Moments of reflection: Kirkstall Abbey, River Aire – North East

A magnificent ruined abbey outside Leeds provides an opportunity to contemplate the past

Photo: Djenan Kozic


There’s something compelling about a ruin. A stunning building that’s been left to crumble encourages us to contemplate the past and to ponder the impermanence of life, while the absence of modernity and people provides valuable space for solitude and reflection. One of the UK’s most dramatic ruins is Kirkstall Abbey, which sits on the north bank of the River Aire on the outskirts of Leeds. The Abbey has been painted by J.M.W. Turner and makes for a stunning backdrop backdrop to the river, which is managed by the Canal & River Trust.

The Abbey was founded in around 1152 by Cistercian monks and eventually consisted of a church, library, chapter house, parlour, dormitories, refectory and malt house plus lodgings for the Abbot and novices. After 400 years, the Abbey was seized in the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII and then gradually passed to ruin as the stone was requisitioned for use in other buildings such as Leeds Bridge. It is now a Grade I-listed building and Scheduled Ancient Monument with a visitor centre. The surrounding land has become a public park and the Abbey is a fascinating place to explore and lose yourself in thought.

Turner painted the Abbey several times, and he often placed the River Aire in the foreground. In one watercolour, the river gushes past the serene and romantic Abbey; in another, the peaceful but derelict medieval Abbey is juxtaposed by masons labouring to construct a new brewery alongside the river as laden boats move through Kirkstall Lock into the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. It’s a fascinating contrast of old and new.

The River Aire takes a twisting route through several Yorkshire market towns before it passes Kirkstall Abbey on its way into Leeds and eventually flowing into the Ouse. The Trust is responsible for the navigable parts of the river, and the Aire’s passage through coalfields and quarries meant it played an essential part in the modernisation of Yorkshire – but one that Kirkstall Abbey still offers a magnificent contrast to and escape from.

Find Kirkstall Abbey at LS5 3EH. Entry is free, and guided tours are available. Discover more about the River Aire on our website.