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Kirkstall Abbey


NE of the great attractions of Leeds is the ruin of Kirkstall Abbey, situated on the left bank of the Aire, and three miles from the town. In spite of its near neighbourhood to an iron foundry and numerous tall brick chimneys, Kirkstall is considered one of the most beautiful ruins in England. "It is," says Whitaker, "to the neglect of two centuries and a half, the unregarded growth of ivy, and the maturity of vast elms and other forest trees which have been suffered to spring up amidst the walls, that Kirkstall is become, as a single object, the most picturesque and beautiful ruin in the kingdom. Add to all this the mellowing hand of Time, which, by rounding angles, breaking lines, and softening down the glare of recent colouring, may be regarded as the first of all landscape painters."

But now the smoke of Leeds has blackened the ruins and the trees around them; the Aire flowing by them is completely discoloured, and the valley below is full of chimneys. The abbey was built by Henry de Lacy in fulfilment of a vow made during a dangerous illness. He laid the foundations of the church with his own hands. The name indicates a "stall" or lodge in the wood used by foresters.

The church is cruciform, with a square tower at the intersection of the arms of the cross; this tower partly fell in 1779, leaving only one side and part of another standing. From the west end the view of the interior is strikingly beautiful. The body of the church consists of a nave and two side aisles, divided by clustered columns with pointed arches above; over these is a row of windows with round arches. The east window is pointed; the west Norman, in good preservation. The west doorway has five circular receding arches, the centre one bearing zigzag mouldings; the northwest door, which is walled up, is of four arches, the outer one bearing embattled mouldings. Thus it would appear from the union of round and pointed arches in the church that it must, like Kirkham, have been built at the Transition period.

Kirkstall Abbey

In the south wall of the choir there is an arched recess, and on each side of it a piscina.

There are three chapels on each side of the choir with vaulted roofs. The church deviates from due east and west; but this is not remarkable, as the altar was generally placed at the spot where the sun rose on the day of the saint to whom the church was dedicated; consequently a little N.E. or S.E., as the case might be.

The cloister court by the south wall of the church is a quadrangle, 143 feet by 115. It is genuine Norman, and contains one or two broken tombstones.

The chapter-house adjoins the south transept, and is entered from the cloister court.

It is a fine apartment with two massive columns supporting the groined roof of its western portion; the eastern, of a later date, has no columns; the groins springing from angle to angle. Adjoining the chapter-house are two small arched rooms.

The refectory communicates with the kitchen, and there remain ruins also of the abbot's residence, its hall, court, offices, and private chapel. Still further east are the recently excavated remains of the hospitium, or place of entertainment for strangers.

An apartment west from the refectory is thought to have been the common room. A wide, arched passage with a circular arch at each end adjoins it. The cloisters are on the west side of the court, and have double arches. They are 172 feet long and 29 feet broad An adjoining building is said to have been an infirmary. The dormitories were above the chapter-house and adjoining buildings, and over the cloisters. The gatehouse to the north-west of the abbey is in good preservation, and is attached to a private residence.

There is a very tragic story attached to Kirkstall Abbey.

At an inn in the village lived a most charming rustic beauty, as maid, a girl of strict principles, too, and brave as she was modest and good. She had many wooers, of course, and at last selected one who was young, handsome, and agreeable. But her choice was regretted by all who knew her, for Richard was a wild young man, and suspected of poaching and other misdemeanour. Mary, however, would hear nothing to his disadvantage.

It happened one rather dark night that two customers were having supper at the inn, and Mary waited on them. As the wind howled mournfully outside the house, one of them said,-

"I should not like now to be in the ruins we visited to-day, should you?"

"Should you be afraid?" laughed the other.

"Well, yes, I think I should; any one would be who was there in the darkness of night."

"You are mistaken," replied his companion; "Mary, here, will visit the abbey at any hour; she has no fear."

The first speaker refused to believe this, and the other took a bet with him, that Mary would go fearlessly, and bring them back a branch of the willow as a token that she had really visited the ruins. The bet was accepted, and Mary, rather enjoying the joke and the display of her courage, started at once for the abbey.

It really was a trial of courage, for the night, though starlight, was dark, the wind high, and the ruins looked very weird as she approached them. But Mary had no fear; she walked swiftly to the willow and gathered a bough. Then she was about to return home, when she heard heavy footsteps in the cloister approaching her. She thought it prudent to get out of sight, and concealed herself behind a pillar and piece of the ruin.

Standing there she could see two men coming up the cloister carrying a dead body; horror-struck, the poor girl scarcely dared to breathe. They came close by her pillar, when the hat of the one at the head of the body - it was, she saw, that of a man who had been murdered - blew off and was wafted by the high moaning wind to her feet. The fellow swore at his hat; the other said, "Never mind it now; come on, and let us make haste to bury the body," and they passed out of the abbey.

Snatching up the hat, Mary almost flew back to the inn, and entered it white and scared, holding the willow bough and the hat.

She gasped out in broken words, "Murder - dead body - the murderer's hat," and held it out. As she did so her eyes fell on the inside of it, and a piercing shriek filled the air. She had seen in it her lover's name!

The murderers were secured, tried, and hanged; but Mary lost her reason, and was long a wandering lunatic, haunting the neighbourhood, but never approaching the abbey.

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Picturesque England - Matthew Spong 2004