A Brentwood grandmother is digging deep into her past as a wartime Land Army girl and uncovering the secrets of an ancient monument.

Iris Bates has unearthed the fascinating photographs she took with her old box brownie camera of Thoby Priory in Mountnessing shortly after the Second World War.

The Ilford teenager had lied about her age to join the volunteer farming squad and was based at the grandiose mansion in Thoby Lane during her training.

But the historic building that captivated Iris with its beauty was tragically demolished in 1953.

All that remains of the priory today is a small section of wall, believed to date from the 14th or 15th century and now completely overgrown by creepers.

The site is regarded as a blot on the landscape by villagers because of its various uses which have included a scrapyard.

Property giants Crest Nicholson and Countryside Residential have submitted an application for outline planning permission for a luxury housing development on the 14 acre Green Belt site to Brentwood Borough Council.

But for Iris even luxury homes with a £1m price tag will never match up to the mansion she lived in and loved.

Iris, who moved to Oliver Road, Shenfied, only recently, recalled: "It was 1948 and I was in one of the last Land Army groups to be trained at the priory.

"It was a beautiful place. There was a three tier fountain in a big circle in the driveway. I was completely taken by the interior. There was lovely oak paneling and oak balustrades. The monks' refectory was our mess room. There were huge doors to the dormitories.

"I can remember the three arches which seemed to lead to what I thought were the monks' market gardens - I used to stand there and imagine the monks living and working there, passing through the arches and growing all their own produce."

Iris has lost touch with her Land Army pals who were ruled by a Miss Cody.

She added: "We were trained by the Ministry of Agriculture at Writtle and were taken out in trucks to the farm land. The girls used to go down to the Windmill pub for a chat with the locals. After my training I was posted to Devon."

She later joined the Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers known as REME. The former BT accounts manager, who was widowed in 1993, said she "shed a few tears" on returning to visit the priory site several years ago.

She said: "I can't understand how it was allowed to be demolished. I had a friend with me and I kept saying to her that it did exist...it did."

Archaeologists have just completed the first ever official excavation of the site.

A report currently being compiled by Essex County Council's Field Archaeology Unit for the developers identifies areas of the site as having "high archaeological potential."

Experts believe the site was already ancient when the Augustinian priory was founded under the authority Anne, Abbess of Barking between 1141 and 1151.

A spokesman said: "We did get some Roman and prehistoric pottery from the site. It has not yet been looked at by specialists and we can't be certain about the exact dates. But it looks like there has been activity there for 2,000 years."

There is a legend that during the Dark Ages when local men folk would go off to the Crusades, the number of available men in the area would not meet the demand of the women folk.

The monks of the priory were an obvious choice to help meet the demand and the situation got so bad that a local law was made for a Leap Day, as every four years on this day, women had the opportunity to propose marriage.

The law stated that if a woman proposed to a man and he accepted on Leap Day, and the man was drunk, then the acceptance could not be counted as binding.

For the occasion the monks would brew up an intoxicating mixture, knows as "Old Trouser Leg Shaker".

On the given day, all the monks would partake, hence if any fell for the advances of a woman on that day, the law could be applied.

At the dissolution of the monasteries, Henry VIII gave Thoby Priory to his short-lived favourite Cardinal Wolsey and the monks were turned out. When the Cardinal fell from grace, it passed into private ownership.

The refectory of the priory was used to form the core of a mansion on the site, probably built prior to 1579 when Queen Elizabeth 1 visited.

It is believed that during Victorian times the porch was removed and re-erected at the village church of St Giles.

Over the years Thoby Priory mansion was extended and remodeled and was used as a German Prisoner of War camp. It was sold off by the Government and demolished in 1953.

Brentwood Borough Council leader and Mountnessing resident David Gottesmann has a photocopy of the demolition sale catalogue.

Among the items on offer were 20,000 feet of antique and dozens of leaded windows.

He said: "The man who bought the priory was a scrap dealer. At some stage he dismantled it, sold it off and built a small house to replace it. Even though it was a scheduled ancient monument before the war, it would appear that absolutely nothing was done.

"There are still people in the village who remember going there for dances."

As Iris told her friend: "It did exist...it did."

Published Tuesday, April 9, 2002