple definition of Sussex: a place where fascinating history and beautiful countryside are entwined, where facts can be learnt and tea can be drunk.

I dressed eagerly that morning, deciding that the best attire for visiting a historic sight with less-than-even terrain was my new jacket, favourite skirt and my comfiest pair of heels (I do have some common sense.)

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I arrived and queued outside the 14th century gatehouse. Around me, everyone else was dressed practically for the day, in Millets clothing and walking boots. I wasn’t fazed; I’ve been known to walk ten miles a day in these heels – something I’m equally proud and ashamed of.

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Surrounded by a moat, Michelham Priory really is the place for anyone looking to escape for the day. The mowed grass was lined by gravel paths, the two far too polite to ever cross; a row of colourful horse carts stood in the corner, a flower basket hanging between each one. A water pump loomed above a barren trough, now filled with a mass of wild daisies. It was a twee place, and I adored it.

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I explored the house itself first. Everything was a contrast – smooth wood and rough stone, white ceilings and black beams, soft tapestries and iron pots.

Sometimes, places like these are too extravagant, so much so that you can’t see them as anything more than a museum, the life of the building too unimaginable to touch. But in the simplicity of the priory, I could see the cooks grinding spices and weighing flour; the maids working dirty clothes with the dolly and wringing them out in the mangle. The lady of the house lounging in front of the fire, and the children hiding from each other in one of the many nooks.

Despite the stories of Augustinian canons and Tudor gentlemen, the building’s wartime years were the ones that interested me most. Stories of the war are often those of loss and sadness – but not on this little island.

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I followed the sound of the Andrews Sisters into a little room, where teddies lay snuggled under crocheted blankets, their heads resting on embroidered pillows. On the wall were photos of boys, dressed in shorts and caps and knee-high socks. I read their stories – evacuees from London who were looked after by the eldest daughter of the house. While many evacuees were only taken in for the 10 shillings their fosterers received, the children at Michelham Priory were loved. My favourite story was that of one Christmas morning, where they awoke to find a sleigh full of presents sitting in the middle of the frozen moat.

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So charmed by this story, I had to see the moat for myself. As I walked alongside it, falling leaves caused the water to ripple, and behind entangled branches, the priory was just visible. A swarm of bees buzzed around three hives in a nearby field, and I watched with horrified fascination.

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At the end of the worn grass path, my prize was a Bronze Age round house, its woven walls reminiscent of my patterned lighter. The nonchalance of the afternoon was a sweet reminder that not every outing has to be timetabled madness. Sometimes, it’s enough to have a beautiful place to go, simple things to see and a chance to stroll around and enjoy feeling content.

As a twenty-something, I’m not far from the years where an interest in almost anything would leave you branded with the title ‘nerd’. But I’m an adult now, who has grown into herself, and I’m proud to like whatever I want, history and all.

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I spent the rest of my visit exploring the gardens, where flowers tangled together in the borders, some mischievously sneaking onto the path and brushing against my shoes. Grape vines curled around wooden trellises above my head, speckled sunlight breaking through them and onto the gravelled ground. After a final cup of tea, it was time to leave the moated island.

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Editor: Malin Lillevold

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