Bolton Abbey

Officially Bolton Abbey should be referred to as “Bolton Priory” as it was founded by canons and a prior, but over time has been referred to by the same name as the village in which it is located in. Since the estate’s transition into a tourist attraction during the Victorian period Bolton abbey has become 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. The estate employs around 120 staff to help with its maintenance and welcome visitors. Furthermore there is a railway, estate village and a working parish church.

The priory itself was destroyed and looted during the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, with only St Mary’s and Cuthbert Parish Church left remaining. During the 19th Century the Gothic church was upgraded with new windows installed by August Pugin and Gothic revival architecture instigated by George Street.

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 the venue for several events throughout the year including singing, musical evenings, organ recitals and an annual fete held each August.

The priory ruins are accessible for viewing too and information can be found here about the different areas of the abbey that would have existed and the daily routine of the monks.

The ruins and church include some interesting features. On either side of the tower are two carved animals which look like laughing dogs. It is said that the nursery rhyme, “Hey Diddle Diddle,” originated at Bolton abbey when a prior named “Moone,” was tricked into the sale of some cows by a local family. Secondly on the ceiling there is a Green man with a carved plant extending out of its eye socket. This kind of image can be found in many old churches and is a symbol of rebirth, linked to the season of spring. In Bolton Abbey’s case it could perhaps depict its transformation from a Catholic to Protestant place of worship after the Dissolution of monasteries. The ruins clearly show the shape and height of the priory when it was complete and with its setting by the river makes it one of the most picturesque sights in Yorkshire.

Michael parker bolton abbey
Michael Parker Bolton Abbey

The Bolton Abbey Estate incorporates eight miles of The River Wharfe. The 57 stepping stones across the waterway were once the only crossing and used during the priory’s heyday in medieval times. More recently a footbridge has been constructed for visitors who don’t wish to get their feet wet!

The attraction has three car parks, which at the time of writing cost £7 per vehicle with access to the other two on the same day. Bolton Abbey car park is adjacent to the village and ruins, while Sandholme is located further down the riverside and is popular with picnickers, walkers and an ideal place for ball games. The Strid car park is an ideal base in which to explore the surrounding woodlands and nature trails. Here the River Wharfe narrows and the softer rock causes the water to rush quickly between them creating a spectacular series of waterfalls. The river is also very dangerous and visitors are well advised to stick to the well-marked footpaths and view this phenomenon from a safe distance. The ancient woodland that surround it are a site of special scientific interest and has one of the largest areas of acidic oak trees in Yorkshire.

Bolton Abbey
Bolton Abbey

The Strid attracts a wide range of wildlife. Carpets of bluebells can be seen here in late spring, while the area is home to numerous species of birds, including Pied Flycatchers, Wood Warblers, Dipper, Goosander and Nuthatches. There are various colour coded walks and trails to discover, some with disabled access and a visitor centre. In the forest on the green trail lies the Bodger’s camp who is a skilled craftsman that makes items such as bird tables, chairs and other items.

There are many other landmarks around the estate to look out for. The Valley of Desolation is so named because of a great storm in 1826, which destroyed all trees and plants in the area. These have since grown back, helped with the planting of eight thousand trees in 1999. The Laund Oak is a tree which is over 800 years old and named after John of Laund, who was at the priory from 1286-1330. It is still said to produce some of the best acorns on the estate and its fruits are used to plant new oak trees in the Strid Woods. Barden Tower is the ruin of an old hunting lodge in the ancient forest and dates from the 15th Century. The money trees are a series of three which are loaded with coins bent into their bark.

Bolton abbey, due to its remote location is only accessible two ways by the B6160 which runs from Addingham in the South and winds its way to Grassington in the north. The A59 road is only a few miles south and so one is in easy access to other major towns in the area, with Skipton just seven miles away.

The Embsay and Bolton Abbey steam railway is a volunteer-run service which 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 and George V in 1902 and 1922 respectively. The station was closed because of the Beeching cuts but was restored and re-opened in 1995.

The number 74 bus passes through the village linking it with Ilkley and Grassington along with another Dalesbus service from York, which varies according to the season.

Bolton Abbey was a unique spot during the Tour de France because it featured in both Yorkshire stages of the race. The ruins featured prominently during the television coverage of the event and helped to put the area on the map. Bolton Abbey has been extensively used in culture. The great landscape painter, JMW Turner created a famous watercolour, titled simply Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire in 1809, which is on display at the British museum in London. The White doe of Rylstone by William Wordworth was inspired by the poet’s visit to the estate in 1807. More recently in 1981 the ruins featured on an album cover for “Faith” by The Cure.

