Ancient archway leads to past of Merton Priory – South London News

Many of our memories pieces have dipped into the recent past, post-war past and sometimes early 20th century past, writes Yann Tear.

This week, we have a reminder that the very modern vistas we see on a daily basis often conceal much more ancient secrets.

That is certainly the case with Merton Priory – a once magnificent cathedral-like edifice which operated as a monastery, hospital, school, farm and watermill. It even had its own brewery.

Among the many famous names to have stayed or used the premises are Thomas Becket, educated at the Priory and later the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was famously murdered in 1170.

A succession of kings had cause to visit or conduct official business there.

But when Henry VIII wanted to sever ties with Roman Catholicism, the Priory – built around 1130 – was purged during the great dissolution of Catholic churches in 1537 and was demolished brick by brick until only a few boundary walls remained, along with foundations of the old chapter house.

we26 p24 mems Archway 1 SMALLJohn Hawks, curator of the Chapter House with the Mayor of Merton, Councillor Joan Henry Picture: to Auriel Glanville

It is really not what you expect when you drive along the A24 between the Sainsbury’s superstore – now built where it once stood – and Colliers Wood Tube station.

But luckily, there are enough people who care at the past who want to preserve it as best they can and recently, at a special ceremony, the Mayor of Merton, Councillor Joan Henry unveiled a remarkable survival of the ancient Merton Priory – the 900-year-old wooden arch from a gateway which once stood in Station Road, Merton.

The arch has been stored, safe but unseen, at Mitcham’s Wandle Industrial Museum for more than 30 years but will now be on permanent display in the Merton Priory Chapter House, just 200 yards from where it originally stood.

The ceremony was attended by 25 people, which included Colliers Wood Councillor Laxmi Attawar, Merton council and the Wandle Industrial Museum.

John Hawks, curator of the Chapter House, said: “We’re thrilled to have it in the Chapter House. It’s like an old friend coming home.”

Nearby Station Road is the historic site of the approach road to the West front of the Priory church, which was bounded on either side by flint walls.

Through the centuries, most of these two walls disappeared, but you can still see parts of one of them preserved alongside the new flats in Station Road.

In this wall, until the 1980s, there still stood an imposing gateway between Station Road and what was the railway line, now Merantun Way.

The stone arch appears to have been Norman, almost certainly dating from the foundation of the Priory in the 12th century.

we26 p24 mems Archway 2 SMALLwe26 p24 mems Archway 2 SMALLWorkmen installing the gateway arch at its new home Picture: to Auriel Glanville

This gateway has a sad history though.

It was neglected for many years. By the 1960s the door was missing and the opening had been boarded up.

Then, in 1983 it was catastrophically vandalised, with the entire top being smashed to the ground – and a rail from the derelict track next to it was bolted on to stabilise the structure.

The council then decided to remove what was left and store it in the hope of re-erecting the gateway at some time.

The heavy ironbound oak door frame, which is probably part of the original Norman archway was put on display in the Wandle Industrial Museum, which at that time was in Hartfield Crescent, Wimbledon.

Even then, there was to be a problem.

In 1987 there was a disastrous fire at the Wandle, and as a result the whole collection had to be removed for storage until the museum moved to its present home next to the Vestry Hall in Mitcham.

The oak frame had survived the fire but was too big to be displayed at the museum’s new premises, so it has been stored there until it could be moved to its new home in the Chapter House and take its rightful place among the few remaining relics of the Priory.

To see the archway, you can visit the Chapter House at Merton Abbey Mills by the underpass near Sainsbury’s car park. Opening times – Sunday’s 11am to 4pm until October.


Pictured: Artist impression of the Priory interior as it could have looked Picture: Merton Priory Trust

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