Sunday, December 9, 2012

Kirkstall Abbey, Leeds

Kirkstall Abbey in Leeds is one of the "daughter" abbeys from Fountains Abbey. The Cistercian order had a large network of abbeys in Yorkshire headed by Fountains Abbey. They founded Kirkstall in 1152 with a handful of monks and it was closed with the dissolution of the monasteries under King Henry VIII in 1539. The ruins are still in amazing condition, allowing visitors to peek into the past and imagine what life was like for monks long ago.

Kirkstall Abbey on a foggy morning

Our visit started as so many visits do with a stop at the playground. Unfortunately, we visited in November and the equipment was a bit icy. J slipped at one point and his mood was down in the dumps for the rest of the morning. But not enough to stop us from enjoying the abbey.

It looks safe, doesn't it?

Before the fall came the seesaw

On the way down the hill from the parking lot/play ground to the abbey grounds, we passed the old guest house which is now a tea shop and museum. It wasn't open yet so we did not get a snack. We crossed a road where what's left of the abbey still stands.

Cafe and Museum

Some more ruinous ruins outside the abbey

Church entrance

The actual entrance to the ruins was through a small shop. We were a little worried because the web site said opening time was 10 a.m. but the sign there said 11 a.m. At the shop, they welcomed us even at 10:10 a.m. They explained that the sign was wrong. So we were able to explore the old grounds where the monks lived, worked, and prayed.

The first room we came to was the Kitchen, which was not only where they prepared the meals but also the drinks. A sign explained that the large circle with a few steps up was probably where they brewed the ale that made the water potable for humans. The monks drank up to 2 gallons a day, though the ale back then was less potent then ours today.

L near the fireplace

Where they brewed ale?

Doorway to outside (probably to the gardens and fish pond)

The best feature about the kitchen was the castle built inside it. Just ask J, he'll tell you.

Relaxing at the top of the tower

The abbey had an extensive drainage system that allowed for toilets and other waste to be carried away. J and L were fascinated by this as well.

Exposed "pipes"

Nearby was another interesting feature, the Warming Room. From November to Easter a fire was kept in this room so the monks could warm up from the bitter cold of the Yorkshire winters. But life was not too luxurious, because they could only stay in there for 15 minutes at a time. Only the base of the fireplace survives today.

Hall to the Warming House

What's left of the fireplace

The abbot (who was in charge of the abbey) originally slept with the other monks in a common dormitory. By the 1230s, a special house was made for the abbot to welcome visitors and sleep in. A room was kept nearby for when the abbot from Fountains Abbey would come on his annual visit.

Stairs up to the Abbot's House

A nearby gate installed after the dissolution!

Abbeys have a central square or open space called the Cloister. The area has access to most of the important rooms and buildings in the house. The walkway around the sides was covered to accommodate for inclement weather.


One important room is the Chapter House, where the monks would gather for instructions from the abbot. Instructions included their daily tasks, spiritual guidance, and the rules of the order.

Entrance to the chapter house

A coffin in the chapter house

A very nice roof!

Next to the chapter house is the library where books were kept.

Not a very large library; now, sadly used to store groundskeeper items

On the other side of the chapter house is the parlour, where monks could talk to one another. Otherwise, they would be silent as they went about their work.

The parlour, which looks a lot like the library (except it stores dangerous chemicals and is locked)

The most important building of any abbey is of course the church. Here the monks gathered several times during the day to pray the Divine Office or attend Mass. The church had special sections for lay brothers and for visitors.

Nave of the church

North tower

View from outside

The south transept of the church also has the Night Stairs, which led to the dormitory for the choir monk. They would use these stairs to attend services, the first of which was at 1 a.m.! So it wasn't all drinking beer and having fun.

Night Stairs

In 1539 the abbey was forced to close. Eventually it came into the hands of the local government authority and was opened to the public in the 19th century. Some restoration work has been done but not much. The grounds are quite extensive, with over 24 hectares of parkland for walks, picnic, and enjoying the great outdoors. It is well worth a visit.

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