The strikingly red stone Wetheral Priory Gatehouse stands beside a loop of minor road on the south side of the village of Wetheral. Immediately to its east is Wetheral Abbey Farm, occupying part of the area once covered by Wetheral Priory. While it is tempting to think that some of the other priory buildings must have been recycled locally, the only other identifiable relic of the priory is a 25m length of wall, some 80m east of the gatehouse. This is thought to have formed part of the eastern wall of the chapter house.
It's a pleasant and reasonably short walk from the village of Wetheral to the gatehouse, though very limited verge parking is available close to the gatehouse itself. What you find is a three storey building in remarkably complete condition. Entry to the gatehouse (as it would have been to the priory it once guarded) is from the west by passing through the archway in the lower floor of the building. Today this brings you into an open area to the east of the gatehouse, partly paved and partly grassed.
During the centuries of the priory's active life, anyone passing through the gatehouse would have found themselves looking at the western end of a priory church which stretched away from them to the east. To its south, or to the right as viewed from the gatehouse, would have been ranges of domestic buildings surrounding a central cloister. The whole community would have been surrounded by a precinct wall, with the gatehouse offering the only means of access.
The area between the gatehouse and the church and cloister was known as the outer precinct. Here you would have found various service buildings such as stables and barns, a guest house for visitors to the priory, a brew house and a bakery, plus stores and offices. Ridge marks on the side walls of the gatehouse show that some of these service buildings once stood immediately alongside the gatehouse itself. It may be that a monastic school and administrative offices once flanked the gatehouse. Today all that remains of these buildings is a door to what is presumably the cellar of the building that once stood on the south side of the gatehouse.
The gatehouse itself is accessed via two doors on its eastern wall, one on either side of the asymmetrically placed gateway. One of these leads to a ground floor chamber to the south of the main gateway. This served as a porter's lodge during the active life of the priory. Today it houses a stone "bench" around three walls, which supports a decorative piece of stone, presumably all that remains of the missing parts of the priory.
The doorway on the narrower north side of the gateway leads to a spiral staircase, which climbs to the first floor. Here you find the gatehouse hall, the main room in the gatehouse. This came complete with a fireplace and a separate room with a garderobe. A similar room once existed on the upper floor of the gatehouse. All that remains of this today are the stone stubs which once supported the flooring. The spiral staircase climbs to this upper level, offering good views down into the - now double height - hall. There are also views available of part of the roof from the top of the staircase.
Wetheral was founded as a Benedictine Priory in the years from 1106 following the granting of the Manor of Wetheral to the Abbot of St Mary's in York by Ranulf Meschin, the Norman Lord of Cumberland. The priory was dedicated to the Holy Trinity and St Constantine, and during its active life was home to a community of twelve monks plus a larger number of supporting staff. Wetheral Priory became known as a place of sanctuary for fugitives from justice, and this tradition was strengthened when in 1342 King Edward III offered pardons to anyone claiming sanctuary here, so long as they joined his army to fight the Scots.
The gatehouse itself was built some time in the 1300s, perhaps as part of the hardening of the defences of the priory during the Scottish Wars of Independence. The accommodation within it may have served as guest lodgings for important visitors staying at the priory.
Wetheral Priory was dissolved in 1538 and its lands and properties were given to the Dean and Chapter of Carlisle Cathedral. The unusual dedication to Holy Trinity and St Constantine was passed to Wetheral's parish church which stands on a site between the priory and the village of Wetheral. The gatehouse was converted for use as a defensible vicarage, and tree ring analysis suggests it was reroofed at the same time. This explains why the gatehouse survived when the rest of the priory did not. The building later served as a hayloft before passing into state care in 1978.