Finchale Priory, (pronounced 'Finkle' and also known as Finchale Abbey), is a ruined monastery, a daughter house of Durham Cathedral, situated a few miles further along the River Wear. It began life as a hermitage for St Godric who lived in the twelfth century. After his death, monks were sent to establish a priory on the site. The saints tomb is marked by a stone cross although his remains are no longer there, (it's not known what happened to them). The abbey is a Grade I Listed Building and Scheduled Ancient Monument. It's an English Heritage site and is free entry, although there is a charge of £2.50 for the car park. The gates are open from 10am to 5pm.
I'd say it takes no more than an hour to have a good look around these dramatic ruins. Many of the walls are impressively high, with tall arched windows, there are spiral staircases, huge columns, original flooring and lots of other interesting detail. A favourite with children is the delightfully spooky vaulted undercroft which also has years old graffitti carved into the walls and columns. The Heritage Trail website, (www.theheritagetrail.co.uk/priories/finchale_priory), gives a more professional assessment: "there are some well-preserved examples of heavily decorated capitals on the original arcade columns, and beautiful tracery in the filled-in nave arches of the church. Also surviving on the south wall is a fine, double piscina and two carved seats of the sedilia." Whenever I visit Finchale I'm always surprised by how much more there is to it than I remember. Plaques indicate the different areas but there is a lack of solid information around. There's not usually anyone on the booth at the gate, (there was once a small entry charge and tickets, postcards and booklets were sold here).
Just outside you will find a cafe, a kiosk which mainly trades in ice cream and ice lollies, and a few picnic benches. It may be possible to purchase a guide at the kiosk but I'm not certain of that. There are public toilets of the basic single bog behind a barn door type. Access for people with disabiliites is limited; the road down is sloped and around the abbey the ground is grassy, uneven and there are some steps, the toilets are not adapted for wheelchair users, (these and the cafe are not owned by English Heritage but by the local farmhouse). There used to be peacocks wandering around, but I haven't seen any this year. There also used to be a couple of swings, a childrens play area would be a nice addition to the site in my opinion. There is a camping and caravan park directly behind the abbey.
It's a picturesque spot and on sunny days there will be a few familes around. Not everyone comes down here to visit the abbey, some come to fish or otherwise mess about on the water. There's a peaceful atmosphere about the place. A wooden bridge, (it had to be replaced not long ago after floods), leads across the river to some nice walks on the other side, the river banks are undulating and sandy along here, I've spent some enjoyable time on what can feel like mini private beaches. Whilst there will generally be a few people milling around in the summer, in my experience it never gets really busy, possibly because it's at the end of a long dead-end road. The only available shelter is in the little cafe or the undercroft so you need good weather to visit, but if you're in Durham and looking for a pleasant cultural experience off the well trodden tourist path, it's worth taking a trip to Finchale.
Getting there: The number 63 bus from Durham stops at the end of the road, which is around a mile long. By car from the A1(M) North of Durham City, at junction 63 head south on the A167 for around 4 miles then follow signs to Finchale Priory, it's not far from the Arnison shopping centre and is signposted from there. Postcode for satnavs: DH1 5SH
Situated on the banks of the River Wear just a few miles from Durham City Centre, Finchale Priory (pronounced Finkle by those in the know, hence the title of this review) might not attract huge amounts of attention from the tourist trade, but it's one of Durham's hidden gems and well worth visiting.
The easiest way to get to Finchale Priory is to head out of Durham in the direction of Chester-le-Street. Follow the signs for the Arnison Retail Centre (the inevitable out of town shopping centre) and the priory is well-signed down a well-maintained country lane that will take you straight to the gates of the building.
Quick History Lesson
Finchale Priory is one of those places with a history so bizarre that if you read about it in a book, you'd think it was a far fetched piece of nonsense! It began life as a simple hermitage for St Godric, a retired twelfth century pirate who retired to the banks of the Wear for a simple life, living in a hut on the site.
