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The walls where a group of monks once worshipped and prayed are now ruins at Castle Acre priory, about 30 miles north of RAF Lakenheath and RAF Mildenhall in England.
The walls where a group of monks once worshipped and prayed are now ruins at Castle Acre priory, about 30 miles north of RAF Lakenheath and RAF Mildenhall in England. (Ron Jensen / S&S)
The walls where a group of monks once worshipped and prayed are now ruins at Castle Acre priory, about 30 miles north of RAF Lakenheath and RAF Mildenhall in England.
The walls where a group of monks once worshipped and prayed are now ruins at Castle Acre priory, about 30 miles north of RAF Lakenheath and RAF Mildenhall in England. (Ron Jensen / S&S)
The 12th century front of the Castle Acre priory in Castle Acre, England, gives a hint of the glory of the building that is now an atmospheric ruin.
The 12th century front of the Castle Acre priory in Castle Acre, England, gives a hint of the glory of the building that is now an atmospheric ruin. (Ron Jensen / S&S)

No doubt, the cathedrals, castles and other buildings that have survived intact from the Middle Ages and are so plentiful in Europe are wonders to behold.

But don’t overlook the ruins, the remnants of the grandeur. In their own way, the dismantled, crumbled remains of these buildings offer a similar magnificence, a unique glimpse of what was.

One of the finest places to witness this is Castle Acre, about 40 miles north of RAF Mildenhall and RAF Lakenheath, the large twin Air Force bases in eastern England.

The ancient priory that is the centerpiece of a charming village is a forest of stone remnants, empty windows and silent foundations.

Much of the priory ruins date from the 11th and 12th centuries, when the Cluniac monastery was founded in the village that had grown along a major Roman road on the north bank of River Nar, providing a stopover for pilgrims.

You won’t see the elaborate decorations once featured on this sprawling complex of buildings. You won’t see the altar or the statues that were once central to the monks’ worship.

But you will see that the place retains much of the atmosphere that must have provided the monks with a place to pause in quiet reflection throughout the day.

Never in the nearly 500-year history of the priory — it was suppressed in 1537 by Henry VIII’s break with Rome — did the number of monks reach more than about three dozen.

The west front of the church gives the best evidence of the priory’s status. The façade hints at this. It is covered with fine arcades and stands, quite fragilely it seems, to this day.

Walk through the doorway and examine the ruins of the nave — roofless above and finely trimmed grass below.

A visit should not end until one has walked throughout the complex, including the latrine area and the kitchen.

While in the village, stop at the castle as well. Construction began here not long after William conquered England in 1066.

On the QT

Directions: Castle Acre is about 40 miles north of RAF Mildenhall and RAF Lakenheath and five miles north of Swaffham. Take A1065 through Swaffham and turn left at the first brown sign pointing toward Castle Acre Priory and Castle.

Hours: The castle is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day from April 1 to Sept. 30; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday from Oct. 1 to March 31. It is closed Dec. 24-26 and Jan. 1.

Cost: Admission to Castle Acre Priory is 4.20 British pounds (about $8) for adults and 2.10 pounds (about $4) for children. English Heritage members get in free.

Food: The village of Castle Acre has several places to find food and drink. One of the most popular is The Ostrich, a 500-year-old pub established after the priory was dissolved to take in the pilgrims who still traveled the road.

More information: See the English Heritage Web site at: www.English-heritage.org.uk/default.asp

and click on “Places to visit and events.”

Several events are planned for the autumn at the priory, including:

• Medieval Family Fun Day, starts at 10 a.m. Oct. 17 with medieval music, games and stories, 5 pounds for adults, 3 pounds for children;

• Bird of Prey Experience Day, Oct. 23-24, a chance to learn how to handle an owl or hawk, 45 pounds per person;

• Haunted Heritage, from 4 p.m. Oct. 30, a lantern-lit one- hour tour of the priory for the strong of heart.

— Ron Jensen

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