On a bleak day, deep in the scenic wilderness of Westmorland, the isolated spot in which the ruins of Shap Abbey nestle presents a rather poignant spectacle. Not easily accessible by road even today, this desolate environment would have been perfect for the strictness and solitude sought by the Order of Premonstratensian monks in the late 12th Century. Originally settled some 20 miles south of Shap, they moved to 'Hepp' c1200. The old name means 'a heap' and, despite the associated appropriateness for such a deserted site, it gradually changed to Shap over the next 100 years.
The Premonstratensians were a 'halfway house' between the strict closed Order of the Cistercians, and the more community orientated benevolence of the Augustinians. During the early years their building style was very much based on the Cistercian beliefs of austerity and simplicity and the original abbey church bears witness to that fact. Although little more than foundation walls survive now, from the ground plan it is obvious that the 13th Century church was a modest structure.
No more than 200ft (60.6m) long, it consisted of a six bay nave, a north aisle, a couple of chapels in the transepts, and a plain narrow chancel. The west tower is the dominant feature of the site today and is, ironically, the only part to be built after the relaxation of the rules governing the simplistic lines of monastic church building. Shap Abbey is instantly recognisable from this massive Perpendicular tower erected at the west end of the nave, which stands as a memorial to one of the great builders and reformers of the late 15th Century. Richard Redman was the abbot of Shap for some 50 years until his death in 1505 but, as the leading English Premonstratensian of the time, he also held successive posts as Bishop of St Asaph, Exeter, and Ely.
Escaping the initial phase of the Dissolution in 1536, Shap Abbey was finally suppressed in 1540 and subsequently sold to the Governor of Carlisle. It seems that most of the abbey church was demolished, and the stones quarried away, but the huge solid tower structure proved more difficult to destroy. Many of the monastic buildings were incorporated into a farmhouse and used as barns. In that respect little change has occurred over the last four centuries because the abbey ruins still form part of a working farm complex.
Our last snapshot of Shap Abbey, as seen through driving rain whilst battling against the wind to trek uphill across the exposed sodden field back to the road was one of a grey, congested muddle of ruinous buildings struggling to survive the encroaching farmyard paraphernalia. But it was definitely worth the effort, just because it was there and we do hope to see it one day when the weather is kind. Although there is a lot to be said for the magical atmosphere we experienced in those atrocious conditions.