Christchurch was originally known as Twynham. When the Normans arrived they decided to replace the Saxon church, which had stood since 800 AD, with a grand new building. Legend has it that when building the present Priory one of the roof beams was cut too short. The carpenters not knowing what to do left for the day but when they came back the next day the beam had extended overnight to fit exactly. They attributed this miracle to Jesus, also a carpenter, and the church and town became known as Christ’s Church.
Christchurch Priory is considered one of the finest churches in England and at 311 feet long it is the longest. It’s an impressive building with a distinctive Norman style. You can also spot three Gothic architectural styles – early English, Decorated and Perpendicular, as well as Tudor Renaissance. Entrance is free to the church but a donation is suggested which goes towards the upkeep of this magnificent church. The inside is beautiful with tall arches sweeping up above, stunning decorated reredos (alterpieces) and you can see the miraculous beam in the Ambulatory. With so much to see it’s well worth pre-booking a guided tour. Special evening guided tours are also organised throughout the year.
St Michael’s Loft Museum is in what was the grammar school for boys and has an exhibition on the Priory’s history. Guidebooks and various souvenirs are available from the Priory’s Gift Shop. The Priory Quarter is the oldest part of Christchurch and its Saxon layout has largely been retained. It’s a pleasant place to stroll around with a variety of shops, cafes and restaurants as well as the historic character buildings.
The Castle, Place Mill & The Red House
Just to the north of the Priory is what remains of the Norman castle built around 1100 AD. It was the centre of a siege during the English Civil War when a Parliamentary force held the Castle and the Priory grounds against the Royalists. Nearby is the 12th century riverside ‘Constable’s House’. This is an early example of domestic architecture which includes a rare Norman chimney. Down by Christchurch Quay is Place Mill which was mentioned in the Domesday Book. It is an original Saxon watermill that has been restored to working order. It ground corn right up until 1908. You can now visit it to see the workings of the mill and and its collection of milling artefacts. A resident artist and adjoining gallery display local works and changing exhibitions. The Red House Museum and Gardens is housed in what was the town’s Georgian workhouse built in 1764. It now houses collections on local social and natural history. Admission is free.