North East Cumbria: Pt 1 – Wetheral Priory

Just 20 minutes out of Carlisle City Centre, is a historic landmark that until I found it on a map, even Gemma didn’t know about, even though its her local area. As soon as we found out about it, we couldn’t resist taking a look…

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The imposing figure of Wetheral Priory Gatehouse loomed out of the trees, down a small track just outside of Wetheral Village. It is all that remains of Wetheral Priory, and is open to the public for free. You can climb the spiral staircase inside to look out across the areas once covered by the two floors, and sometimes the roof, however the roof door was locked when we visited.

Completed in the 14th Century, the Gatehouse was part of the larger Priory complex, which was founded in 1066 by the Benedictine Order, from St Mary’s Abbey in York. Buildings in the complex included a Chapel and a Monastic School. The Gatehouse itself had two residential floors, for Officials and Visitors, as well as a number of Travellers who passed through the area. It’s fate was sealed in 1538 when the Priory was dissolved, falling into ruin. The Gatehouse survived by chance and was used as a vicarage throughout the 16th and 17th Centuries, being abandoned thereafter.

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We started at the bottom, and entered the ground floor.This area was the main hall, which contained a fireplace, a separate toilet and an oriel window. The floors that one existed directly above it were broadly similar in their appearance, although they are long since gone leaving the interior of the Gatehouse hollow.

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The spiral staircase can’t be accessed via the hall, only directly from outside over to the left as you enter the Priory grounds through the Gatehouse.

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The view from the exit onto the original top floor affords a stunning view down through the Gatehouse to the bottom, as well as out over the wooden beams that hold the roof up, which have been restored. There is another room located across from our position here, but there is no access to it anymore as it is cut off without the floor.

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The top stop is the roof, although the metal gate that gives access to the roof itself was locked when we visited, but I assume it must be open at some point. I can imagine some great views across the surrounding countryside and hills, so it’s a shame we couldn’t get up there. A view over the battlements must have been grand, and a commanding position in the area.

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This is a view from inside the Gatehouse grounds, with the entrance to the staircase visible on the right. Off to the left is a small room with what looks like a wooden bed, minus a mattress. A plaque in the room explains that the Gatehouse could offer:

“The right of Sanctuary. One of Wetheral’s most jealously guarded privileges was the right of sanctuary. Within an area bounded by market stones (sanctuary crosses), wrongdoers from elsewhere could claim freedom from arrest. Those who claimed sanctuary had to toll a bell in the priory church, and swear before the bailiff of the manor that he would keep the peace. No sanctuary was offered to those whose crime had been committed in Wetheral itself.”

This means that there were probably a lot of visitors to the area, seeking refuge from other law enforcements, which probably made it a rather unpopular place with the law. Many of these possibly arrived by boat, as the RIver Eden runs just behind the Priory site, coming from around Appleby and Penrith, before running from here into Carlisle and ultimately the Solway Firth.

The Gatehouse is a beautiful piece of history, and it’s nice to see what a good condition it has been kept in. This was just the start, as we soon made our way into Wetheral Village itself, to explore the famous Cross and Viaduct…

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