Today I ran down to Kirkstall Abbey, in West Yorkshire, just a 50 minute walk or 20 minute jog from where I live in Headingly, Leeds. Becca and I visited the abbey on Saturday when it was sunny and families were picnicking and playing football in the park surrounding it, but we got there too late to go inside. I couldn’t have left England knowing I didn’t visit the sights so close to Leeds. Isn’t it funny how we travel hundreds or thousands of miles to see new places, but don’t explore everything that is so near us? That is how I feel about the Grand Canyon and Mexico when people hear I’m from New Mexico.
This abbey is one of the oldest buildings I have seen, other than those in Rome. It is a monastery dating from before the 12th century, when Cistercian monks built it next to the River Aire before there was ever a Leeds. There are many abbey ruins in the British Isles, as there are many in France and Spain as well as other parts of post-Catholic Europe. (appropriate field trip for my Catholic Europe History module I just finished, don’t you think?) While these may be normal sights for the average European, I am all enamored with the historical grandeur of such a place as this. Perhaps it is because we don’t have thousand-year-old structures built by human hands in North America, to my knowledge. I suppose we do have cave drawings, and thousand year old redwoods…
As I walked around the grassy grounds of the abbey, I like to imagine the monks and lay brothers who lived, worked, and ate here so long ago. Not even a hundred years after the abbey was decommissioned by Henry VIII in the 1500’s, a market was set up and later the main road to Leeds was built straight through the church corridor. Passersby carved their initials into the stone columns. One meticulous piece of graffiti I found on the wall of the monks’ small library looked more calligraphic than criminal. There was spelled out a man’s initials and last name, complete with the date 1816. If all graffiti artists today were as articulate as this man’s, I might not mind it so much. The other thing that impressed me upon my inspection was the monks’ use and design of waterways. There are still some existing wash basins in the walls of chapel’s the adjacent rooms. They empty out the bottom, through a spout either onto the tile floor or down through the stone walls into the ground floor and into the monastery’s water channel. I could imagine they used this channel to transport waste outside the monastery as well. The designers’ ingenuity from such an early time amazes me, not to mention how they built such impressive structures out of hand-hewn stone blocks. And just where did they get the stone from? As amazed as I am at the remains of people who lived so long before us, I am happy to belong in the 21st century.
Since my camera is out of commission, I will have to rely on Google images of the abbey: