To be honest, we didn’t set out to stop at Castle Acre but, seeing how close it was to our original destination, we decided to have a look-see and what a wonderful surprise awaited us. In the end, we stayed there all day and didn’t go any further.
Castle Acre is a delightful little hill-top village, roughly 4 miles north of Swaffham in Norfolk, just off the A1065. We drove along quite a narrow lane, through the ancient castle Acre Bailey Gate and then the vista opens up into the most delightful village. Turn right to go to the Castle Ruins (there is no entrance fee for the castle ruins) or left which leads you immediately to a lovely village green, dotted with little cafes, shops a b&b and at least one pub. It is all very leafy and shady and there are benches to sit on, on the green itself. What made it so much easier as well was the fact that I just pulled up alongside the green and parked. No fuss, no parking restrictions, nothing. How brilliant is that. It wasn’t overcrowded, just pleasantly populated.
If you carry on past the green you will continue for about half a mile down a narrow lane and then turn left into the English Heritage Monastic Priory Site. We were going to leave the car next to the green and walk down but are glad we didn’t as you there is no pavement and you can’t see traffic coming round the bends and obviously that means they can’t see you either. However, we did see people walking along, mostly with rucksacks. Also, it was a very hot day and a there was a total lack of shade.
The Cluniac Priory ruin is the remains of an outstanding piece of Norman architecture, built in the 12th Century. Before I visited the priory I didn’t know what Cluniac meant so, very briefly, it is a monastic priory that followed the beliefs of the Abbey of Cluny in Burgandy, France, a Benedictine Order which set out to restore a traditional monastic way of living; caring for the poor and encouraging the Arts. If you key in ‘Cluniac Reforms’ there is quite a lot of interesting detail on the Web.
We actually started off at the St. James the Great church which is halfway between the castle and the priory, just off the little market place. I think lots of people aim straight for the Priory or the castle ruins, but the church is definitely worth a look around as it has a delightful wineglass pulpit among other interesting features. You will see the outstanding 15th century perpendicular tower as you approach. It also provided wonderful shade and quiet after the sun that was beating down relentlessly outside. From there we drove down to the ruined priory.
We parked very near the shop where you pay. This visit costs £5.80 per adult or £5.20 for concessions and £3.50 for children. There is also a family ticket for £15.10. English Heritage has a brilliant page for Castle Acre on the Web which will go into lots of detail about the facilities, including disabled access, toilet facilities etc. Opening times between 1 April and 4 November are 10:00 -17:00 every day (but please check the website!). It is also open weekends only during the winter months. There are plants for sale outside the shop too.
To get to the priory itself, you walk mostly on grass down a gentle slope so not too taxing, but I will say again that there is no shade and on a hot day it can be a bit much. Also, there would be no cover if it suddenly tipped it down. Walking through the ruins you get a tremendous sense of how big the Priory was. Enormous in fact. To get a really good view of the Priory as a whole, go back to where you parked the car and then, instead of walking straight down to the Priory, take a left turn and walk down through a meadow and the Priory will come up on the right. That’s where I have taken most of the attached pictures from.
A bit of historical information: William de Warenne, the son of the 1st Earl of Surrey was accredited with founding the Priory which was consecrated between 1146 and 1148. The nave of the church is one of the oldest parts of the ruin. The Priory was dissolved in 1537 under Henry VIII, who handed the priory and its estates to the Duke of Norfolk. The Duke promptly turned the remaining monks out. There would have been about 20-30 months at the Priory in its heyday.
Lastly, we visited the castle site and walked across a bridge to the castle mound. The castle was founded soon after the Norman Conquest of 1066 by the same William de Warenne mentioned above. The castle was a Motte-and-Bailey construction; a fortification with a wooden or stone keep on raised earth called a motte, together with an enclosed courtyard (or bailey) surrounded by a protective ditch and palisade. Although there is nothing really left of the construction, it is fun to walk across the bridge to the mound.
Honestly, if you went there just to marvel at the sheer size of the priory, the castle and the church and then sit at a table on the green to enjoy a cuppa it would be enough, as the atmosphere and character of the place is delightful. What a lovely day out and a great place to stay too if you wanted to use Castle Acre as a base for further adventures in Norfolk.
For any fishermen/women among you, the River Nar is about a five minute walk from the village green and we were told it is a brown trout river.