Like so many other cities, Leeds is awash in grit. A muddy grey sky oppresses its busy people, and apart from the glitzy, well-maintained Victoria Quarter, the city lacks the abundance of charm and lovely scenery I’ve come to appreciate in Edinburgh.
All my English friends asked what I was even doing Leeds. I mean, really, of all places. Well for now, let’s call it a series of very fortunate events…
Simply put, I had a wonderful visit in a rather boring city. I wanted to love it – but with its puke green buildings and stale air, I resigned myself to appreciating this spontaneous trip for the great company (and delicious dinners) rather than the actual place.
Of course, Leeds isn’t without some attractions. The River Aire is worth a visit, as are the City Library and Art Gallery. It’s one of those places that has a couple really beautiful areas, and everything else is fairly dull. Actually, I completely nerded out over this little painting of Herblay, the tiny northern suburb of Paris where I taught English last year!
Apart from these minimal attractions though, Leeds leaves you with very little. To be fair, I’m sure actually living here would offer something different, and I’m sorry if I’ve offended any Leeds lovers out there. I like to believe that even the most lackluster places retain a certain charm hidden beneath the grit – but it may take a while to find.
Imagine my surprise when I came across one of the most rewarding historical sites I’ve ever explored: the Kirkstall Abbey ruins.
Once upon a time, in a castle-spotted land of chivalry and courtly love, King Henry VIII was born – a blight upon an already blighted age. As this petulant man and his ego grew and grew, and as his ex-wives suffered under his wrath in an oppressive patriarchal society, Henry VIII deemed himself worthy to rule everything ever. He seized control of the Monasteries, and abbeys across the land began to close their doors, so the soaring stone walls began to rot in their forgotten ruin; though they sought to reach Heaven, they once more became part of the earth.
Kirkstall Abbey, just outside of Leeds, suffered such a fate.
As grass and wildflowers spread in tangled weaves over the monks’ prior home, locals began using the center of the Abbey Church as a road into Leeds. Imagine what the poor monks would have though of the filth and grime passing through their sanctified walls. Only in the 19th century did people finally construct the A65 adjacent to the Abbey, leaving the ruins to rest in peaceful neglect. Now, people continue to use the A65 to visit the Abbey and surrounding gardens (tip: the bus now runs from the Leeds train station to a stop along this new road).
Personally, I’ve never been a particularly religious person, but the experience of exploring the ruins of Kirkstall Abbey will remain with me for a long, long time. Of course, in this ethereal moment, the most eloquent thoughts I could muster were, “Oh my god. Oh my god, oh my god, this is so cool. Wow.”
Yep. This is why I write.
Here, in the most complete ruined Abbey throughout all of England, I stood alone, atop the mud and the grass encroaching on high crumbling stone walls. Crows and bats have taken over the deceased monks’ residence. Where once rhythms and chants reverberated through the halls, now a lonely haunted wind, pierced by the crow’s call, can be heard. Only the winds and the ghosts, the birds and the echoes of a forgotten time, accompanied me.
Almost the entirety of the Abbey walls remain in tact, as do some of the stairwells and one of the fireplaces. The majority of the layout is rooted in the ground as well, and through screens of time, an abbot laying himself to rest swims before your eyes, as do the monks studying scripture, or keeling upon stone, their aching knees subject to their holy vows.
The Chapter House burnt down once, and in the repairs, the monks supported the new walls with coffins. Whether they were empty or occupied, we don’t know.
Historical sites coat the English landscape. In many ways, Kirkstall Abbey is no different, and I’m sure you could have a wonderful time marveling at the ancient architecture of Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s Cathedral. But here, in these kinds of empty places, the collision between the past and the present is magnified, and the lives of thousands before you comes to life. In a sense, I felt entirely irrelevant – just another passing breath standing among those long gone. Yet it was a distinctly important moment.
I’ve always found that historical ruins prey on our collective fear of death. The physical manifestation of time’s passing, and the need for tangible evidence of our effects on this world, deeply resonate within the shadowy halls of a castle ruin, or deserted abbeys, sunlit pyramids, or the ancient mosques of the Marrakech Medina. The history matters in a detached, impersonal way, as much as it affects our deeply personal hopes that one day, when life continues, someone somewhere will remember you – if not by name, then by lifestyle, or time period, or place – that someone will wander in your washed up footsteps, and simply understand.
Although cities like London and Liverpool are far more entertaining than Leeds, my little trip far exceeded my expectations, and I hope that you too are whisked away to this unsuspecting city; and that at some point, you have the opportunity to wander through time, alone, in the Kirkstall Abbey ruins.