As if the idea of a retired pirate leading a hermetic existence isn't already bizarre enough, towards the end of the twelfth century, Finchale became a Benedictine Priory and was closely associated with nearby Durham Cathedral, whose monks used to go there for a holiday! Finally, of course, like so many other monastic houses, it was dissolved by Henry VIII in the 1530s and left to go to ruin.
Finchale Priory is a strange one when it comes to cost. Although it is owned and managed by English Heritage, there is no actual admission price. You are granted full access to the ruins of the Priory for nothing. Getting something for free is a rarity these days and sure enough, there's a catch: you have to pay £2.50 to park. Although the car park can be driven into without obstruction, to get out, you need to have bought a token for the barrier.
Still, this represents fantastic value for money. When you think that most historic monuments charge at least £3-5 per person, £2.50 for an entire carful of people is not to be sniffed at. Arguably, you could park in the country lane outside the Finchale site and walk down, thus giving you complete free access but frankly, if you begrudge paying a very reasonable donation to help with the site's conservation then shame on you!
Strangely, although Finchale is an English Heritage property, there's no actual benefit to be derived from membership at this particular site - members and non-members alike have to pay the car parking fee.
Unlike most historic sites, Finchale doesn't actually have any formal opening hours and theoretically, you can go whenever you like. The guidebook simply states that admission is granted "at any reasonable time". This is a very unusual arrangement, partly explained by the fact that parts of the Finchale site are still occupied, so there's no need to staff an entrance booth for a set number of hours.
If you're planning on spending a long time at Finchale, you are probably best off taking your own supplies. Although the priory advertises a "tea room" amongst its attractions, this is very basic (and wasn't open when we visited), so don't expect too much from it. Similarly, although you can buy a few things there is no gift shop to speak of. This actually makes for a pleasant change, since it gives the site a refreshing feel. Unlike many historic monuments, the keepers of Finchale are not trying to get you to part with as much money as possible. Instead, they just want people to come along and appreciate the beauty and tranquillity of the site.
Walking around the priory itself is a real experience. Although all of the interiors have long since disappeared, many of the outer walls still stand and give you an incredible sense of how impressive the priory must have been at its height. Much of the central section of the monastery (which also contains the still visible grave of founder St Godric) retains most of its structure and has some superb window arches. As ever with these places, both the scale and the incredible feats of engineering that must have been accomplished to build it cannot fail to impress.
The priory itself is actually quite small and looking around will probably take you no more than 30-45 minutes, but it is a genuinely fascinating experience. In its own way, the ruins are just as impressive as the far larger and grander Fountains Abbey. Its rural setting, located on the banks of the river, give the whole site a genuine sense of peace and tranquillity to the area, which is difficult to find at the more commercial properties like Fountains. It's certainly easy to see why the site was originally chosen as a suitable spot for quiet reflection and meditation.
Most parts of the priory are pretty accessible to anyone and there are certainly no steep climbs or lots of steps. The site is very exposed though and since it is entirely open to the elements, you definitely want to choose a reasonable day to visit - go in the rain and you will get very, very wet and probably have a very miserable journey home.
Once you have explored the remains of the priory, there are plenty of lovely walks nearby. Crossing the river by means of a narrow bridge will take you along the banks of the river through woodlands which offer some spectacular views of the priory. Viewing the site from angle also helps you realise how much of the walls still stand - something it can be easy to lose site of when you are actually standing in the middle of them.
The one disappointing aspect (which probably reflects the fact it is not a major tourist attraction) was the distinct lack of information boards. Although there were odd plaques telling you what various areas were, there was very little information on monastic life and how the priory must have looked when fully constructed and only brief information provided about the site's history. A leaflet is available from the main office, but this doesn't give a huge amount of detail, so if you want to find out more, you need to go off and do your own research.
Finchale is a beautiful and very tranquil place which doesn't attract the usual tourism crowd. Indeed, I'm almost reluctant to recommend it for fear that hordes of people might descend overnight! Against my better judgement, though, I will. If you are in Durham and tire of the size and might of the cathedral, try downscaling a little bit with a visit to peaceful Finchale
© Copyright SWSt 2011