“ Address: Pier Road / Tynemouth NE30 4BZ / Tyne and Wear „
Tynemouth Priory was one of the many monastic houses dissolved by Henry VIII during his reign. Like so many of these magnificent buildings, it was plundered for its stone and left to ruin over the years. Despite standing on a cliff top exposed to the elements for over 1000 years, parts of Tynemouth Priory still stand today and make for an interesting visit.
Finding the priory is very easy, since it stands right at the top of Tynemouth high street and is kind of hard to miss! It dominates the town, standing on a cliff edge and overlooking the sea, providing a deeply impressive entrance to the town.
Although the priory itself doesn't have a car park, on-street parking is available nearby. However, this is quite expensive (60p per hour in 2011) and they do get filled up quite quickly. Traffic in general is a bit of a problem, since the town centre roads were not really built to handle the volume that now visits (particularly in summer). If you're willing to walk a little way, there is plenty of free street parking available just outside the town. We usually park in one of the side streets near the Blue Reef Aquarium without any difficulty. The only downside is that it's about a 15-20 minute uphill walk into the town centre, so not suitable for the elderly or infirm.
A Quick History Lesson
The site of Tynemouth Priory has been occupied for over 2,000 years. It started out as an Anglo-Saxon settlement and in the 1100s the priory was built. Although dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539, the site continued to be used as a parish church for around 100 years before it assumed a new role as a strategically important military site, guarding the shipyards of the Tyne - something which continued until after the Second World War. As a result, there is a lot of history sitting on the site of Tynemouth Priory!
Perhaps unsurprisingly, relatively little remains of the priory now, beyond some standing walls and a large and impressive main tower. It also houses a graveyard, which continued to be used long after the priory and church had any religious function and that in itself is worth wandering around.
Part of the dilapidated condition is due to the exposed position of the site and the weather has undoubtedly taken its toll over the years. This is not the sole reason for the ruinous state, however. Due to its strategically important position, the site was used as a military barracks for a couple of hundred years. As pragmatic ideologies ruled the day (rather than a longer term conservation perspective) parts of the old priory were demolished to make way for barrack buildings, ammunition stores and officers' homes.
This might seem like a great act of vandalism to us today, and it does give the site a rather strange look and feel. All on one relatively small site, you have an ancient priory, an abandoned coastguard station (dating from the 1980s), an officer's house from the late 19th/early 20th century and a system of defences from the two World Wars, complete with replica guns looking out over the coast.
Whilst the destruction of the priory buildings is a real loss, this merging of features from different eras gives Tynemouth Castle and Priory a unique look and feel. On one site the architectural styles of nearly 1000 years of human history clash, making it a fascinating place to visit.
For me, the main appeal was undoubtedly the priory itself. Although little now remains beyond the main gatehouse and one tower, they are still a fascinating set of ruins situated in a beautiful location. Thanks to the elevated position on top of a high cliff, they offer some stunning views across Tynemouth and the sea and on a good day you can see for miles.
The weather is certainly one thing you might want to bear in mind when you visit. The whole site is very exposed to the elements. We went when it was incredibly windy (despite being August!) and actually quite cold due to the wind gusting off the sea. It was so windy that Mrs SWSt and I could barely hear each other talk. On rainy days, there is virtually no shelter and you would quickly be drenched.
The ruins themselves will not take a great deal of time to walk around, since they are relatively small, consisting of just a few interior foundations and little else. Even the main priory tower which still stands does not have a great deal to explore. However, it does have a hidden gem, which is not immediately obvious as you approach it. Under the tower of the abbey is a small door which leads into a Chantry (a chapel where prayers were said for the souls of the dead) for the Percys, the Earls of Northumberland throughout much of the 13-16th centuries.
Given the ruinous state of the rest of the priory, it is a real surprise to enter this room which is completely intact. The chantry still has its stained glass windows and the original ceiling decoration can easily be picked out, as can various stone carvings depicting the Percy's heraldic devices. After the ruin of the rest of the priory, this room is a real eye-opener and gives you some idea of how incredibly ornate and beautiful the priory must have been in its pomp.
Moving away from the 16th century, if you are interested in military history, then at the end of the cliff are a series of 20th century fortifications, designed to protect the shipyards of Tynemouth. These include a series of underground bunkers (one of which is open and has a background "commentary" as if it were still operational.) Personally, I didn't find this particularly interesting, but it does give a good demonstration of how strategically significant the site has been for over 1000 years and will be of interest to anyone who enjoys military history.
One thing which Tynemouth must be given credit for is the quality of its information boards. It's a frequent complaint of mine that English Heritage information boards tend to be limited both in terms of number and the information they provide. Tynemouth has plenty telling you the history of the site (particularly the priory); these are interesting to read and have plenty of illustrations to give you some idea of what the site looked like at various points in history.
A visit to Tynemouth Priory in 2011 costs £4.50 for adults (£4.10 concessions) and £2.70 for children. As with many English Heritage properties, we felt that this was a little overpriced (although as EH members, we got in for free). Due to the limited nature of the ruins, there isn't actually a great deal to see and although we read each of the information boards and climbed all the walls to admire the views over the harbour, we were still there for less than an hour.
Facilities and Access
Tynemouth Priory is very limited in its facilities. There is a small gift shop in the entrance way and some toilets in the old officers' house, but nothing else. However, as the priory is literally on the doorstep of the town, this is not an issue.
Much of the site is accessible to the infirm or wheelchair users, since a proper path circles the site. However, the grassy area around the priory buildings might cause more of a problem and it would be difficult for anyone with a disability to enjoy the best views, as this inevitably involves climbing
Although the ruins are not as extensive as those of other monastic sites, Tynemouth Priory and Castle offer a unique opportunity to see over 1,000 years of history within a single site. On the downside, it's not going to take you long to wander around the ruins and a family visit could be quite expensive. If you have any interest in history, however, it's probably worth visiting at least once.
Tynemouth Priory and Castle
Tyne and Wear
© Copyright SWSt 2011