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History Historical Buildings

Priory Bay Hotel

REF NR: 122

Over a thousand years of history have created a unique atmosphere and architectural legacy at the Priory Bay Hotel, which enjoys a wonderful secluded setting between Bembridge and Seaview. Long before the Doomsday Book was written there was a monastery situated here, occupying a site that commands breathtaking views over the Solent and Spithead. The oldest surviving buildings at the Priory Bay Hotel are our two thatched barns, situated to the south west of the hotel. Dating from about 1100, they are believed to have been part of the original Priory Farm. The imposing Tithe Barn, though now in ruin, was originally constructed in the 13th century and reconstructed in 1749.

However, evidence found on Priory Beach of Stone Age axes dating to around 345,000 years ago suggests the site of the hotel has been occupied for considerably longer. It appears that even our more basic ancestors knew what a perfect and sheltered spot the Priory occupies.

A 14th century portal provides an imposing entrance to the hotel. Tudor farmers and Georgian gentry have made their contributions to a charming medley of beautiful buildings.

As a result, each of the bedrooms has its own very distinctive character and all are superbly furnished and appointed. The hotel has tried to retain as many original features as possible. The grounds are no less appealing. Gertrude Jekyll reputedly designed over seventy acres of peaceful woodland, lawns and terraced gardens here, and it is recorded that Queen Victoria sat beneath our magnificent magnolia trees.

General Background Information

The house itself, once described by Queen Victoria as “The Gross Nash little cottage by the sea”, has all the charm and atmosphere of a building which has had lavished upon it the care of succeeding owners from the days when it was the monastery’s farmhouse. Added to room by room, wing by wing, it is now a fine mansion suitably sited amongst the magnolia trees and flowerbeds with fine lawns sweeping towards the sea.

The house itself inherits the name from St Helen’s Priory, which is believed to have been in a field behind the cottages. No remains exist of these original buildings. St Helen’s Priory became a cell for a Norman Abbey of the Cluniac Order in Burgundy, which was introduced into England soon after the Norman Conquest. The monks were granted extensive land in this part of the Isle of Wight, and built a Priory (owned by the Bishop of Portsmouth), a Church and a Farm.

The Farmhouse was constructed during Tudor times and now forms part of the main hotel (Rooms 16, 17, 18, 19 and 20). The large Tithe Barn (which sadly burned down) and the two Tithe Cottages (41 and 42) were previously outbuildings and were part of the original farm. Recently repaired, the Tithe Cottage building has a magnificent hidden internal roof structure that indicates it was probably 11th century. While it cannot be claimed that every building dates back to the Norman Conquest (the modern cottages on the east end of the hotel were built in the 1980s), most of them are hundreds of years old and their foundations and farming traditions are around a thousand years old.


The monks enjoyed the revenues from the estate for a long period but during the reign of Henry VIII all foreign religious orders were banished from England, including the Cluniac Order. The King was embroiled in yet another war with France and with the Isle of Wight having been invaded by the French in 1377 (the only place in England to suffer an invasion by the French during the 116 years of the 100 years war) the Island could not be trusted so close to Spithead and the fleet. These religious orders were almost self-governing, owing little allegiance to Henry VIII, and thus put in very little contribution to the State Treasury. Instead they exported their revenues direct to their home centre in France. With the war raging and the King turning away from Catholic Rome he sent the monks home; their lands and revenues lapsing to the Crown.

Shortly after the dissolution of the Priory the estate and its revenues were granted to Eton, with the College later granting the lands to the Bursar of Eton as a thanks offering on the occasion of his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville.

The estate remained in the ownership of Eton College until 1799 when Sir Nash Grose, the founder of the Grose-Smith family, purchased it. Sir Grose, a judge, built the main block of the mansion very much as it is today. This included the panelled  Bevin Room, the Drawing Room, the beautiful muralled Island Room and the main staircase leading to the bedrooms above.

The Groses and Grose-Smiths lived at the Priory from the mid 18th Century until roughly the 1890`s. The Priory had three owners over the next thirty years, of which very little is known. By the late 1920’s the house had passed to a gentleman who became the victim of a city financial crash and was only in residence for a short while. It then passed into the hands of Lady St George, a wealthy American heiress who had married Sir Charles St George, an Irish baronet.

Lady St George was known as a great entertainer, socialite and patron of the arts and it is thanks to her that we see some fine improvements to the house, its grounds, and other amenities. In addition to altering the layout of the grounds and adding the swimming pool, she also built the present entrance hall and reception area. The front porch is much older than the rest of this section of the hotel and is thought to be 14th Century. Lady St George acquired the porch in France and had it rebuilt at the Priory, stone by stone. The figure of St George and the Dragon was sculpted from different stone and added to it. Thus the Priory is a mixture of various architectural styles which somehow merge together remarkably well.

The GMBU (General Municipal Boilermakers Union) acquired the Priory in 1938 on the death of Lady St George. It opened for a short season in 1939, before being occupied by the army during the Second World War.  During this time the barn became a barrack room and, according to local sources, the security services also used the Priory as their HQ on the Island.

In 1981 Mr and Mrs Battle of Yorkshire bought the Priory and ran a family hotel business here until 1997. During this time they built the new chalet style cottages which can be seen from the main driveway.

The present owners are Andrew and James Palmer, who purchased the hotel in 1997. Closed for that winter whilst it underwent major refurbishment, the hotel re-opened at the end of June 1998.

Items of Interest

Believed to be Tudor or possibly earlier, the main panel of the superb fireplace in the reception area has a carved representation of Abraham about to sacrifice his son to God to prove his love and faith. Angel Gabriel was sent to stay the hand of Abraham, and the ram was slaughtered instead. It is a fine piece of work; its original home being Arreton Manor before Lady St George relocated it here in the 1930s.

The panelling in the Bevin Room is probably Jacobean oak. In this room there is a plaque stating that Ernest Bevin, when Foreign Secretary, prepared his speech here for the House of Commons on 22nd January 1948. In it he proposed the establishment of a Western European Union, which was formed, and subsequently became NATO. Ernest Bevin was also President of the GMBU for many years.

The Drawing Room has an unusual and distinctive feature in that the fireplace has a window directly above it. This is very rare and probably the largest of its kind. Installed by Lady St George, there are actually two octagonal windows set into this chimney, one in the Drawing Room and the other directly above it in Room 4. Although a very unusual feature, it is not a practical one. The chimney flue is split in two and bends round the windows making it difficult to get a cheerful fire to draw in the grate, so alas it is no longer lit.

The Farmhouse, as mentioned before, is Tudor and contains many fine old beams. It would have originally been thatched.
The Dovecote (situated by the deep end of the swimming pool) was built by the monks.
The Clock Tower (situated by the new cottages) was erected by Lady St George in memory of her late Father. The names of her children are engraved on each of the bells.

Just off the main path leading to the beach there is a Folly, probably built around 1799 but in the revived architectural style of the 13th or 14th Century. It was fashionable in the 18th Century for owners of estates to build follies and grottoes, sometimes even installing a Hermit to live within.

The old Tithe Barn is an unusually large building, exceptional in span for thatched roofing. Hundreds of years old, it was restored in 1749. Unfortunately, a fire destroyed the impressive thatching in 1999. Outside, on the sea-facing side of the barn, there are two small stone structures. These were once kennels, the dogs presumably guarding the contents of the barn.

Close by the barn is a large flat stone which is supposed to commemorate a happy deliverance from the wrath of the elements. Over 100 years ago a visitor to the Priory was relaxing in the sun in a deckchair on this spot, when a storm suddenly broke. The visitor left his deckchair, which was immediately struck by lightning and turned to ashes!

Across the golf course from the old barn there is a headstone marking the grave of a horse: Redwing. This was the charger, owned by one of the Grose-Smith’s sons, who collapsed and died peacefully at the age of 21 upon bringing his master safely home from war.

The estate extends down to the high water mark on the beach. The tides and storms affect its state, in some years it becomes almost completely sandy while in others it is studded with rocks and pebbles up to its low water mark.

The Legends

The following is taken from an article written by Sheila White.

The Blue Lady Sources : Ghost-Island

The Isle of Wight has its fair share of haunted houses and ghostly visitors, but none stranger than the story of The Blue Lady who haunts the old house known as The Priory here at St Helens.

The Priory belonged to a branch of my grandmother’s family, from the Grose-Smith’s (on my father’s side) in the early 1700s until the last member of the family to live there (my father’s cousin Laura Spencer-Edwards) died in the 1920s. The Priory then, alas, passed out of our hands forever.

I have never lived at The Priory but used to visit, with my parents, as a small girl and loved every stick and stone of the place. It had everything an old house ought, tales of secret rooms, secret passages, buried treasure, smugglers and, of course, the ghost!

She, indeed, was the main attraction at The Priory for me: her portrait, full length and almost life-size, hung in the dining room.  It depicted a girl of about fourteen or fifteen years old with a little pointed, heart shaped face, seated in a garden, a small canary fastened to one finger by a narrow satin ribbon and a King Charles Spaniel playing at her feet.

Whether or not my cousin knew her real name, I never found out. I never pressed the matter, sensing somehow that that was how she herself preferred it and being perfectly happy myself always to think of her as The Blue Lady.

As for being afraid of her, that was quite impossible for I adored her and would stand transfixed before her portrait gazing up at the little smiling face feeling a strange affinity with her, longing to know more about her and hoping against hope that one day I might see her.

Cousin Laura said she was usually seen tripping down the main staircase or crossing the hall; at other times she was seen flitting about the gardens and quite often on especially frosty starlit nights, gliding soundlessly along the road and across the fields in the direction of the house where I now live, which was once part of The Priory Estate.

It is now over half a century since I stayed at The Priory and in those days lamps and candles were the order of the day, or rather, the night.  Every evening the maids placed rows of silver candlesticks with candle snuffers (chamber-sticks I believe is the right word and they are worth a small fortune today) on a chest in the hall right below a stuffed dog in a glass case by the main staircase!

When bedtime came, I would collect my candlestick and light the candle with trembling fingers, trying desperately not to look up and catch the baleful eye of the dog.  But, as I went up the stairs, I always found my gaze directed to him and as the candlestick shaking in my hand caused the flame to flicker, it made the dog look as though he were moving.  At this point I would race up the remaining stairs as fast as I could to the safety of my room!

We used to wonder sometimes if this dog could really be the original dog belonging to The Blue Lady: he certainly looked a bit worn in parts, but could he really have survived the centuries – certainly two, but possibly three – and still be in one piece?  I have no doubts now.

Now comes the really strange part of the story and this, oddly enough, did not arise until after cousin Laura’s death and The Priory was no longer ours.  After her death in 1927, The Priory was sold and a very wealthy and charming American lady whom I will simply call Mrs S bought it. One day, we received an invitation to take tea with her, so my grandmother, my mother and I set off to walk through the fields on a lovely summer day. The door was opened to us by a butler who led us into what had been the dining room – where the portrait of The Blue Lady had hung – but which Mrs S had now turned into her drawing room adding to it extensively and putting in some hideous new eight-sided windows that put my teeth on edge. But she herself was charming.

She welcomed us from her wheelchair, behind which stood her Secretary, and beside which stood her magnificent Great Dane, Shadow.  It was during tea that she suddenly leant across the table and said, “Is this place haunted?”

I replied that it was. “Don’t tell me by what,” she said quickly, “hear my story first.”

She then proceeded to tell the following incredible tale: it appears that after settling into The Priory, her servants began to give notice.  This was not very alarming in those days as there was still plenty of domestic help available.  They were replaced as they left and nothing thought of it, except that they probably found life on the Island too dull after London.

It was when her butler, who had been with her for many years, handed in his notice that she realised that there must be something seriously wrong and instantly sent for him to find out his reasons for wishing to leave.

“Do you find it too quiet over here, too cut-off from your friends and family?” she asked.  But it was not that.

“It is the noises, Madam,” he told her.  “Every night, in the early hours of the morning we hear a child running through the passages crying and sobbing for her dog.”  He went on to tell her that as they opened their bedroom doors and gone out into the passages, the footsteps had actually passed them and the sobbing had been heart-rending.

“We clearly hear the words, my dog, my dog, what have you done with my dog,” he went on, “and it was more than flesh and blood could stand.”  It was obvious that the place was haunted.

Now Mrs S was an intelligent, level-headed businesswoman and she made up her mind, there and then, to get to the bottom of this story.  She made enquiries all around the village and found that it was common knowledge that The Priory was haunted.  But most people only spoke of a Grey Lady and were very vague as to what she was supposed to do.

In the end, she suddenly switched her researching to the dog.  Did anyone know anything about a dog connected with the place - any dog – anything to do with a dog, if so, please let her know?

Many people remembered that cousin Laura had had an Airedale, but this was dismissed as having nothing to do with the haunting at all and she was nowhere near a solution to the problem until suddenly, Mr C who was head gardener at The Priory and
had been gardener’s boy there at the age of thirteen, remembered that there had been a stuffed dog in a glass-case hanging over the stairs!

This was what she had been waiting for. Instantly Mrs S went into action.  The distant cousin who had inherited The Priory was contacted and asked if he had taken the dog.  He remembered it and thought it must have been sold at auction with all the other things not wanted by the family.

There followed an advertisement in the local papers, which ended in the dog being traced back to an antique shop in Newport.  It was then bought back and replaced in its old place over the stairs and from that moment all noises ceased.

“So,” said Mrs S, “tell me who – or what – haunts this place?” We then told her the story of The Blue Lady who had died when still a child and the stuffed dog, which was said to be hers, certainly bearing a resemblance to the dog in the portrait.

Another legend associated with The Priory is that there is an underground passage from The Old Priory to the farmhouse.  It is supposed to contain treasure, hidden by the monks when the order was threatened by the monarchy. As no one has ever traced this underground passage, no comment can be made as to whether there is a fabulous fortune hidden underground! Rumour suggests that Lady St George had the treasure moved to The Priory in the 1930’s by 2 trusted aides. Sworn to secrecy, they refused all attempts by locals and treasure hunters to get them to reveal its location, and took the secret to their graves, as they swore to their Lady that they would.

The Church

The history of the church is interesting. In the Island Room there is a picture of the tower in an alcove.  As already stated, there were no remains of The Priory as presumably the buildings formed a handy quarry for local people to help themselves to stone to build their own houses and farms. The church, however, remained in use for many centuries as the Parish Church.  It was subject to two Royal Commissions of Enquiry as to the manner in which it had been neglected.  The first enquiry was in the reign of Elizabeth I and the second during Cromwell’s rule, when the Commissioner’s Report described grave neglect and went on to say that no person had been appointed to the living and that local people “were feign to marry and bury themselves”. Affairs were put right but, in the end, the sea won the battle and some 150 years ago the church was abandoned and the one on top of the hill was built.
The tower has been repaired on various occasions, as it is still useful as a navigation aid from which ships can take a bearing.
Brading Harbour

Along the coast towards Bembridge we have Brading Harbour, which is now some two miles inland. At one time, Brading was the most important town on the Island, having direct access to the sea and a thriving sea trade. It is said that ships visiting the harbour collected stone from the old church ruin because it had abrasive properties and was used to clean the wooden decks. It is said that the term “holy stoning” of ships decks came from this practice.

Nab Tower

Looking further out to sea there is the famous Nab Tower lighthouse which was        erected about  60 years ago. The other towers are over 150 years old, built to defend the Solent during the Napoleonic Wars.  It is said that each fort is built over a fresh water spring so that the garrison could draw direct supplies.