Yorkshire Priory Commemorates Churchill's Secret Visit On Eve Of D-Day

By David Prudames | 21 May 2004
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  • Archived article
Shows a black and white photograph of Winston Churchill dressed in a buttoned-up coat and hat, being greeted by another man who is wearing a grey coat and black hat.

Photo: with his country in the middle of building-up the greatest invading force the world has ever seen, Prime Minister Winston Churchill made a secret visit to Kirkham Priory to inspect preparations.

It was built in 1121 by Augustinian monks, but 60 years ago Kirkham Priory’s tranquillity was shattered as troops put 'wading' vehicles destined for the Normandy beaches through their paces.

English Heritage, which takes care of the now ruined religious site, has unveiled a plaque to commemorate Kirkham’s part in the creation of the biggest invading force the world has ever seen.

One of seven storyboards illustrating the priory’s history, the plaque blows the whistle on a long-held secret, showing a photograph of Winston Churchill taken during a clandestine visit to inspect troops.

The then prime minister was joined by King George VI in a visit that was first brought to English Heritage’s attention by a local elderly resident.

"The visit to Kirkham by Churchill and the King shows that this was a key training area," explained Roger Thomas, Military Historian with English Heritage.

The rare photograph came to light after Country Life published an article referring to the priory's war-time service. A reader came forward with the image, showing Churchill talking to his grandfather, who had served in the army.

"The British 11th armoured division was amongst the units moved to Kirkham to give drivers experience of manoeuvring and to test various waterproofing compounds," added Roger Thomas.

Shows a photograph of a large archway, part of the ruins of Kirkham Priory.

Photo: founded in the 12th century, Kirkham Priory was home to an order of Augustinian monks. Courtesy Jonathan & Clare. © 1998-2004 microart.org.

"Vehicles ranged from tanks to jeeps. During the build-up to D Day the A64 was a massive car park for all kinds of military hardware."

Troops also gained some useful experience by tackling Kirkham’s ancient walls using clambering nets. This was fitting practice for the rubble-strewn towns they were to encounter in northern France.

Other new storyboards focus on the site's medieval heyday when the often poverty stricken monks had to juggle their finances and even got rebukes from the Archbishop of York for lapses in discipline.

"Kirkham is a real gem and predates both Rievaulx and Fountains," said Custodian Linda Teal, "but it's a very different kind of monastery."

"The new illustrations by Peter Dunn recreate the appearance of buildings like the refectory and infirmary. The very latest research has been used to provide visitors with a vivid window on the past."

English Heritage is currently engaged in a project to reveal the 20th century histories of its ancient sites, such as Kirkham.

Amongst the findings is that Scarborough Castle was used in the so-called 'boffin’s war', when radio equipment capable of plotting incoming enemy planes or aiding lost allied pilots during WWII, was installed in the 12th century fortress.

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