From the day that the Convent Walk was opened to the public in 1910, by the then Mayoress, Mrs. Robert Druitt, it became inevitable that the land on the opposite bank of the Mill Stream would eventually be open to the public but it took just under sixty years to come about. Christchurch Borough Council obtain the agreement of the Ministry of Public Building and Works for an access from the Priory Gardens to the Castle Keep and the Landscape Architect decided to include the pleached arch, about forty yards in length and planted with limes. Visitors walking from the Castle Street end, emerge, suddenly entranced by the beauty of the Priory Church and Gardens.
A most unusual feature of the Gardens is the mausoleum. In his book “Smugglers of Christchurch” published in 1942, the author, E. Russell Oakley, quotes from a broadsheet circulated widely in, what was then, South Hampshire.
“General Perkins was appropriately mated. Mrs. Perkins had a fine face and majestic form, but her charms were external, for oddities, whims, and coprices made up her character. Among other notions which haunted her irregular fancy was an invincible fear lest she might be buried alive. To prevent this dreaded evil she requested on her death bed that :-
- her body might not be put underground, but that a fabric above the surface might be erected to receive it near the entrance to the Free School, then in St Michael’s Loft of the Priory, so that boy’s should hear her if she revived, and clamour for her liberation.
- the lid of the coffin should not be screwed down, but be furnished with hinges, so that she might herself throw it open if resuscitation ensued.
- the lock of the mausoleum should be so constructed as to enable her to open it by a spring, walk out, and resume her place in the living world.
Every iota of this request was fulfilled at her death on 16th June 1783, aged 47 years. The structure was immediately raised and the body placed in it. An elegant stone front to it was afterwards built, and stood as a monument of Mrs. Perkins’ whimsical turn of mind up to the death of her husband, Lieutenant-General. J. F. Perkins on 19th April 1803, aged 75 years. When her body was removed to unite it with the General in the family vault at Winkton. The mausoleum was then sold, and its stone front now ornaments the greenhouse in the garden of Church Hatch.”
The two main sections of the Gardens are connected by a wooded walk and an area of the Churchyard which was always known as Paradise. It was well named, a little peaceful back water of the yard. Its green bank slopes down towards the Mill Stream, the Priory Church stands as if looking at its own beauty in a crystal mirror. The final work of the creation of the Gardens was the construction of a fish pond at the Quay end. That might well have been the end of the story of Priory Gardens, but it was not. The year 1994 marked the 900th anniversary of the Priory Church. A year earlier a Priory 900 Committee was formed to suggest ideas to celebrate this anniversary. It was decided to organise a sculpture competition, with a sculptor in residence, the prize being £5,000, and for this the design would be sculpted on a block of Portland stone 2.5 metres high by 1metre square.
The winning design was submitted by Jonathon Sells of Corfe Castle. In his own words the design depicts “a feeling of rejoicing and celebration” with a humorous angle whilst not forgetting the history of the Church. During the Sculptor’s three month residency, July to September 1994, he communicated with the public and this communication worked well.
Here follows a description of the four sides if the sculpture as given on a plaque attached thereto :-
Side A – Monk climbing on the shoulder of a brother monk to feed birds in the nest. Monks studied and worked at the Priory.
Side B – Couple getting married with “Flambard” (Bishop of Durham) ringing a bell above them. Ranulf Flambard who planned the building of the Priory in 1094, later became Bishop of Durham. Clock face reading 9.00 representing 900 years.
Side C – Norman soldier helping Bishop up on the crook, signifying the commencement of building the Priory Church during the Norman period.
Side D – A man from Henry VIII’s era ringing the bell whilst supporting the Vicar of Christchurch on his head with a sword in other hand and kicking Monk. The Priory as we know it today was completed in the reign of Henry VIII, at this time the monastery was dissolved hence meaning of the foot against Monk.
There is considerable open space around the Priory Church, both public and private with some public access. This is very fortunate for the town and all who love the splendour of the Church. The Priory Gardens contributes greatly to the beauty and serenity of the whole.