Sometimes you visit a historic house or garden and think to yourself…. I could live here. Sometimes you have second thoughts and add …if only it wasn’t so remote or inhospitable a setting. That was certainly my reactions on visiting Hulne Priory in Northumberland. It was a bright summer’s day and the site was glorious but it was pretty obvious that would be bleak and windswept in the midst of a Northumbrian winter. That would have suited its founders down to the ground becasue they were Carmelite Friars who deliberately sought out isolated locations for their communities. Now, along with the rest of Hulne Park, it is part of the Duke of Northumberland’s Alnwick estate and still used by the Duke as a base for shooting, and inevitably as a wedding venue!
Confusingly the priory is quite often referred to as Hulne Abbey, and is not to be confused with nearby Alnwick Abbey which was a Premonstratensian monastery and a great rival, also located just within Hulne Park.
All the photos are mine from July 2015 unless otherwise credited.
Hulne was quite possibly the first Carmelite [Whitefriars] foundation in Britain. It was founded in c.1240, for 24 brothers. It sits on top of a rise overlooking the River Aln with extensive views out over the surrounding forest and farmland.
But it was not a typical calm contemplative monastic community. It had to be fortified against raiders from over the nearby Scottish border and had two sets of defensive walls, one immediately round the central complex of buildings and a second, outer one around the community’s gardens and home fields. In 1488 a pele- or watch – tower was added by Sir Henry Percy at a cost of £27.19s 8d. But none of these saved from the monks from an even greater enemy than the Scots, Henry VIII.
His Court of Augmentation ruled the Priory, its three gardens and 21 acres its pasture and 2 mills to have a rental value of £16 11s 2d. The priory was dissolved in 1539, the church demolished and the parkland sold to the local landowners, the Percys of Alnwick Castle, who added it to their already extensive estates. At the time the grounds contained 1800 ‘great and small oaks…meet for timber’.
The surrounding land had been used for hunting since the 13th and in 1512 it was reported that 2 keepers looked after nearly 900 fallow deer. The 7th earl commissioned a survey of his estate in 1567 and George Clarkson, his surveyor, recommended that he should create a ‘large and parklye parke.” That seems to have happened because two other surveyors described Hulne Park in 1570 as ‘well replenished with fallow deer and very well set with underwood in divers parts of the same for covert for the preservation of deer… and is for the most part inclosed with a stone wall and is in compass 6 miles.’
The priory buildings had by then become a hunting lodge, and so the priory remains were not stripped for building work elsewhere, and coupled with the site’s remoteness, which helps explain why Hulne is still impressive. By the mid-18thc one of the buildings was home to a keeper with a menagerie which included gold and silver pheasants .
The mid-18thc was also the time that the site took on much of its current appearance. Hugh Percy, the 2nd Earl, [later 1st Duke of Northumberland] and his wife Elizabeth employed both Capability Brown and Robert Adam to work on his estates at Syon on the outskirts of London, and Alnwick. Although the ducal account books do not always distinguish the locations of works between the two seats it is thought Brown was working at Alnwick on at least 4 occasions between 1759 and 1781.
Brown was responsible for the redesign of the landscape immediately around and below Alnwick Castle itself. This included his working with James Brindley to raise the level of the river Aln. As was so often the case, most of the work would have been overseen by one of his trusted foremen rather than Brown himself.
Although there is little documentary evidence its more than probable that he would have been asked for ideas for the wider estate and parkland including Hulne, as well. Certainly an anonymous tourist in 1789 thought so, writing that he ‘…road [rode] thru’ Huln Park the Grounds of which are laid out by the inimitable Brown’
The estate records show that much of the work in Hulne Park, particularly the planting of the pleasure ground on Brizlee Hill, was actually overseen by the Duke’s resident gardener,Thomas Call. This would not be out of line as we know that it was quite usual for Brown’s designs to be implemented by estate staff. In 1751, long before Brown was on the scene, Call had been asked by the Earl to draw up a plan for Brizlee Hill. He described it as ‘very conspicuous from the Castle’ and with ‘a fine prospect from the hill west and all round’ and proposed a pleasure ground, with meadow, ‘sand walks’, etc. Call was still working there in 1773, with a team of 60.
Meanwhile Robert Adam was busy building on the Alnwick estate as well as doing some interior redecoration and remodelling at the castle. He designed the Lion Bridge, which was built across the Aln in 1773, and in November 1777, prepared designs for Brizlee Tower, the elaborate Gothick memorial to Duchess Elizabeth who died in 1776, and which was finished in 1781. It is, according to architectural historian Alistair Rowan, “a thrilling confection of fanciful bits and pieces all worked out in the most aristocratic of building mediums, polished ashlar stone.” [For more see “The Duke of Northumberland’s Garden House at Hulne Priory” in Architectural History, Vol. 41 (1998), pp. 265-273]
It sits high above the valley, probably on the site of an old beacon, and must have amazing views from its balcony six floors up. Above the balcony, under the Duke’s crest, there is a Latin inscription which translates: “Look around! I have measured out all these things; they are my orders, it is my planning; many of these trees have even been planted by my hand”. It is listed Grade 1, as indeed is the entire parkland.
Meanwhile at the Priory, around 1777-80, the Duke built a Gothick garden house. It is unclear who designed it for him – its usually ascribed to Adam or Brown but Alistair Rowan is persuasive in suggesting that it was John Bell of Durham, a pupil of James Paine, who had previously worked at Alnwick.
It has irregularly stepped crenellations suggesting a state of partial ruin, and is joined by a bridge to the mediaeval tower behind, and the interior of which was “gothicked” to match the new building. There are also Coade plaques of the Duke and Duchess set into the wall.
According to Rowan the tower had already been converted for the use of polite company a number of years before the garden house was built. As evidence he cites a series of six miniature watercolours dating from 1773 and 1774, in the archives at Alnwick which show the tower standing on its own with its Gothic sash windows and the oriel belvedere. They also show a garden laid out in the old cloister garth and a servant feeding the pheasants.
Between them Alnwick and Hulne show two different sides of 18th landscape design and contrast and complement each other. Alnwick Park was “beautiful” : designed to be the setting for the castle, but also to be seen from it. On the other hand Hulne Park was laid out to be seen ‘en passant‘on the miles and miles of drives and rides that ran through the estate. Its wildness and sometimes rocky valleys and outcrops shows the arrival of the ‘sublime’.
Hulne became a minor tourist attraction in the 19thc – everyone from school children and factory outings to Antiquarians went to visit courtesy of the Duke, although it would appear not all were quite as well behaved as he might have liked.
Nowadays the site is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979, and while the Duke allows pedestrian access to Hulne Park, neither it nor the Priory site are marketed as visitor attractions and there are no visitor facilities. Some of the buildings are lived in and the lodge is still used for time to time as a weekend retreat by the family. They have also planned a private burial ground nearby at Brizlee Tower, as the family vault in Westminster Abbey [they are last family with rights there] is almost full.
Although the priory is remote and you might not be able to get there in person you can still catch glimpses of it, like millions of others round the world, because it starred as the home of Maid Marion in the film Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves.