I spent much of my childhood within walking distance of the ruins of Kirkstall Abbey, a place where history and legends seem to meld into a story perfectly designed to capture the imagination of a child. The abbey sits amid green lawns beside the River Aire in Leeds, West Yorkshire. On the other side of the valley the woods of Bramley Fall cover the hillside down to the canal. The millstone grit that was used to build the abbey came from here and although the rise of industry has marred the beauty of the land, it is still a lovely spot. Hermits lived in the river valley long before the abbey was founded and it takes little imagination to erase the urban sprawl and see why they would have chosen this spot.
Henry de Lacy promised to build an abbey for the Virgin Mary if he recovered from a serious illness. When he did so he gave lands around Barnoldswick to the Abbot of Fountains Abbey to fulfil his vow. Those lands proved inhospitable and the Abbot looked elsewhere, finally finding the site beside the river at Kirkstall. De Lacy arranged for their purchase and in 1152 the building was begun. It took thirty years to complete and is, even now, a large and very beautiful place.
The Abbey church is imposing with vaulted aisles and Norman doorways still standing, though the great east window and rose window stand open to the wind. Throughout my childhood only the ruined church, cloisters and chapter house were open and I looked through the railings and iron gates at the rest of the ruins, wondering where the staircases led and what secrets were hidden around the corner. In the 80s I came home from France on holiday with my fiancé and took him to the abbey, only to find that even the places I knew were now locked.
I pointed out where to find the lovers’ knot carved on the base of the pillar on the north side of the nave. The story tells of the monk who fell in love with the innkeeper’s daughter and of the tunnel beneath the river and how they would meet… until he was caught and immured as a punishment. I told him of the man-shaped holes in the chapter house walls that my grandfather had assured me were where the punishment had been carried out… even though they are probably nothing of the sort, especially as the ghost of a monk has been seen to throw himself from the tower… although others say it is the young woman who witnessed her lover committing murder and threw herself from there after giving him up to the law…
Peering through the grille with longing I was a child again, but this time a kindly guardian took pity and took the keys from his pocket. It was such a gift to climb the crumbling staircases hidden in the tower, disturbing the owl that slept there and walking out onto the rooftops where once the brothers’ dormitory had stood.
Three decades later I visited again and to my delight found that Leeds City Council had used the intervening years to stabilise and open the ruins and at last I was able to explore those staircases and corners, visiting the infirmary and the kitchens where a stream had been channelled through the building to carry away waste. And in my delight, I felt, once more, like a child… only this time it felt like Christmas.
The Abbey remained in the hands of the Cistercian order until the 22 November 1539 when it was surrendered to the commissioners of the King during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, when Henry VIII broke with Rome. By this time the abbey covered some 800 acres and produced goods in leather, pottery and particularly the metalwork from the Forge. It passed to Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury and one of the leaders of the Reformation and remained in his hands until his execution in 1556, when he was burnt at the stake under the Queen Mary’s reinstatement of Papal Supremacy in England.
The Abbey passed from hand to hand until, in 1889 if was sold to Colonel John North, the son of a coal merchant who became a wealthy investor and businessman. North gave the abbey to Leeds Corporation and it has remained in the City’s hands ever since. The old gatehouse was made into a museum with reconstructed streets, shops and homes… a magical place for a child when I was small… and a physic garden redolent of herbs.
The Abbey remains a place of history and legends, from the ghosts who regularly walked through the old buildings of Kirkstall Forge… a place that remained in operation until just a few years ago and is now being redeveloped as a modern ‘village’… to the legendary treasure said to be waiting there, guarded by strange, otherworldly forces…
“…a workman had been threshing all morning and thought to straighten his back. Walking round the Abbey he saw a great hole. Thinking it might be the legendary treasure… and he being a Yorkshireman and nothing loathe where ‘brass’ was concerned, crept into the hole and down a tunnel, emerging into a great ‘houseplace’. A fire blazed in the hearth and in the corner a ‘gurt, black ‘oss’ was tethered. Behind the horse was a black, oaken chest, and on ‘top o’t kist a gurt black cock’. The cockerel crowed. “Tha’s bahn t’be brass in’t’kist’ the labourer said to himself, and went towards the black horse. The creature reared and neighed, louder and louder, the cockerel crowed and flapped its wings, so hard it knocked the labourer senseless. He awoke in the Abbey grounds and search though he might, he never found the ‘gurt black hoile’ again.”
If you get the chance, it is well worth a visit… you never know what you might find…