Hulne Priory, Northumberland
Curving alongside the River Aln, Lady’s Well Drive is one of several ways through the walled estate of Hulne Park. At our feet, the jagged leaves and spiky cases of sweet chestnuts. Bracken flares gold and a resinous scent of pines is brought on the warm breeze. Light bounces and flashes on the river as fish leap, smacking back down into the water. Mallards panic upstream as we round the bend to see the walls of Hulne Priory cresting its steep mount.
We look up at the protective curtain wall, silver-grey stone against a clear sky. A grassy path leads up between two aged sycamores, their bases bulbous and mossy, their branches throwing shadows across the priory wall.
Ivy spills over the top, roots like fat veins anchored between the stones, the sickly scent of its flowers attracting a late red admiral and several hoverflies. There’s valerian and wild wallflower, colonising plants that add an air of romance. A flock of fieldfares descend on a hawthorn to tug at its berries as we look for a way in.
Through a door the colour of buttermilk, the priory reveals itself, a scattering of ruined church and claustral buildings, roofless gable ends and empty windows. We surprise a couple of hens dust-bathing beneath a yew tree. A headless statue emerges from an arched recess. Trails of ivyleaved toadflax decorate the gritty lime mortar. There’s a sculpture of a praying friar, an 18th-century embellishment.
Founded in 1240, this was one of the first Carmelite houses to be established in England. It included bakehouse, brewhouse and malt kiln. The curtain wall and a defensive tower were added in the 15th century, and later a summerhouse in the Gothick style, by Robert
Adam and “Capability” Brown. Its crenellations and quatrefoils were an enhancement of the picturesque, an atmosphere that is still there, thanks to the clambering ivy and the wildflowers on the walls.
We sit on some steps in the sun as a kestrel lifts off and hangs in the air above, warm russet against blue sky. Cold weather is coming, but it’s hard to believe these autumn days will end.