As one of England's modern working priories, Aylesford Priory (commonly known as 'The Friars') attracts many thousands of visitors and pilgrims to its Kentish grounds beside the River Medway every year. But its origins lie deep in the Holy Land with a hermit order called the Carmelites.
In 1242 the first Carmelite house in England was founded at a remote spot in Aylesford, but by the end of the 13th century there were more than 30 such priories established throughout England and Wales. Many of the later houses were situated in towns and cities due to a reformation of the Order by St Simon Stock midway through the century. As no documented history of life at Aylesford Priory appears in any reference books, we can only assume that it was relatively uneventful until the time of Dissolution in 1538. At this time The Friars site passed to Sir Thomas Wyatt of neighbouring Allington Castle, but when the family later lost all their lands it went to Sir John Sedley. Although he was responsible for altering the Aylesford Priory to some extent, it was the next owner, Sir John Banks, who completely transformed The Friars into a Caroline mansion during the 1670s.
Two and half centuries later it was severely damaged by fire but this prompted a new chapter in the life of the Carmelites at Aylesford. Following the 1930 fire, major restoration work uncovered much of the original fabric of Aylesford Priory and, when The Friars was again on the market, the Carmelites were able to purchase their medieval home.
Inspired by the first prior, Friar Malachy Lynch, the whole site was redeveloped during 1958-1965 under the guidance of Adrian Gilbert Scott (architect), but using the skills of Italian masons as well as local artists and sculptors. What the unsuspecting visitor sees today is a magnificently restored 13th century site cleverly brought together with splendid 20th century workmanship to enhance the main features.
Aylesford Priory church was demolished towards the end of the 16th century but a new complex of four chapels and a Main Shrine now occupy the site where it once stood. Each chapel has a special dedication but they are all masterpieces of modern design. In remembrance of the origins of the present Order of Carmelites, the skull of St Simon Stock is contained in the reliquary behind the altar in the Relic Chapel. The oldest building in the Great Courtyard is the Pilgrims Hall, but the most impressive is the Prior's Hall. Adorned with paintings recalling the history of the Carmelites, the Hall also displays some of the original medieval floor tiles from the old priory church that have been placed on the window sills.
With the remaining two sides of the cloisters, a lovely garden, a gatehouse, and a restored 17th century barn housing the tearoom and bookshop, Aylesford Priory is a most interesting site to visit. It is particularly refreshing to see the Carmelite friars following the same kind of life that their predecessors did over seven centuries ago, but being able to accommodate the modern demands of society to provide for themselves a thriving pilgrimage centre.