Explore Merton Priory via the visuals of Minecraft… it’s really, really clever. And it recreates the vast historic complex it once was.

For 400 years Merton Priory near Wimbledon was one of the principal centres of learning and constitutional history in England – the location, indeed, of England’s first parliament in 1236. Three hundred years after that, Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries saw it, not merely abandoned to ruin, but entirely demolished to provide building materials for his grandiose Nonsuch Palace (also ironically long since demolished). So nothing but foundations were left, and only those of its Chapter House remain, the main meeting room in which many historic events took place.

How, then, to bring these fragmentary relics to life for today’s young people, whose knowledge about medieval history has been so squeezed by the demands of the modern curriculum? How to dramatise these little lumps of mortared flint, surreally preserved under a main road next to a pylon in a superstore car park?

“We could,” says trustee and curator John Hawks, “have had a model made of cardboard or some such – but to a kid a model of a church is a model of a church, so what? And it’d have to be a very ambitious model to cover, not just the great church in all its detail, but all the other parts of a huge and important priory – its buildings, its functions and its routines. What we wanted was something interactive, that spoke the language of modern children, that they could identify with, that involved them in the life of a medieval priory, and that in short was fun to play with.”

So John’s daughter Katie Hawks, herself a medieval historian, and the teenage son of a friend, Thomas Hobro, set about building a virtual model with the popular video game Minecraft – not just the church and its surrounding rooms, which were known from the Museum of London’s archaeology in the 1980s, but all the other buildings that would have been in the priory estate – hospital, school, guest house, kitchen, brewery, workshops, farm, watermill, dovecote, gatehouse, and not least the stables for 100 horses that would have been needed by important visitors as well as the inmates themselves. There are over sixty different places that can be explored.

“Of course,” says John, “the purist might object that Minecraft’s Lego-style world doesn’t exactly look like Gothic architecture, but the sheer scale and variety of the place, inside and out, is brought home perfectly. It’s been a huge success with visiting children – so many of them are familiar with Minecraft, and they love to get stuck in. And the highlight for many is going up into the belfry and ringing the bells – a wonderfully atmospheric sound in the Chapter House, and something you can’t do with cardboard!”

The Chapter House is open 11am to 4pm every Sunday between April and October – admission free, though donations welcome. It’s near Merton Abbey Mills, under the A24 between the Sainsbury/M&S car park and Chapter Way SW19 2RX. School or adult groups can be arranged. Email them at