Kirkham Priory was founded around 1121AD by Sir Walter l'Espec as an Augustinian monastic house. Tradition holds that the nobleman's only son was killed when thrown from his horse, and in his sorrow, devoted his wealth to the advancement of the church. It is said that the altar at Kirkham was placed upon the spot where Sir Walter's son met his untimely death.
Little is known about the subsequent history of Kirkham. Sir Walter went on to found Rievaulx Abbey in 1135AD, at which time Kirkham had to fight for its survival, since it was suggested that their church should be handed over to the Cistercian order. The Augustinian canons agreed terms for their continued tenancy at Kirkham, the details of which have not survived.
It is known that the priory continued to prosper, since the original church was replaced around 1180AD by a larger building. Further expansion took place during the following years, with the addition of chapels and and outbuildings. The elaborate gatehouse dates from some time in the 13th Century.
The remaining history of the priory is largely undocumented until the time of its dissolution in December of 1539AD. At that time, another tradition holds that the monastic house was home to a convent. Henry VIII granted Kirkham's estates to one of his nobles, who immediately insisted that the nuns vacate their home so that its new owner might make use of its stone to enlarge his own dwelling.
Today, little survives of the priory. The most striking remains are those of the 13th Century gatehouse, which is ornately decorated with carved effigies of St George and the Dragon, David and Goliath, and a number of heraldic shields. Other notable remains include the ruins of the cloister and fragments of the church.
Kirkham's location in the picturesque Derwent Valley - combined with the proximity of the river and a local train station - makes it a popular location for local outings. When I visited, the grounds were being utilised as a football pitch, with the young English Heritage employee apparently turning a blind eye to alcohol-laden groups of teenagers entering without paying. Whilst it's pleasant to see such sites continuing to attract the interest of a wide cross-section of people, the striking scenery and tranquil setting were somewhat spoiled. Nevertheless, this is still a hidden gem, and well worth a visit - but a little tolerance may be required during the height of the summer.