Our next stop was the town of Christchurch, famous for the Priory at it’s heart, which also offers some stunning views of the town…
Status: Christchurch Unitary Authority, Dorset (historically Hampshire), Town, England
Eating & Sleeping: N/A
Attractions: Christchurch Priory, Christchurch Castle Ruins, Mayor’s Parlour, Saxon Square, Ye Olde George Inn, Ship Inn, Town Bridge, River Avon, The Constable’s House, United Reform Church, River Stour, Cobbled Church Street etc
Christchurch High Street’s most impressive building has to be Christchurch Town Hall, also known as the “Mayor’s Parlour”. Completed in 1746 as the local Market Hall the building originally stood at the other end of the road, where it meets Castle Street and Church Street, site of the original market, and was only moved here in 1859, when it was also extended. From then it was taken over by the local council and the Mayor for use as the Town Hall, hence the new name of the Mayor’s Parlour.
It now sits at the entrance to “Saxon Square” behind it. The name comes from the original Saxon origin of Christchurch, the street layout of which has been retained in some areas. A large Saxon Cross also sits in the centre of the square.
Today the Market is held regularly up the length of the High Street, which is then closed to traffic.
Christchurch High Street is home to a number of interesting buildings, including the “Ye Olde George Inn”. The exact year of the buildings construction isn’t known, but the earliest recorded mentioned of it is in 1630, and it is officially the towns oldest surviving Inn. It functioned as a Coaching Inn, as the Coach which ran from the city of Winchester (once the capital of England) through Christchurch to Poole would stop here to change horses.
It is in what was once a prominent location in the town, across the road from the end of Church Street leading to the Priory, as well as what was once the towns Market Square, where Castle Street & Church Street meet. Indeed records show that the towns first ever market was held here in 1149. The area was also the former home of the Town Hall, from 1746 until 1859, and it was accompanied by a Market Cross.
The building to the right of the George Inn is also Listed, as “Number 4 Castle Street”. It was built sometime around 1685, and originally consisted of three individual wooden buildings, now encased within a brick frame added in the late 19th century by the Victorians.
Heading over the road from the George Inn we walked up the cobbled end of Church Street, which leads you to the famous Christchurch Priory.
Nearly all of the buildings on this street are Listed, which includes “Numbers 14 – 16 Church Street”. They are shown on the left as the single storey, painted yellowish building. These were once terraced houses from the 18th century, and now contain shops.
Christchurch Priory is an incredible building, and not only is it historic, but it is noteworthy as the longest Parish Church in England, and is longer than over twenty English Cathedrals.
The sites history goes back to Saxon times, when a small Saxon Priory once stood here. Construction of a new Norman Church began in 1094 under Ranulf Flambard (1060 – 1128, Bishop of Durham, and Minister to King William II). By 1150 the main requirements for a Church were complete, including a Central Tower.
The build up of the Church we now see today took many centuries, with various additions between 1150 and the 16th century, including:
1350: A spire was added to the Central Tower, and the main roof over the Nave was raised considerably.
1415: The Central Tower/Spire collapses, destroying the original Norman Choir, which was later rebuilt and extended, to meet the new Lady Chapel.
1480: A new Tower is completed at the Western end of the Church, and still stands today.
1529: The final additions to the Priory were the Salisbury & Draper Chantry’s.
1539: King Henry VIII (1491 – 1547) instigates the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and the Priory ceases to function. It later became the local Parish Church and has been largely unchanged ever since.
A famous legend associated with the Church is that in the 12th century a beam being placed in the roof was found to have been cut too short. Supposedly the next day, after a mysterious carpenter had been seen around the Church, the same beam was found fitted in place, but the correct size. Some say the mysterious Carpenter was Jesus, hence the new name of the town, Christchurch.
Guided tours of the Priory Tower are available upon request, and aside from offering a fascinating insight into the history of the building, as well as a few of its famous features, you are treated to a full 360 degree panoramic view of the town, and out into the English Channel.
The vast expanse of the Churchyard was laid out in front of us, with perfectly mowed lawns, lush flower beds and the scattered grave stones. You can see where the Churchyard meets Church Street, and heads off towards the town centre.
On a hill behind the buildings on the right hand side of Church Street lie the ruins of Christchurch Castle, the original portions of which were built in 1160 by the Normans. It prospered over the following centuries, with a large Keep (still visible) added in the early 12th Century. Its final hour was during the English Civil War (1642 – 1651), when it was held by the Parliamentarians. The Royalists led by Oliver Cromwell (1599 – 1658) failed to capture the Castle, so Cromwell ordered it to be destroyed, leaving it ruinous.
The Castle ruins are located to the North West of the Priory Tower. Looking to the North East, behind the Castle Mound are the ruins of the “Constable’s House”.
It was part of the Castle Complex, and is thought to have been built by Richard de Redvers (1066 – 1107, 1st Baron of Plymouth), who is also credited with building the rest of the Castle at the same time in 1160.
The Constable’s House was basically a Norman house, and the ruins are quite extensive, even including a Chimney in the centre. This is notable as it is one of only five Norman Chimneys to survive in the UK.
Just behind the House flows the River Avon, crossed by the “Town Bridge”, built in the 15th Century.
Looking past the Castle, towards the High Street you can spot the Town Hall in Saxon Square in the back left of the picture.
Not far to the right of it is the “United Reform Church”, a grand building from 1867 designed in the Gothic Style. The Spire is the Priory’s only rival for the towns skyline, and a sign hanging up outside the building states it is now the Christchurch Christian Centre.
Looking South from the Priory Tower you can see the River Stour snaking its way through the marshes towards the English Channel. The Avon can be seen flowing into it behind the cluster of buildings to the left.
It’s a fantastic view, and you can even make out the edge of the Isle of Wight in the distance.
After our fascinating trip around the Priory, and the stunning views of Christchurch, we took a wander down towards an open park space known as the “Quomps” on the banks of the Stour.
One famous inhabitant of the Quomps is the late 19th Century Bandstand.
The riverside is lined with local pleasure boats, recreational parkland and of course the local wildlife. It was a lovely place to end our tour of the town.
Christchurch itself is well connected to the rest of Britain, with numerous main A-Roads catching the edge of the town on the way into Bournemouth/Poole, which the town is contiguous with. Ferries from Poole, Southampton and Portsmouth can take you to the Channel Islands and the Isle of Wight, whilst the local train station lies on the mainline between Weymouth and London Waterloo via Southampton.
Christchurch is a stunning town, but it was time to leave, so we pressed on, and entered the New Forest National Park…