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Priories and Castle Acre

A walk between Castle Acre and West Acre, once dominated by priories.

Distance 6.4 miles (10.4km)

Minimum time 2hrs 45min

Ascent/gradient 230ft (70m)

Level of difficulty Hard

Paths Footpaths, trackways and some tiny country lanes, can be very muddy, nettles, 2 stiles

Landscape Wooded river valley, open fields

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 236 King's Lynn, Downham Market & Swaffham

Start/finish TF 817151

Dog friendliness Can run free but should be on leads on farmland

Parking On road by village green, Castle Acre

Public toilets Priory Road, near entrance to Castle Acre Priory

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1 From the green, walk along the lane past St James' Church until you reach the entrance to the priory. Turn right and then left, after a few paces, down the footpath signed 'Nar Valley Way'. Continue until you reach a pond.

2 At the pond, turn left and go through the kissing gate along the trail waymarked with a white disk. Walk through the meadow, with the River Nar to your left and enter a wood. Keep to this grassy track, going straight through several junctions, until you reach a stile. Cross this, walk across the footbridge, then cross a stile at the other end. When you reach another bridge over the Nar keep straight ahead to a gate. At a lane with a ford on your right, go straight across to the path opposite and walk along a woodland track, looking for glimpses of West Acre priory ruins ahead.

3 Turn left by the circular waymarker sign and follow the footpath for ¼ mile (400m) until you reach a lane. Cross the lane and take the footpath opposite (not the bridleway on your left). Go up a hill, under power lines and past a wood. At the crest of the hill you reach a crossroads.

4 Turn left on to the bridleway and continue straight ahead at two crossroads. Look for deer and shy game birds, and note the prairie-style fields to left and right.

5 Turn left at the third crossroads, on to an ancient drove road that was used in Roman times, passing Bartholomew's Hills Plantation on your right. Keep walking uphill along this sandy track until you see Castle Acre Priory and St James' Church through the trees ahead. As you descend, go under the power lines again, and meet a lane at the foot of the hill.

6 Go straight ahead on the lane, which is part of the Peddars Way. At the next junction go straight on again, down the lane marked 'Unsuitable for Motors'. Walk past Church Farm on your right to reach a pebble-bottomed river and a ford. Cross the river and continue walking along this tiny lane until you see an acorn sign marking the Peddars Way.

7 Turn right along the Peddars Way and keep walking straight ahead until you see a sign for Blind Lane. Turn right into Cuckstool Lane with the castle to your left. The track peters out into a grassy path that skirts around the castle bailey. Keep right, so that you walk around the edge of the castle, then follow the track to the left when it reaches a steep hill. This will bring you to a lane.

8 Turn left and walk along the lane, past the old castle gate, to the village green.

Castle Acre Priory was the proud owner of the severed arm of St Philip, which generated a constant stream of generous pilgrims during medieval times. Folk came from near and far to pay homage to the relic, and to ask for boons and cures, and most left a gift of some kind behind. This made the priory wealthy, along with an Indulgence granted by Pope Boniface IX in 1401, which saw even more penitents arriving at its doors. But interest in relics and pilgrimages waned and, by 1533, the revenue from visitors to the priory was down to a mere ten shillings per year. Few ripples were caused in the 1530s, when the last prior signed away his monastery to Henry VIII. The site then had a number of owners until it eventually came into the care of English Heritage.

During its heyday, Castle Acre Priory was one of the finest monasteries in East Anglia, and even today, when most of it comprises crumbling ruins and the foundations of walls in the grass, it is impressive. The site was enormous and was basically a self-contained village. It had bakeries and kitchens, pantries, butteries and wine cellars, and even its own brewery. Standing proudly amid all this was the splendid priory church, and you can see how grand it must have been by looking at its magnificent west front today. Its dimensions are cathedral-like, with some of the most ornate carving anywhere in the county. There were also dormitories and refectories, and - something children seem to find fascinating - a long, multi-seated latrine over a small stream that provided some fairly respectable sanitary arrangements compared to those at the castle down the road.

The castle at Acre came first, and there was a fort here long before the Normans built their sturdy motte, bailey and stone keep. The castle was built by William de Warenne, a baron who married one of William the Conqueror's daughters. He and Gundreda visited the great abbey at Cluny in Burgundy and, when they returned to England, they decided to found a Cluniac house at Lewes in Sussex. Castle Acre was founded as a daughter priory to Lewes, and was richly endowed.

Trouble soon erupted between the monks at Castle Acre and those at the Chapter General in Cluny. Cluny wanted power over its daughter, but the Norfolk clerics resisted. Things came to a head in 1283, when Prior William discovered that he had been replaced by Benedict of Cluny. William fortified Castle Acre Priory to keep the detested Benedict out. It's easy to imagine poor Benedict standing outside while you explore these remains.

Where to eat and drink

The Ostrich Inn and the Albert Victor offer a range of food and ales; the Albert Victor has a beer garden. The Castlegate Tearoom is a few doors down from the Ostrich and features excellent home-made pies. Further along Stocks Green is Willow Cottage, another fine tea room.

What to look for

The Prior's Lodging is the best of the buildings in the Castle Acre Priory complex. It was built in the 12th century, but was added to during the next 800 years and is in a remarkable state of preservation. After the monastery was destroyed, it was used as a house for the bailiff for the Coke Estate.

While you're there

Visit All Saints' Church, Narborough, 5 miles (8km) north west of Swaffham. Here you will see the monument to Clement Spelman (died 1679), who was so proud that he insisted on being buried upright so no one would walk over him. The Victorians opened the tomb and found the coffin was indeed on its end.

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