Finchale Priory, County Durham

This comparatively small priory is situated in a scenic spot on the banks of the River Wear, about four miles from Durham. From its lowly beginning as a hermitage for St Godric - who lived a simple, lonely life in a crude hut for over fifty years - Finchale became a Benedictine priory, dependent on Durham Cathedral, towards the end of the 12th century.

Building of Finchale Priory began during the latter half of the 13th century, with numerous alterations and additions being made throughout the next three hundred years. However, there are still the fragmented remains of the early 12th century stone chapel of St John the Baptist, built towards the end of St Godric's life and where he was finally laid to rest. About twenty years after his death, a small group of temporary buildings were erected for the first prior and his monks sent to establish Finchale Priory, and the ruins of these buildings are still visible.

The walls of the priory church and many of the outbuildings, still stand to a good height enabling a clear understanding of the layout, although over the years much of the complex underwent a period of remodelling. It appears from historical notes at the time, that the church was considerably reduced in size and the monastic buildings were virtually abandoned with the exception of the prior's house.

Bearing in mind that Finchale Priory accommodated no more than 4 monks and a prior throughout most of its life to the time of the Dissolution, this was probably an economic decision to save money on the cost of repairs and maintenance. Even when the small groups of monks from Durham came for their three week 'rest' periods they used the prior's house as living quarters, and using the monks' dormitory purely for sleeping.

In spite of the buildings being little used (or, maybe because of that), 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.

No longer the solitary place of retreat that St Godric was led to in a vision, this religious foundation now stands surrounded by 20th century clutter. Entrance to the site is through an automated barrier, there is a busy, working farm in front of Finchale Priory, and a commercial caravan park to the south of it. I am sure that St Godric could never have envisaged so many changes over the centuries - from a hermitage, to a small monastery and place of pilgrimage, to a holiday home for the busy monks of Durham, and eventually to a ruinous monument of historical interest. Finchale Priory may have lost some of its idyllic charm but it is still a poignant reminder of the hard life endured by those few monks to follow their beliefs.


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