Bolton Abbey


Officially, Bolton Abbey should be called “Bolton Priory”. It was given the name Bolton Priory because it was founded by canons and a prior. Over time, people started referring to the Priory as Bolton Abbey, the village where it’s located.

Brief History of Bolton Abbey

During the Victorian Era, Bolton Abbey transitioned into a tourist attraction and became one of the most popular places to visit in Yorkshire. Owned by the Cavendish family, under the title of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, it is home to eight miles of river, eighty miles of footpaths, six sites of special scientific interest, four grade one listed buildings, and twenty seven businesses.

It doesn’t stop there. The estate employs around 120 staff to help with maintenance and to welcome visitors. There’s also a railway, estate village, and a working parish church. It truly is an impressive place to visit.

In 1539, the priory was destroyed and looted during the dissolution of the monasteries with only St Mary’s and Cuthbert Parish Church remaining. During the 19th Century, this Gothic church was upgraded. New windows were installed by Augustus Pugin and Gothic revival architecture instigated by George Street.

Bolton Abbey Now

The church is still fully operational for members of the parish and has a full program of services. It is also open to the public and is used as a venue for several events throughout the year. These events include singing, musical evenings, organ recitals and an annual fete which is held in August.

Like the church, the priory ruins are accessible for viewing too. Information about the different areas of the abbey that existed in the past and the daily routine of the monks can be found here.

Interesting Features of Bolton Abbey

Both the ruins and the church contain some very interesting features. On either side of the tower you’ll find two carved animals which look like laughing dogs. It’s said that the nursery rhyme “Hey Diddle Diddle” originated at Bolton Abbey when a prior named “Moone”, who was the last prior of Bolton Abbey, was tricked or “diddled” into buying cows by a local family.

Another interesting feature can be found on the ceiling. There is a green man with a carved plant extending out of his mouth and eye. This kind of image can be found in many old churches. It’s a symbol of rebirth linked to the season of spring. In Bolton Abbey’s case, it could depict its transformation from a Catholic to Protestant place of worship after the dissolution of monasteries.

Bolton Abbey by Michael Parker

The ruins still show the shape and height of the priory when it was complete. With its setting by the river, Bolton Abbey is one of the most picturesque sights in Yorkshire.

The River Wharfe, The Strid, and Strid Wood

Eight miles of the River Wharfe flows through the Bolton Abbey Estate including The Strid which is a famous spot notorious for being extremely dangerous. At this part, the river is forced through a narrow channel making the opposite side look close enough to ‘stride’ across. Many lives have been lost due to people trying to jump to the other side. The Strid is fast flowing, deep and has hidden crevices which drag you under. If you’re visiting, please read the signs, stay well back from the edge and stick to the well-marked footpaths.

The ancient woodland that surrounds The Strid, called Strid Wood, is an area of special scientific interest. It has one of the largest areas of acidic oak trees in Yorkshire. Both the wood and the river attract a wide range of wildlife. Carpets of bluebells can be seen here in late spring. Strid Wood is also home to numerous species of birds including Pied Flycatchers, Wood Warblers, Dipper, Goosander and Nuthatches. 

Along the green trail lies a Bodger’s camp. Here you’ll find crafty bird tables, chairs and other items.

There are various colour coded walks and trails for you to discover along with the visitor centre. Some of these walks have disabled access. 

Further up the River Wharfe, and away from The Strid, are 60 stepping stones overlooked by the Priory. During the prior’s heyday in medieval times, the stepping stones were once the only way to cross the river. More recently, a footbridge has been built for visitors who don’t want to get their feet, or their whole body, wet!

Notable Landmarks at Bolton Abbey

There are many other landmarks around the estate to look out for. One of these is “The Valley of Desolation”. It got its name from a great storm in 1826 which destroyed all the trees and plants in the area. Since then, and with the help of planting eight thousand trees in 1999, they have grown back. 

Another landmark to look out for is “The Laund Oak” which is a tree over 600 years old. It was named after John of Laund who was at the priory between 1286 – 1330. The Laund Oak is said to produce some of the best acorns on the estate and its fruits are planted to make new oak trees in the Strid Woods.

Laund Oak

In 2016, Laund Oak was blown over by strong winds during a storm. Luckily, foresters covered the root ball with soil. The roots remain intact and Laund Oak still continues to leaf but at a different angle.

Barden Tower is also among the notable landmarks. It is the ruin of an old hunting lodge dating back to the 15th century which can be found in Strid Wood.

You’ll also find three money trees within the ancient wood. They are loaded with coins which have been bent into their bark. You can push a coin in the trees and make a wish, or try and pull one out!

Bolton Abbey Estate and Village

Around the estate and village there are a multitude of shops and restaurants for you to discover. Among these, you’ll find two gift shops run by the tenants. One sells Bolton Abbey souvenirs and the other acts as a village post office. 

Other shops such as Yorkshire Crafts pride themselves on selling products made here in God’s Own County. Grove Rare Books stocks a vast array of second hand books just waiting to be discovered. Within the village, you’ll also find a piano, furniture, and model shop.

If you get hungry while exploring the grounds, there are plenty of options available. The Cavendish Pavilion, a Riverside cafe, was built in 1898. It’s one of the places visitors can stop to enjoy a coffee and a bite to eat. This venue is available for private hire, weddings and corporate events.

Within the estate and village, you’ll find four tearooms where visitors can enjoy homemade sandwiches, cakes, hot drinks and light lunches. Abbey Tea Rooms and The Tea Cottage can be found in the village while Strid Wood Cafe lies within the estate itself.

There are also a multitude of fine dining establishments. Most notably the Devonshire Brasserie and Burlington Restaurant located near the village.

The Embsay and Bolton Abbey Steam Railway is a volunteer-run service. It runs between the two villages on Sundays with weekdays added in the summer to transport larger numbers of tourists. The route uses part of the old Skipton to Ilkley line which closed in 1965.

Bolton Abbey station was visited twice by monarchs. Edward VII in 1902 and George V in 1922. The station was closed because of the Beeching cuts but was later restored and reopened in 1995.

Bolton Abbey and it’s Link to Culture

During the Tour de France, Bolton Abbey was a unique spot because it was featured in both Yorkshire stages of the race. The ruins were featured during the television coverage of the event and helped to put the area on the map and increase the number of tourists who visited.

“Faith” album cover by The Cure

Bolton Abbey has been extensively used in culture. Poet William Wordsworth was inspired on his visit to the estate in 1807-1808 and wrote “The White Doe of Rylstone”. The great landscape painter JMW Turner created a famous watercolour titled “Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire” in 1827 which you can find on display at the British Museum in London. In 1981, the ruins were featured on an album cover for “Faith” by The Cure. The image is a veiled photo of Bolton Abbey in fog.

Car Parks at Bolton Abbey

In total, the attraction has three car parks. At the time of writing, these car parks cost £10 for the day when booking in advance or £12 on the day of visiting. 

Bolton Abbey car park is adjacent to the priory church, ruins, stepping stones and beach area. Riverside car park is further down the riverside and is popular with picnickers, walkers and is an ideal place for ball games. This car park is ideal for those wanting to be closer to the riverside, Cavendish Pavilion and Strid Wood. The third car park is The Strid car park which is the best car park if you’re wanting to explore the surrounding woodlands and nature trails.

Directions to Bolton Abbey

Due to its remote location, Bolton Abbey is only accessible by road from two ways. One is the B6160 which runs from Addingham in the south and winds its way to Grassington in the north. The other route is the A59 road which is only a few miles south which makes for easy access to other towns in the area, with Skipton just seven miles away.

The number 74 bus passes through the village which links it to Ilkley and Grassington along with another Dalesbus service from York. These times vary according to the season.

Bolton Abbey is a popular tourist attraction which has something to offer people of all ages. It’s a fascinating religious site which has lots of history. Along with a riverside walk and sites of scientific interest, this is definitely a place everyone should visit. It has the perfect setting to stop for a picnic, play a ball game on the grounds, and explore the gift and craft shops around the wonderful estate. It’s these features which have made Bolton Abbey one of the principal attractions in Yorkshire.



The Bolton Abbey estate was recorded in the Domesday book as belonging to Earl Edwin of Mercia. The full estate was 9240 acres in size covering places such as Malham, Gargrave, Skipton and Addingham.

Harrying of the North

After the Normans invaded the area in 1066, the aftermath of their invasion caused the Bolton Abbey estate to be laid to waste. The Harrying of The North was a revenge attack on the rebels in a bid to assert their authority in the area. This included burning villages, crops, and slaughtering people which then led to desolation and famine for many years to come.

Re-building Bolton Abbey

After the area had recovered, the land was given to a Norman Baron called Robert de Romille. He moved the centre of the estate to the newly built Skipton Castle.

Bolton Priory was constructed and founded by Augustinian monks around 1154. It was built on the banks of the River Wharfe along with the parish church of St Mary and St Cuthbert. The parish church is still a working place of worship today.

The land used to build the abbey on was bequeathed to the monks by Lady Anne de Rumily of Skipton Castle and so their contribution to village life began. The majority of village people were canons, which meant that they had already been ordained as priests.

Monks were heavily involved in the community while keeping up to their constant prayer and worship. They ran a hospital to heal the sick, preached to the local congregations, and sheltered visitors.

Over time, Bolton Abbey received donations from wealthy locals. This helped them to establish enterprises such as farms, mines, and mills which generated further income allowing the priory to expand.

A team of stonemasons were deployed to extend the priory. In turn, its population increased due to the local young men wanting to become part of the religious community. They became “lay brothers” and carried out most of the manual and administrative work at the institution.

Difficulties Bolton Abbey Faced

Bolton Abbey by Dave Zdanowicz

Throughout the Middle Ages, the community survived many difficulties. Scottish raids resulted in temporary abandonment of the site, from 1348 – 1350 there was an outbreak of the plague, and there was a string of severe winters which deeply affected the area. Things took a turn for the worst during the 16th century when the abbey gained a more formidable opponent called King Henry VIII.

Firstly, he had fallen out with the Catholic Church after they refused to let him divorce his first wife, Katherine of Aragon. Next, his treasury was running short of money due to the English currency being devalued as a result of gold discoveries in the New World by Spain and Portugal. Then, Martin Luther’s revolt on the Continent against the Vatican enabled Henry VIII to bring Protestantism to England and reject all things Catholic.

These three factors were to have a profound effect on the more wealthy priories across the country including Bolton Abbey. The consequences became known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Dissolution of the Monasteries

The king’s armies swept through Bolton Abbey in 1539 and confiscated their assets and even stripped lead off their roofs. The dissolution affected monasteries all over the country such as Rievaulx, Jervaulx and Fountains Abbey.

The main building was destroyed and later pillaged of its stone in order to develop other properties along the Wharfe Valley. The accompanying church survived.

Luckily for Bolton Abbey, they had Augustinian Monks which meant that they were also ordained priests. A government concession meant they could still continue their religious work as ordinary clergy.

Due to its remote location, St Mary’s and St Cuthbert was the only place of worship for miles around. This meant that it was allowed to continue as a parish church serving the nearby Bolton Village.

Inevitably, the church became Protestant. It was scaled down and a new east wall was built to separate it from the ruins. The main abbey lay derelict and was visited only by those wishing to pinch the stonework in order to build other things across the valley.

Tourism at Bolton Abbey

In 1810, the Strid Wood and part of the estate was opened to the public for walking and relaxation. The railways enabled more visitors to access the site.

By the end of the 19th Century, it had become a popular place to go. Nowadays, the Bolton Abbey estate is 33,000 acres and owned by the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. The village, abbey and ancient woodland are visited by thousands of people each year making it a place firmly established on the Yorkshire tourist trail.