Five years ago, I lived in Leeds for half a year, and never once visited Kirkstall Abbey – one of West Yorkshire’s most popular sites.
So finally, I revisited Leeds in 2017 and could say I stepped foot into Kirkstall Abbey. It was a rainy Tuesday in October, and I had the entire place to myself.
The Abbey was founded in the year 1152 by Henry de Lacy, a significant landholder of the North, and occupied by a group of monks. It was later surrendered to Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. Two centuries later, the ruin became popular for Romanticists, especially poets and novelists, looking for inspiration. When Leeds City Council took ownership of Kirkstall in the mid 19th century, restoration work began and has been ongoing ever since. It is one of the most intact Cistercian monasteries in Britain.
Kirkstall rests peacefully along the River Aire outside the city, surrounded by trees and parkland, emitting a pastoral charm to visitors. Today, the Abbey hosts creative workshops, markets and even movie nights in the summer (2001: A Space Odyssey under the stars would be quite the celestial experience).
But there was nothing going on today. The only signs of life were two welcomers in the Visitors Centre, located in the Abbey’s Reredorter. Yes, a reredorter translates to “latrine.” So, the entrance was also where the lay brothers once relieved themselves. And people still do today – privately of course, with modern infrastructure in place.
Entering the Abbey was free admission. I calmly strolled through the ruins, cowering under my umbrella as the rain fell steadily and echoed off the stone walls. I felt like an Impressionist, seeking an aesthetic revelation for my next painting.
I took some shots of Kirkstall’s largest sections – the Nave and the Tower. I had a perfect angle to accentuate its symmetry, with a grated archway directly in the centre. A beam of light from the sky illuminates the middle aisle from the doorway.
I huddled inside the cloisters and put on some music, listening to some mellow Pink Floyd tracks. It was probably from Echoes or Meddle.
The Abbey also had a great courtyard – resembling the grounds of Hogwarts (a cultural attribute akin to all British castles).
Even with a mediocre camera phone, I was impressed by the light and shadow contrasts from inside looking out. Although it was rainy, the sky provided ample brightness on each and every brick and crevice.
I spent at least an hour wandering through every room – the old Chapter House, Parlour, Refractory and much more.
Still sheltering from the rain, I crossed the street for a quick glance at an old cottage – of course, looking straight out of a Jane Austen novel.
I caught a bus back to the city, running on a tight schedule to retrace my old stomping grounds.
Kirkstall Abbey now welcomes its doors to all but especially appeals to Romantics, medievalists, shoppers or moviegoers. However, I created my own experience as I stepped into somewhere new within a familiar place. I felt spirits of the monks, once present 800 years past re-awaken amidst the emptiness and eeriness – a perfect pre-Halloween experience.
And naturally, as a historian, I was impressed by how well Kirkstall has been preserved. It truly reflects Britain’s commitment to preservation comparably unseen in Canada.
For those nearby who want to visit but avoid the crowds, go on a rainy Tuesday!
More images and info can be found here