Down a small, sleepy lane, and not far from Upper Dicker, Arlington Reservoir and Hailsham is stunning Michelham Priory.
The priory was founded in 1229 as an Augustinian Priory which it remained until the 16th century. In 1537, it was closed and partly demolished by Henry VIII as part of the dissolution of the monasteries and what remained became a private house. From that point on, it had a checkered history. It was granted to Thomas Cromwell (a statesman who was executed in 1540 on the orders of Henry VIII). After that, the priory was granted to Anne of Cleves whilst part of it was leased to Thomas Culpeper, and some of it went to the Earl of Arundel. Eventually, it was bought by Herbert Pelham in 1587.
In the 16th century, a wing was added to include a dining room and parlour. In 1601 it was bought by the Sackvilles and rented out, in particular to the Child family. By the late 19th century, Michelham Priory had fallen into disrepair until it was bought by one James Gwynne who started refurbishing it. In 1927, a fire damaged the Tudor wing and most of the interior has since been refitted. Michelham Priory housed evacuee children, soldiers, and the Home Guard during WWII. In 1959 it was given to the Sussex Archaeological Society and in the 1980s, bizarrely, it was the playground of my youth.
It’s a moated priory (fed by the River Cuckmere) and you approach it via a 14th century gatehouse. The property would have been pretty self-sufficient and its seven acres of grounds include cloister, kitchen, physic and Medieval herb gardens.
The cloister garden is on the original foundations of the cloisters and in the summer is rather beautiful. As you’d expect, the physic garden has plants that would have been used as medicines.
Amongst the gardens are a series of rather beautiful sculptures. In the grounds, there’s also a large Grade II barn that was built between 1587 and 1610 and a fine collection of Sussex carts and workshop tools. There’s also a watermill and forge although they were closed at the time of my last visit.
Not much of the original priory exists apart from the stunning undercroft with its vaulted ceiling as you enter and the large prior’s room above it. But the undercroft does have a model of what it would have looked like in the early 15th century.
Walking around Michelham Priory is a little bit like travelling through time, as you pass from the undercroft to the incredible Tudor kitchen and scullery, the dining room laid out for feasting, and then the WWII gallery where you can listen to the wireless!
Upstairs, there are a number of remarkable collections. The history and Victorian rooms contain memorabilia of the Child family including diaries and photographs, whilst the picture gallery contains the most incredible collection of botanical drawings. The prior’s room then takes you back to Medieval times before you’re catapulted back to WWII and the evacuees’ bedroom and a rather mesmerizing dolls’ house.
The gardens of Michelham Priory are open to the public between February and November each year, with the house itself opening in mid-May. During the Christmas period, the house and gardens are only open during weekends but they host events like Mr Fezziwig’s Christmas Murder Mystery and their Tudor Christmas weekends.
You can find out more about Michelham Priory here: https://sussexpast.co.uk/attraction/michelham-priory/
If you like this post, you may also like: