For the past 150 years, Kirkstall Abbey has been separated from its gatehouse by the A65, a busy arterial road into Leeds. However, the unusual suburban setting of Kirkstall Abbey does not detract at all from the magnificence of the surviving monastery, and Leeds City Council do an admirable job of maintaining the site.
Founded in 1147 by a small group of monks from Fountains, this Cistercian abbey is the most complete example in England and appears to have suffered little over the years. Built during the latter half of the 12th century, it remained virtually unaltered until the time of the Dissolution. Even though some of the outbuildings were demolished at that time, the abbey church and claustral range, as well as the abbot's lodging house and the gatehouse, were utilised when the abbey was converted to a farm. Later still, during the 18th century, Kirkstall Abbey became one of the celebrated 'romantic ruins' of England and the natural vegetation was allowed to consume the ancient stonework. Then, at the end of the 19th century, the site was presented to the City of Leeds: it was cleared of its mass of greenery, restored and repaired and opened to the public in 1895.
Today, the vast Norman church survives sufficiently to give the impression of severity and strength in the solid display of nave columns, and in the nave aisles some sections of rib-vaulting remain, giving an indication of the changing architectural styles.
Equally impressive are the substantial remains of the Abbot's lodging, an early 13th century three-storey house complete with its own kitchen and chapel. There are many foundation walls, pillars and arched doorways and, combined with the surviving walls of good height, this gives a remarkably accurate plan of the original monastery. Crossing back over the road there is a museum, which incorporates part of the original Kirkstall Abbey gatehouse, exhibiting many finds from the various excavations of the monastery.
Kirkstall Abbey is a truly fascinating insight into monastic life and the amount of detail surviving is incredible. Our only disappointment was that, with the exception of the cloister, there was no public access to explore the buildings in depth.** We, therefore, had to satisfy our curiosity by peering through fence railings to identify some of the finer points of interest. Nonetheless, for those wishing to gain a good understanding of life in medieval monasteries, this is a site definitely not to miss.
** Guided tours are available on some Saturdays during the summer. Details available on: +44 (0)113 230 5492.