‘Acropolis’ of the North

Sitting atop 136 m Penshaw Hill, dominating the surrounding landscape and visible for miles, Penshaw Monument is quite an icon in the northeast of England, on the southwest outskirts of Sunderland (map).

Although not quite on the scale of the illustrious original overlooking Athens, the Penshaw Monument in not the less impressive for all that. It’s actually a half-size replica of the Temple of Hephaestus, not the Acropolis.

There are, according to my grandsons, 159 steps from the road where we parked the car up to the Monument.

It was built in 1844 and dedicated to John George ‘Radical Jack’ Lambton, Ist Earl of Durham (1792-1840). Lambton was the first governor of the Province of Canada, author of an important 1838 report to seek direction on how best the British Empire should manage its colonies around the globe.

The design of the monument is Doric tetrastyle. It is 20 m high, 30 m long, and 16 m wide. The columns measure 2 m at their base. Inside one of the columns is a spiral staircase to the roof that is (since 2011) once again open to the public. I had a chat with a National Trust volunteer who told me there had been just one fatality, in 1926, when a 15-year old boy fell to his death.

When we visited last Sunday it was overcast and blowing a gale (the remnants of Hurricane Oscar that recently devastated the east coast of the USA). But the views were still impressive, and on a clearer and brighter day, would be something special. There is an unbroken landscape to the east and the North Sea. To the south, Penshaw Monument overlooks Herrington Country Park, the site of the former Herrington Colliery, (owned by the Earls of Durham) which closed in 1985.

We must return in better weather, and as it’s just a mile or so from the A19 (the main route we take when visiting Newcastle upon Tyne), we’ll be able to drop by on a whim.


Penshaw Monument stands less than five miles by road (half that distance as the crow flies) from Washington Old Hall, the ancestral home of George Washington (POTUS #1), which we visited four years ago.

Governed by the rule of St Benedict

Nestling under the Cleveland Hills in North Yorkshire, about half way between Thirsk and Middlesbrough along the A19 (map), Mount Grace Priory has stood proudly overlooking this beautiful landscape for over 600 years. It is owned by the National Trust, but managed by English Heritage.

Founded in 1398 by Thomas Holland, 1st Duke of Surrey, Mount Grace is a walled Carthusian priory or Charterhouse, of which there were several throughout England. It’s regarded as the best preserved. The priory was finally closed down in 1539 at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries under King Henry VIII.

Built from a beautiful yellow stone that glowed in the early winter sun last Sunday when we visited, Mount Grace was a community to fewer than 20 monks, living more or less as hermits each in his own cell (6). Actually, these cells must have been the 15th century equivalent of a ‘des-res’. These surrounded a large cloister (5), were two storey buildings, with piped in water, outside latrine, and a garden that each monk attended. By the entrance door there is a large niche through which food and other necessities were passed to each monk. One of the cells (8) has been reconstructed.

As we entered the cloister the air was filled with the eerie sound of pheasants calling among the trees on the surrounding hillside.

The priory was dedicated to the Assumption of the most Blessed Virgin in Mount Grace, and an small but impressive ruined church (4) lies at the center of the priory compound.

More photos of the priory ruins, and a little more history can be viewed in this album.

The site was acquired in the mid-17th century by Thomas Lascelles, and then in the 1740s to the Mauleverer family. The priory guest house became the heart of the manor house we see today. But its current aspect was the work of a wealthy industrialist at the end of the 19th century, Sir Lowthian Bell.

Just a few rooms are open to the public. A carpet designed by William Morris is on loan to Mount Grace, and is laid in one of the ground floor rooms.

The coat of arms of the Bell family is displayed above the fireplace in another room on the ground floor.

The west facade of the manor house is covered in Virginia creeper, glowing red in its full autumn glory, overlooking a small, but carefully laid out terraced garden, leading to several pools that were used by the monks to raise fish. It was nice to see plant name labels throughout the garden.

Mount Grace Priory, house, and gardens were a true delight. We’ve often passed the entrance on our way north to visit our younger daughter Philippa and her family in Newcastle. But this time we were determined, weather-permitting, to stop off and explore the site. And that’s how we spent a very enjoyable three hours last Sunday morning, before hitting the road again, heading south to home in north Worcestershire.