Monday, 30 November -0001

Monks, the Magna Carta & sticky toffee pudding

Founded by one of the barons behind the Magna Carta, Cartmel Priory has a long and colourful history… and a village full of sweet and sticky treats.

Written by Mike Glover
For more than 800 years the charmed and charming village of Cartmel has been attracting visitors in their thousands. Central to its appeal is Cartmel Priory, or, to give it its Sunday name, The Priory Church of St Mary and St Michael, Cartmel.

The cathedral-sized structure was founded as a priory for the regular canons of St Augustine in 1189, and in accordance with the rule of St Augustine, the monks would pray continuously. St Augustine wrote, ‘When the Apostle tells us: Pray without ceasing (1 Thes 5:16), he means this: Desire unceasingly that life of happiness which is nothing if not eternal, and ask it of him alone who is able to give it.’ (Letter 130.)

The priory continues to serve as a focal point for the local community and for the 60,000 pilgrims and tourists who visit it each year. It also acts as a central draw for the small independent businesses based in the village – current population: around 500.

Cartmel-May08-03-590Cartmel sticky toffee pudding

This year the village is preparing to punch above its weight and stage a major series of events to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. The priory’s founder, William the Marshal, was one of the prime movers in forcing King John to put his seal on the historic document. Cartmel’s vicar, the Reverend Nick Devenish, believes they have much to shout about. ‘After all,’ he tells me, ‘our founder was the one who went to King John and told him he couldn’t keep raising taxes from the barons to wage wars in France he kept losing, and remain popular.’

The priory stands in Cumbria’s Cartmel Valley, not far from Grangeover- Sands. Beyond lie the treacherous quicksands of Morecambe Bay, which for centuries pilgrims routinely crossed by horse and cart.

William the Marshal, described as England’s greatest knight, was granted the land on which Cartmel Priory was built by Henry II in approximately 1186. Newly returned from the Holy Land, William, 6ft 2in tall, was considered a giant in his time, and was undefeated in combat.

Along with Cartmel he was also granted the wardship of an heiress, Heloise of Kendal, and some historians believe Henry II expected William to marry her. He didn’t, however, and following Henry’s death in 1189, Richard I rewarded his service with the hand of Isabel de Clare, one of the greatest heiresses in the land. Her wealth gave William sufficient funds to begin work on Cartmel Priory.


When William wrote his foundation charter for Cartmel, he wanted to ensure its future and insisted it remain a priory. He wrote, ‘whosoever shall in any way… injure the said priory, may he incur the curse of God, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of all other saints, as well as my particular malediction’.

That didn’t stop it being ravaged during the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII : the lead was stripped from the roof, and four defiant monks and 10 supporting villagers were taken to gaol in Lancaster and hanged for treason. It was, however, spared total destruction, because since its inception it had been not only a monastery, but also a parish church.

The priory subsequently fell into disrepair, until around 1620, when it was acquired by the Preston family, who owned nearby Holker Hall. The Hall then passed by marriage and inheritance to the Cavendish family. Lord and Lady Cavendish and their daughter Lucy, who now runs the family business, are still huge supporters of the priory, a thriving place of worship with six services a week attracting worshippers from all over the North of England.

Cartmel-May08-04-590The priory’s flower pageant

The Rev Devenish was formerly a Marks & Spencer commercial manager manager, before being ordained 10 years ago at the age of 40. He is now an active member of the Guild of Cartmel Traders, carrying on the monks’ tradition of engaging with the wider business community.

Businesses in the village include L’Enclume, which was rated the UK ’s best restaurant in the 2014 Good Food Guide; Cartmel Racecourse, with the third highest attendance of any UK jumps track, after Aintree and Cheltenham; Unsworth’s Yard Brewery; and the Cartmel Village Shop – where Howard and Jean Johns began making their famous sticky toffee puddings.

Although there have been sticky toffee puddings before, notably at Ullswater’s Sharrow Bay and Windermere’s Miller Howe hotels, it is the Cartmel variety which has conquered the world. Howard and Jean, who had a restaurant in Grange-over-Sands, moved to the Cartmel Village Shop 25 years ago, and started making puddings to take away in a kitchen on the premises.


Soon the likes of Booths, Selfridges, Waitrose, Harvey Nichols and Fortnum & Mason were stocking the puddings, made from ingredients such as cane sugar, sticky dates, freerange eggs, fresh local cream and butter. Now 35 people are employed in a converted warehouse down the coast at Flookburgh, making more than one million puddings a year.

‘This is the most incredible village, and the biggest challenge is to safeguard it and not let it become a second- home haven,’ says the Reverend Devenish.

The local community’s rude health is of vital importance in maintaining such a huge parish church. One of the priory’s six roofs was recently replaced at a cost of £425,000, and the annual running costs typically exceed £200,000. It’s kept going thanks to a trust fund and donations (it receives scant financial help from the Church of England), as well as income from its shop.

Cartmel-May08-06-590Left: The Rev Nick Devenish outside the priory. Right: An illustration of a medieval knight

This year’s Magna Carta events should provide a welcome boost to the coffers. Cartmel is hosting five days of celebrations in September, in and around the priory. A nearby field will be given over to a medieval reenactment, Unsworth’s will be selling a special beer – Freedom – and, of course, there will be sticky toffee puddings galore. There will also be a flower pageant, concerts by the Amabile Girls’ Choir, the Flookburgh brass band and acclaimed baroque-music ensemble La Serenissima, and a special ‘songs of praise’ event.

‘Everything is in place. There is something for everyone, and we want to showcase just what we can do as a village,’ says the Rev Devenish.

Cartmel Magna Carta 800 runs from 25 to 29 September. For tickets, visit

All images by Sandy Kitching (except the sticky toffee pudding)

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