Suffolk’s prettiest homes: Beautiful Butley Priory

Butley Priory's impressive front with its armorial frieze

Butley Priory's impressive front with its armorial frieze - Credit: Lindsay Want

Unlocking the history of Butley Priory, the fascinating folly far off today’s beaten track in Suffolk’s strange Sandlings | Words & Photos: Lindsay Want

Butley Priory's impressive armorial frieze

Butley Priory's impressive armorial frieze - Credit: Lindsay Want

There's something magical about the flat forests and meandering creeks just inland from Orford. Alongside legends of captured mermen and Anglo-Saxon palaces come more modern tales of strange lights and UFO landings.

In spring, the dark woodlands are irresistible galaxies dotted with bright daffodils. Come early summer, shifting tides of bluebells are a real draw.

By autumn, the single Scots pines of Butley's curious 'clumps', seem to stand even greener and taller as golden beech leaves fall from the mighty trees which have them cornered.

Quite what these wayside quincunx clusters are doing here seems just as much a mystery as who might have planted them in the back of beyond. Or why, so far inland, some have great sailing ships carved into their beech bark.

And then, amid the sandy Suffolk woods, are the fanciful remains of Butley's unexpected priory. Privately owned, what a pity you can't peek inside.

Some ancient graffitti - but just what do those boats signify?

Some ancient graffitti - but just what do those boats signify? - Credit: Lindsay Want

Thank heavens for Invitation to View tours - the perfect door-opener to private historic properties. Just a few pounds, a handful of online clicks later and Bob's your uncle - or in this case at Butley Priory, Sheila's your tour guide.

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As we sit beneath the vast, fan-vaulted ceiling of the huge central hall, once the main entrance gate to the second wealthiest ecclesiastical institution in East Anglia, there's a respectful hush as our curious eyes try to take in the awesome space around us.

Smooth curving arches rise so high above that when they do finally meet, it's hard to make a green-man's head or lion's tail of any of the carved stone roof-bosses. Look up, and the symmetry seems perfect.

Look around at the cool white walls and everything from windows to fireplaces seems awkwardly off-set, rather than just on the regular Suffolk huh.

There are crests and tiny peep-hole windows, doors within doors, and a strange inscription which seems all Greek to most of the gathered company. Intriguing isn't the word, but history has the answer.

Monatgue's wireless cupboard

Monatgue's wireless cupboard - Credit: Lindsay Want

As Sheila pieces together the fragments, it soon becomes apparent why, unlike the majority of Invitation to View tours which are owner-led, at Butley Priory things are left in the very safe and expert hands of a local Oxford historian.

"The priory is one of the best documented institutions of its kind," explains Sheila. "We know so much about it because we still have medieval reports, lists and chronicles, and the original site-plan is known from Dr Montague Rendall's excavations in 1930.

"The ex-headmaster of Winchester College bought the surviving gatehouse in 1926." Sheila sketches the 12th century outline, then colours it with medieval, Tudor and Georgian detail, bringing the story to life every step of the way.

Even to the untrained eye, a stroll down the garden path reveals tracery fragments and carved pinnacles from the great priory church or its cloister perhaps.

They masquerade as common or garden stones beneath the rockery herbs and alpines, or hide up in the higgledy-piggledy wall.

The vaulted ceiling of the gatehouse hall

The vaulted ceiling of the gatehouse hall - Credit: Lindsay Want

Across the fields a ruined stone archway, its edges softened with green, is all that remains of the church whose nave once outstripped Ely Cathedral's in length. Behind it, Abbey Farm's thatched and low-lying rooftops share more superlative moments - a rare refectory, an even rarer toilet block and Suffolk's longest cart-shed in place of the priory cloister.

The scale here is daunting but, in its time, so much land and wealth were amassed that Butley's priory was second only to the great abbey at Bury when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. Today, however, with or without any early morning mist rolling in from the distant creek, no one has the foggiest that it is there.

Even gazing at the rear of the 1320s gatehouse, the original wealth of the place hits home. The finest flint flushwork set about an exquisite stone roundel strongly suggests that the Norwich Cathedral masons who crafted St Ethelburga's Gate in London probably popped by.

As at Norwich, stone was shipped in via the natural waterway, then directly to the site itself. "Archaeologists found evidence of a canal and its landing stage," says Sheila. Those boats on the beech trees bob back into mind.

Around the front, there's an explanation of the rare armorial frieze. Thirty-five once brightly painted, carved stone shields depict the pecking order of medieval Christian Europe, designed to impress and fit for a king - or a former Queen of France at least, for Mary Tudor loved frequenting the priory when Prior Augustine Rivet used it as his 'hunting lodge'.

The beautiful, mellow brick vaulting in the kitchen

The beautiful, mellow brick vaulting in the kitchen - Credit: Lindsay Want

Strange that she ended up buried in St Mary's church by the priory's rival abbey at Bury St Edmunds.

But Butley has its own holy grail. Thomas Cromwell may have stripped the assets of "the best leaded house I have seen", but he never found the silver coffin of Michael de la Pole who died by Edward Plantagent's side at Agincourt.

The priory's rare chronicles paint an equally colourful picture of life at Butley in the early 1500s from floods to kitchen fires, untimely deaths and royal picnics in the gardens, even how a 17 ft long 'fish' was carted in and nailed to an oak tree.

The mega-haul is a bit of a mystery, a straying whale which ended up in the creek perhaps. The priory fish ponds survive to this day and would certainly have struggled to accommodate it.

Amid all the tales, you can't help wondering what the Augustinian canons of Butley Priory would have made of the place today. The gatehouse is all high ceilings and elegant furnishings, as bizarrely beautiful inside as it is out, at times a bright public show of opulence in stone, at others more modest and every-day in warm brick.

Butley gatehouse never became a grand mansion after the Reformation, even though it was converted to a house in the 1740s. When Dr Rendall, a former headmaster and a Governor of the BBC, bought it in 1926 his passion for rediscovering the place took some whimsical turns, eventually making him bankrupt.

The subsequent owner allowed him to live out his days there, indulging in his other passion - listening to his wireless set.

"That little hidden cupboard is where he kept it," confides Sheila. And the Greek around its door? Fittingly enough, it translates as 'voices across the airwaves'.

Invitation to view

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