Kirkstall in West Yorkshire is famous for its cistercian monestary, Kirkstall Abbey: our guide will show you around.
Whilst now in ruins, the abbey is one of the better-preserved 850 year old buildings. The windows may be long-removed and plainsong absent for centuries, but Kirkstall Abbey still proves to be one of the most popular attractions in the North, both for Leeds residents and tourists alike.
Kirkstall Abbey's History Unveiled
Established in the 1152, Kirkstall Abbey was lucky to have existed in the first place. Monks from Fountains Abbey had been gifted land in Barnoldswick by Henry de Lacy, a Norman nobleman. The monks formed a small settlement there, but faced difficulties there. They returned to de Lacy by route of rough woodlands by the river Aire and discovered the site on which Kirkstall Abbey now sits. de Lacy acquired the land and construction of the abbey began in earnest.
The materials used to build the abbey were taken from what is now Bramley Park, almost two miles away on the other side of the river Aire. Construction took the better part of the century, with the abbey acting as a focal point for the town that eventually formed around it.
In the wake of King Henry VIII’s break from the catholic church and ensuing divorces, the king pushed through legislation to dissolve the monasteries in the country as a means of extra income for the crown. Kirkstall Abbey was surrendered by deed to the commissioners of Henry VIII in 1539. The abbey, whilst owned by the crown and eventually coming into private ownership, fell into ruin, with stone from the buildings being removed and relocated to the city centre of Leeds. Some parts of Kirkstall Abbey formed steps that once led to the river bank by Leeds Bridge. The Abbey was later gifted to the Leeds Corporation, later Leeds City Council.
The Abbey Grounds
The abbey follows the style and design of the cistercian monasteries that came before it with minor alterations. Encyclopaedia Brittanica (1911) references Kirkstall Abbey as one of the best preserved and explains the layout of the the ruins themselves. Aside from the main church and courtyard, Kirkstall Abbey featured refectories and guest houses, even an infirmary. Like most abbeys around the country, the monastery acted as a place of governance and worship, with the local farms paying to the church.
Exploring the Ruins
A virtual journey through the abbey's ruins
Whether visiting in 1223 or 2023, the abbey stands imposing over the Kirkstall skyline. The main entrance to the west of the abbey known as the nave establishes the grandeur for the building, with stone columns reaching up. These columns come together in arches and openings where there may once have been windows. Despite stained(coloured) glass being prohibited by Cistercian tradition and edict, more recent excavations have revealed the presence of coloured glass at Kirkstall Abbey.
Continuing through the rest of the church, the tower beckons toward the eastern end. The abbey is a feat of engineering, with stone from miles away brought together to form the massive, ominous monastery. The tower now is partially collapsed, with some restoration work already undertaken to make it safe.
Doubling back, the lay brother’s dormitory (which retains only two of its four walls) along with the main church form two sides around the cloister, a now versatile space which hosts events all through the year.
Toward the south of the monastery building, the abbotts’ lodgings remains open to the elements. With general accommodation for the other members of the church, the abbott was able to enjoy a private room.
The gardens, whilst now tidily kept, were likely worked hard by the monks of Kirkstall Abbey, providing fresh vegetables for the whole cohort.
Kirkstall Abbey's Influence
Even in its ruined state, Kirkstall Abbey has drawn visitors from all walks of life: artists, tourists and even musicians. The monastery has been immortalised on canvas by multiple parties, including Thomas Girtin.
Some 18th century paintings show the tower as it was before it partially collapsed in 1779. Moses Griffiths captured the abbey as it appeared in 1777.
Entry to Kirkstall Abbey is free of charge to Leeds residents — proof of address is required on the first visit. For visitors from further afield, a charge of up to £5.50 is payable on arrival, with under-5s allowed free entry. Kirkstall abbey has free parking in the Abbey House Museum car park, a short walk away from the abbey itself. Disabled spaces are available closer to the abbey site.
General opening hours are 10:00 until 16:00 Tuesday to Sunday, with Mondays closed to the public.
Check the Kirkstall Abbey website for more information, as the abbey is sometimes closed to the public for weddings or other private events.
Events and Activities
Kirkstall Abbey hosts a wide array of events throughout the year, from the Leeds International Beer Festival in September, to weekly meditative walks and halloween hauntings.
The abbey also hosts weddings and musical events; notably – the Kaiser Chiefs performed to a crowd of nearly 20,000 people across two nights in 2011.
Find out more on Kirkstall Abbey’s website https://museumsandgalleries.leeds.gov.uk/kirkstall-abbey/whats-on-at-kirkstall-abbey/
Nearby Attractions and Amenities
The town of Kirkstall flourished around the abbey, even after its abandonment. There are now two shopping parks toward Kirkstall bridge with popular household names available. Coffee shops and deli-counters are available for those looking for something to eat and drink, whilst the nearby toy-shop could help to entice kids to a day out.