It was once a lavish gatehouse showcasing the wealth of one of Norfolk’s richest monasteries – and now it has been saved for generations to come.
The stunning medieval gatehouse at Pentney Priory survived King Henry VIII’s reign when all around it was lost, only to crumble after years of decline and come to the verge of imminent collapse.
But now the 14th century monument has been restored to its former glory after one of English Heritage’s most ambitious projects in the East of England.
The impressive, three-story gatehouse – the only surviving monastic building from the once powerful and prestigious priory – has undergone major structural repairs and had a new roof in the project taking £700,000 and four years to complete.
Priory owners Howard Barber and partner Dita Lee said the building’s future is now secure and are looking forward to it becoming part of the community.
Mr Barber said: “We are convinced that it will prove to be a wonderful asset for the community in West Norfolk and will be enjoyed by everyone who has an interest in our rich heritage.
“Without the support and encouragement of English Heritage, this building would have been lost to future generations.”
John Ette, English Heritage’s principal heritage at risk advisor, said the gatehouse was one of the organisation’s top ten priority sites in the East of England and had been on its ‘at risk’ register since it was first published in 1998.
The monument is now set to be removed from the register, and there are plans to open it up to the public as a visitor centre and venue for weddings and events.
Mr Barber bought the Priory in 2010 after retiring as an airline pilot and sought advice from English Heritage on what to do with the gatehouse.
“At first, I don’t think we realised quite what a responsibility it was – not just the building itself but what it means to the local community and, indeed, the national community.
“There was no roof and the walls were crumbling to the ground. The first job was to remove the 300 tonnes of rubble where the parapets had fallen away,” he said.
Together they looked at the option of keeping the gatehouse as a ruin, but there would have been on-going and mounting maintenance costs and not given it the future they wanted.
Mr Ette said: “The priority was not only to save the gatehouse but also to find a use and sustainable future for the building as well.”
English Heritage was then able to throw the building a £200,000 lifeline to carry out emergency repairs, including a temporary roof and scaffolding to support the walls, while the project gathered pace.
The restoration has involved traditional craft building skills and materials, and mixes the old with new.
Robert Parkinson, English Heritage’s historic buildings architect, said the use of modern materials and design in some areas – such as brick walls and metal staircase – were “honest and imaginative”.
He said: “It’s not always popular, but it’s constructive conservation. We’re not trying to pretend it was all built years ago, this is a 21st century restoration. It is the next chapter in this building’s life and in another 500 years it would be done differently again.”
Mr Barber added: “A four-year project is now drawing to a wonderful conclusion, and we are proud to present this beautiful building to the public. Not only is it a testament of past achievements, but it is also a narrative of what can be accomplished by today’s craftsmen when they have the support of a partnership between English Heritage and the owners of these national assets.”