Aylesford Priory (The Friars)
History, tourist information, and nearby accommodation
HERITAGE HIGHLIGHTS: The medieval Great Courtyard and Pilgrim's Hall, dated to 1280.
In 1242 Richard de Grey granted land along the River Medway close to his manor at Aylesford to a group of Carmelite friars from the Holy Land. In 1247 the Archbishop of Rochester officially recognised the Aylesford Carmelites, and the first church for the newly established order was dedicated the following year. The early Carmelites had been hermits, but they now became mendicants, meaning they could not own property and relied on begging or charitable donations.
In the middle of the 13th century St Simon Stock, Prior General of the Carmelites, is said to have had a religious vision in which Our Lady appeared to him and promised that all who wore the Carmelite habit would be have her protection. Traditions differ on whether the vision occurred at Aylesford or Cambridge, but in any event the wearing of the Carmelite scapular became popular, especially in the 16th century.
A subsequent owner was a Mrs Woolsey, who actively promoted the new scouting movement, and Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, was a known visitor.
Then in 1949, an an extraordinary twist of fate, the house was put up for sale, and the Carmelite order was able to buy it. Now called 'The Friars' (a name that was also used well back in the Middle Ages), the priory was restored and many of the original medieval features brought back to light from under centuries of later building. The centrepiece of the restored Priory was an open air shrine with a series of smaller chapels leading off the open space. The 'new' Aylesford Priory was (re)dedicated in 1965. It now serves as a retreat and conference centre, and welcomes residential visitors and tourists.
One of the most recent additions at Aylesford Priory is a narrow walled garden extending from the 16th century gatehouse. The gatehouse was built for defense, guarding the entrance to the site when the priory was a mansion following the Dissolution. The garden is laid out along a walkway paved with stones bearing the word 'peace' in over 300 languages.
A leafy trail along the River Medway, leading a shrine depicting St Simon Stock's scapular vision. It is amazing to think that hundreds of thousands of pilgrims have walked this same trail over the centuries.
This area is centred on a large piazza with long benches. Several shrines are laid out around the piazza, including a Choir Chapel, Cloister Chapel, St Joseph's Chapel, and the Main Shrine, with a huge sculpture of the Virgin Mary sculpted by Michael Clark in 1960. The most interesting building from an historical viewpoint is the Relic Chapel, which houses a reliquary containing the skull of St Simon Stock. Many of the chapels feature quite stunning ceramics by Polish artist Adam Kossowski.
The oldest part of The Friars; most of the buildings are medieval, though many were refitted with 17th century windows. The most intriguing is Pilgrim's Hall, dating to 1280, the hall has served many functions over its lifetime, being a barn, a brew house, an alms house, and a Scout headquarters.
Visiting The Friars
I was of two minds whether to visit The Friars or not, simply because I wasn't sure how I'd enjoy a historic site that has been so recently rebuilt. But I loved it. The core of historic buildings is quite wonderful, and the restoration is so sensitively done that it was frankly hard to tell which bits were old and which bits weren't! More tellingly, the whole site seemed to radiate a sense of peace and calm, despite occasional noise from the nearby M20. The River Medway flows past the site as it has done for almost 800 years, giving me a sense of what it might have been like for the medieval friars and pilgrims who camme here. The Great Courtyard is an absolute gem; a wonderfully complete and atmospheric medieval enclave of historic buildings.
About Aylesford Priory (The Friars)
Address: Aylesford, Kent, England, ME20 7BX
Attraction Type: Abbey
Location: Close to Junction 5 of the M20. Very well signposted from nearby major roads. Free parking onsite.
Website: Aylesford Priory (The Friars)
Phone: 01622 717272
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express
Heritage Rated from 1- 5 (low-exceptional) on historic interest
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Nearest Accommodation to Aylesford Priory (The Friars):
Nearest Self Catering Cottages
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Visitor Information Centre
Maidstone Museum & Bentlif Art Gallery
Tel: 01622 602 169