When I was a child my family didn’t take holidays. My father owned a business and found it hard to relinquish control, even for a few days, which is why when my friend Derek Taylor told me he was going to Bridlington each year I imagined something exotic.
The reality, as I discovered during my short East Yorkshire exploration, is that it’s just another seaside town trading on bars, amusements and a small fishing port (albeit that I didn’t stop on the promenade to look more closely). Instead, it being a Sunday, I took my atheist soul to church.
At one point the place must have been extremely pious, for within a short distance of one another there are a number of options for the true believer, that no longer seem to attract the same audiences.
None of these was my objective though. Instead I passed by an impressive 12th century defensive gatehouse; a sign that I was headed for somewhere more important.
Actually, perhaps the Bayle Gate is not so impressive. As the main entrance to the Augustinian Priory beyond its defensive role is somewhat limited by the fact that it was never part of a curtain wall, so presumably was relatively easy to by-pass, just as I did on the day.
Bridlington Priory is another example of a magnificent Norman church that was part of a monastic settlement until Henry VIII’s intervention. (Regular readers will recognise a familiar pattern; Normans build, Henry sacks that we have seen at Hexham, Jervaulx, Ripon, Easby, Finchale and many other places in the North East of England.) Henry’s motivations are well-known (anger at the Catholic church and financial needs) but why did the Norman’s build so many staggeringly impressive churches? Bridlington Priory is the largest parish church in the UK, but the place is no metropolis. (Sorry Derek). The fact that it doubled for Walmington-on-Sea in the recent Dad’s Army film speaks volumes.
When William of Normandy invaded in 1066 and became William I he was faced with a problem; though he was able to subjugate much of England with relative ease, Northumbria (the land north of the Humber) was a different matter. Here many of the population were of Viking descent with a different culture and a different strain of Christianity in their background. Rebellion ensued which William put down brutally, destroying settlements and scattering those who were lucky enough to survive. But who would tend the fields now?
William’s answer was to establish monastic settlements with a French tradition all over the north, watering down the original population and introducing new ways of life. (China in Tibet anyone?).
In wood and in stone there is much to impress at Bridlington Priory, but why has so much survived (inspiring some cheeky modern additions)?
The truth is that so little of the original has (look at the variation in the windows). The model here shows the extent of the original site, with a church twice as long as that which we see today. All the same compared to many it is a remarkable survivor. Perhaps angels were looking down?