Around the estate and village there are a multitude of shops and restaurants to discover. Amongst these are two gift shops run by the tenants, one selling Bolton Abbey souvenirs and the other being the village post office, which is of more functional use for both residents and tourists alike. Yorkshire crafts prides itself in selling products made only in god’s own county, while Grove rare books stocks a vast array of second hand works waiting to be discovered. The village also has a piano shop, furniture store and model shop.

The Cavendish pavilion and Riverside cafe’ was built in 1898 and is one of the places visitors can stop to enjoy a coffee and a bite to eat. The venue is also available for private hire, weddings and corporate events.

The estate and village boasts no less than five tearooms where visitors can enjoy homemade sandwiches, cakes, hot drinks and light lunches. These are located both in the village, such as the Abbey tea rooms and The Tea cottage, while others such as the Strid Wood cafe’ and Buffers lie within the estate itself.

There is also a multitude of fine dining establishments located here too most notably the Devonshire brassiere and Burlington restaurant near the village. The latter is only one of five Michelin starred restaurants in Yorkshire.

Bolton abbey is a tourist attraction which has something for everybody of all age groups. It is a fascinating religious and historical site coupled with a riverside walk and sites of scientific interest. Moreover it is an excellent place to stop for a picnic, have an impromptu family game of cricket and explore the gift and craft shops on offer around the estate. It is these features which has made Bolton abbey one of the principle attractions in Yorkshire.

The Bolton Abbey estate was recorded in the Doomsday 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, a radius of several miles in today’s terms.

After uprisings to Norman rule in the area during the aftermath of their invasion in 1066 the Bolton Abbey estate was laid to waste during the Harrying of The North. This was a revenge attack on the rebels in a bid to assert their authority in the area and included the burning of villages, crops and the slaughter of people, leading to desolation and famine for many years to come.

Once the area had recovered the land was given to Norman baron, Robert de Romille, who moved the centre of the estate to the newly built Skipton Castle.

Bolton Abbey itself 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, which is still a working place of worship today. The land 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 them were canons, meaning they had already ordained as priests. As well as constant prayer and worship the monks were heavily involved in the community. They ran a hospital to heal the sick, preached to the local congregations and sheltered visitors.

Over time the abbey was given donations by wealthier locals, which helped them to establish enterprises, such as farms, mines and mills, which generated further income for the priory to expand. A team of stonemasons were deployed to extend the priory and its population increased to include local young men who wished to become part of the religious community. They became “lay brothers” and undertook much of the manual and administrative work at the institution.

Throughout the middle Ages the community survived many things such as Scottish raids, which resulted in temporary abandonment of the site, an outbreak of plague from 1348-1350 and a string of severe winters affecting the area. However come the 16th Century the abbey had a more formidable opponent in the portly figure of King Henry VIII.

He had fallen out with the Catholic Church after their refusal to let him divorce his first wife, Katherine of Aragon. Moreover 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. Thirdly 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 wealthy priories across the country including Bolton Abbey. The consequences were known as the Dissolution of the monasteries. The king’s armies swept through Bolton Abbey in 1539 confiscating their assets and stripping lead off their roofs. The dissolution affected all monasteries in the country, including other ones in Yorkshire, such as Rievaulx, Jervaulx and Fountains Abbey. Although 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. This was because luckily for Bolton Abbey these were Augustinian monks which meant that they were also ordained priests. A government concession meant they could still continue their religious work as ordinary clergy. Moreover due to its remote location St Mary’s and Cuthbert was the only place of worship for miles around and so it was allowed to continue as a parish church serving the nearby Bolton village. Inevitably the church became Protestant and was scaled down in size with a new east wall constructed to separate it from the ruins. The main abbey lay derelict, visited only by those wishing to pinch the stonework in order to build other things across the valley.

In 1810 the Strid woods, part of the estate, was opened to the public for walking and relaxation, while the coming of the railways enabled more visitors to access the site. By the latter half of the 19th Century it had become a popular place to go. Nowadays the Bolton Abbey estate is 33,000 acres in size and owned by the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. The village, abbey and ancient woodland are visited by thousands of people a year making it a place firmly established on the Yorkshire tourist trail.