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History of the Friars, Aylesford

Author: Peter Martin

Kent Woodturners, previously known as A.W.G.B. (Kent Branch) moved to the Friars in 2003 having spent a number of years meeting in the more conventional clubroom at Poolewood Machinery in Stockbury. Whilst looking for new premises, it became apparent that a number of crafts were being attracted to the facilities available at The Friars which, at that time, included very large and well equipped workshops, on site catering facilities at both cafeteria and restaurant level and well organised conference facilities should they be required. There was also plenty of parking spaces which had always presented problems at previous venues.

The friars who reside and teach at The Friary are Carmelites, a religious order that has its origins in a group of hermits that used to live on Mount Carmel at the beginning of the 13th century. When their traditional home was overrun by the Saracens, some of these hermits accepted an offer from the English Crusaders to come to England. They arrived at the place now known as The Friars in 1242. Richard de Grey gave them a small piece of marshy land at his manor house in Aylesford next to the River Medway and just north-west of this ancient village. The order was first recognised by the local church in 1247.

Friars belong to a religious order and travel around the various establishments owned by that Order, unlike monks who assign themselves to a monastery and remain there for the rest of their lives. The first buildings to appear on the site were a small chapel and a number of cells, probably made of wood, which were situated where the present Choir Chapel is sited.

The transition from hermits to friars was largely due to St. Simon Stock who became one of the first Priors General (or leaders) of the Order and was thought to have originated in either Stoke on The Isle of Grain, or Stockbury (strangely the home of Poolewood, our previous landlords). Financial assistance was given by Henry III and led to the spread of the Carmelite Order throughout the UK.

Being situated on The Pilgrims Way, on the route from London to Canterbury, the friars were able to offer hospitality to pilgrims and a large market garden was established which existed until very recent times. It is still a venue for thousands of pilgrims every year.

At the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538, The Friars, valued at that time at 42.6p for the 18 acres that it comprised, passed into the hands of Sir Thomas Wyatt who owned the nearby Allington Castle. Successive owners ensured that by 1670 The Friars had become a fine mansion house and it remained that way until it was severely damaged by fire in 1930. Following restoration it was put up for sale in 1949 and the Carmelites were able to buy back their ancient home. The first Prior after it was reopened was Fr. Malachy Lynch who was responsible for the open-air shrine which can be seen today and is the centre of worship on special days.

The Friars is still used as a retreat for people who feel that the peace and solitude that is offered around the grounds will help them in their lives and the buildings lend themselves to activities of this nature.

It is obvious that Club activities make good use of many of the facilities that are on offer. The room in which we meet can house over 100 people and we were able to remove the cap that we placed on our membership numbers at our previous location.

The floor is tiled which ensures that clearing up after use is relatively easy with just a broom and a mop. The room was previously built to house a community of Portuguese potters, who worked at The Friars, and is, therefore, lit and heated to a level that is perfect for our meetings.

We have the luxury during Saturday meetings to be able to use the on-site cafeteria for our midday refreshments. More formal catering for our annual dinner and other social functions is available in The Pilgrims Hall. This building is the focal point of The Great Courtyard and, although this area has lost much of its medieval appearance following the renovations that took place when used as a home, it is still a very impressive building. On one side of the Pilgrims Hall is Watergate which leads to the old quay – a reminder of the times when the Medway was a major highway through Kent. The other side of the building houses the accommodation for the Prior and the Friars. The buildings date back to the 15th century.

Club exhibitions and sales of work each year were initially held in our clubroom. In late 2005 we were offered the chance to become the first occupants of a newly restored barn and we have since held our exhibitions in this fantastic building which was restored with lottery funding.

Lying to the north of the main priory complex are a group of buildings that comprise the farmhouse and two large barns. The West Barn was restored some years ago and now houses the Tea Rooms and Shop. The farmhouse has been faithfully restored and forms part of the overall complex. The North Barn, which was believed to date from the 17th Century required some radical repair if it were to be saved for the Community and put to some use.

This Grade II listed building comprises a main space or “nave” of five bays and originally had “aisles” to the north and south. It is assumed that the whole structure would have been clad with thatch above weather- boarded external wall finishes.

The barn was not originally on its present site. It has been transported from elsewhere sometime in the distant past and, during the course of restoration, it became apparent that the original construction consisted of six bays. It is assumed that one was removed in order to fit the space available at The Friars.

Internally the jowl post design would suggest that the building was even earlier than had previously been suggested but, unfortunately, dendrochronological tests proved to be inconclusive as there was insufficient wood data available with which to compare the sample.

It is indeed a privilege to be able to meet in such a beautiful, historic and yet still functional place and it adds greatly to the pleasure that we get from woodturning. Is there any other venue that can offer so much?

Further information can be found on the Friars website.

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