Aylesford Priory
Aylesford Priory
The First Carmelite House
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.
To say that the order flourished would be an understatement; over the next 50 years over 30 Carmelite friaries were established in England and Wales, including in large centres like Cambridge, Oxford, and London. The order at Aylesford was well supported, and built a range of guesthouses for pilgrims and established a fine library. A fine new church was built to replace the older chapel, but though it was blessed in 1348 it was not actually consecrated until 1417. Why the wait? Well, 1348 was the year the Black Death, or bubonic plague, came to England, and we can only assume that the Carmelites of Aylesford, like the rest of the country, were badly affected by the scourge.

Great Courtyard and Pilgrim's Hall
Great Courtyard and Pilgrim's Hall
St Simon Stock's Vision
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.
However, the golden age at Aylesford could not survive the winds of religious change, and the abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII in the Reformation. The king granted the Priory buildings to Sir Thomas Wyatt, but the Wyatt family lost the estates under Queen Mary, and Aylesford was later granted to Sir John Sedley, who converted the monastic buildings into a luxurious mansion. In 1633 the Sedley's sold Aylesford to Sir Peter Rycaut, a Royalist supporter who used the buildings to store arms during the Civil War.

The piazza and Main Shrine
The piazza and Main Shrine
The Rycaut's suffered for their Royalist beliefs and his wife was forced to sell Aylesford once more, to Sir John Banks, a wealthy businessman. Banks rebuilt the mansion in Caroline style and welcomed the great and good of Restoration society to his new home, including Samuel Pepys, who noted in his diary that 'I was mighty pleased with the sight of it'. Banks' daughter Elizabeth married Heneage Finch, who was named 1st Earl of Aylesford, but the family lived elsewhere and used Ayesford purely as a dower house.

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.
16th century gatehouse
16th century gatehouse
Peace Garden
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.

Rosary Way
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.
Main Shrine and Chapels
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 cloisters
The cloisters
Great Courtyard and Pilgrim's Hall
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.
PHOTOS
Pilgrim's Hall interior
Pilgrim's Hall interior
The Rosary Way
The Rosary Way
St Joseph's Chapel
St Joseph's Chapel
Medieval buildings in the Great Courtyard
Medieval buildings in the Great Courtyard
The Peace Garden
The Peace Garden
St Simon Stock reliquary
St Simon Stock reliquary
A quiet cloister walk
A quiet cloister walk

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
Location map
OS: TQ723588
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express


NEARBY HISTORIC ATTRACTIONS

Heritage Rated from 1- 5 (low-exceptional) on historic interest

Little Kit's Coty - 1.6 miles (Prehistoric Site) Heritage Rating

Kit's Coty House - 1.8 miles (Prehistoric Site) Heritage Rating

Burham, St Mary's Church - 2 miles (Historic Church) Heritage Rating

Maidstone Museum & Bentlif Art Gallery - 2.8 miles (Museum) Heritage Rating

Archbishops Palace, Maidstone - 3.1 miles (Historic Building) Heritage Rating

Paddlesworth, St Benedict's Church - 3.1 miles (Historic Church) Heritage Rating

St Leonard's Tower - 3.2 miles (Historic Building) Heritage Rating

Coldrum Longbarrow - 4.5 miles (Prehistoric Site) Heritage Rating



Nearest Accommodation to Aylesford Priory (The Friars):

Self Catering   -   B&Bs/Guesthouses   -   Hotels

Nearest Self Catering Cottages

  More self catering near Aylesford Priory (The Friars)

Show self catering cottages near Aylesford Priory (The Friars)

Nearest Hotels

    More Hotels near Aylesford Priory (The Friars)

Show bed and breakfasts near Aylesford Priory (The Friars)

Nearest Bed and Breakfasts

  More bed and breakfasts near Aylesford Priory (The Friars)

    Nearest Tourist Information Centre ('as the crow flies')

Maidstone
Visitor Information Centre
Maidstone Museum & Bentlif Art Gallery
St.Faith's Street
Maidstone
Kent
England
ME14 1LH
Tel: 01622 602 169
Email: tourism@maidstone.gov.uk
Web: http://www.visitmaidstone.com
map