Kirkham Priory is one of the Cinderella monasteries of North Yorkshire.
Not for Kirkham the popularity of establishments such as Fountains Abbey, Rievaulx, Jervaulx and Whitby – no, Kirkham is lesser known, an esoteric gem tucked away in a secretive hollow a stone’s throw from the busy A64 as it wends its way betwixt York and Malton.
Henry Vlll’s commissioners did a thorough job dismantling the priory at the Dissolution in 1539 and what they didn’t destroy, the locals certainly did in the succeeding centuries, reducing the site to the barest of bones by scavenging the stone for their own properties. Thus, poor Kirkham is one of the less impressive of our monastic ruins which may explain its quiet demeanour.
The priory was founded between 1122 and 1130 by a great warrior, Walter L’Espec, Lord of Helmsley. It was at this place that L’Espec’s only son, William, was killed while out hunting when he was thrown from his horse when it was startled by a wild boar.
The grieving L’Espec, a deeply pious man, invited a group of Augustinian canons to build a priory at the exact spot where his son died. He also gave them the living of the church at Helmsley.
Following the tragedy to his son, L’Espec – one of the leaders of the English host which crushed the Scots at the Battle of the Standard near Northallerton in 1138 – devoted more and more of his life to religion, founding an even greater monastic legacy in 1131, Rievaulx Abbey, almost next door to his castle at Helmsley.
He then set up a third abbey at Warden in Bedfordshire in 1136. He spent the last years of his eventful life as a monk at Rievaulx, where he was buried.
L’Espec’s lands were inherited by his brother-in-law, Robert de Roos, another mighty figure in Yorkshire’s turbulent past who maintained Helmsley’s patronage of Kirkham. The priory is now in the care of English Heritage.
This is a very pleasant circuit – always interesting – through a relaxing corner of North Yorkshire. The start along the valley of the River Derwent – in the company of the York-Scarborough rail line – is particularly attractive.
KIRKHAM PRIORY and WELBURN
5 ½ miles: Allow 2 ½ - 3 ½ hours. Map: O/S Explorer 300 Howardian Hills
Use the free parking area at Kirkham Priory which lies just to the east of the A64 York-Scarborough road at the top of Whitwell Hill about five miles before Malton when approaching from York.
Exit car park, turn left along road, over bridge spanning the River Derwent and then the York-Malton-Scarborough railway line and then, within 20 yards, turn right up steps at fingerpost for Whitwell and Welburn.
Walk along right edge of field and follow this fine track in company with the rail line, eventually through a metal gate. Press on to enter a wood (Ben Wood) and follow the strong, but muddy, path through the trees to emerge in a minor road with house to your right.
The house is the former Castle Howard railway station where Queen Victoria and Prince Albert alighted on August 27, 1850, on their way to stay at Castle Howard.
Cross the road to enter Ox Carr Wood opposite and continue on the strong path to a fork and take the left branch up steps. Press on with no route-finding problems through the wood with glimpses, eventually, of the River Derwent in the deep gorge to your right.
On arriving at a wooden stable block, turn left through waymarked walkers’ gate, past a dog-waste bin, alongside tall hedge, go through gap in hedge, and then turn left along access drive. After 50 yards, at huge fir tree and a small white box (a post box?) on your right, leave the access drive to go along fence for a few yards to a fingerpost to enter Crambeck and turn left along road to the A64.
1: Just before the A64, bear half right along pavement and then turn right for a few yards to a crossing point. DANGER: The A64 is one of the busiest roads in Yorkshire and, at this point, it appears to be one of the fastest. You MUST exercise patience – wait for a long break in the traffic – before crossing. Don’t try to outrun the vehicles – you won’t make it!
On crossing the road, turn right past bus shelter and turn left at fingerpost for Welburn and continue with Gillylees Wood on your right along a lovely broad path. At end of this section, go through gate and half left up the ploughed field on a prominent path. Pylon in middle of field.
At end of this path, continue with hedge on your left towards the houses of Welburn. At 3-sided fingerpost, turn left along cart track towards Welburn. On emerging in road, turn right into village.
On edge of village, turn left along Church Lane (sign: Village Hall, toilets). Go past Village Hall and church to enter field and go straight up field. At top of field, look over your left shoulder to make out the family mausoleum at Castle Howard.
Go straight on between ornamental stone pillars and follow a splendid green lane (Whitwell Road) to its end and turn right along a minor road just before the A64.
2: Follow this traffic-free byway to the church at Whitwell-on-the-Hill and, at church lychgate, turn left, past fingerpost, along church wall, go through gate, turn right for 10 paces and then turn left to gain the A64.
Turn right along pavement to arrive at a crossing point a few yards before bus shelter. Again, cross the road with patience and extreme caution – remember, vehicles race past here at high speed.
On crossing road, turn left along pavement. Ignore first fingerpost on your right after 70 yards – continue to next fingerpost and turn right down steps (take care, can be slippery) into field. Turn left along hedge to yellow arrow, pass through fence and continue along right edge of next field, under power lines, to enter a country road (Shepherdfields Lane).
Take the path opposite down access drive to Belmire Farm. Pass to left of a garage door, go through kissing gate and go half right down the field (as per diverted path) to the bottom corner of field and turn right to a gate with awkward stile to its right.
Now go straight ahead, over next stile, and then go diagonally down the field towards a prominent railway signal. The path leads gently down towards the railway to a fork – it is best to take the left branch to gain the broad track of the outward leg near the signal. On gaining track of the outward leg, turn right and follow it back to the road on the edge of Kirkham.
Turn left over railway and road bridge to the finish.