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Memories of The Abbey
Kirkstall Abbey was built in the 12th Century and generations of visitors
have enjoyed its picturesque ruins. For many local children, the Abbey was their playground.
Dr Patrick Bourne (Assistant Community Curator, Kirkstall Abbey and Abbey House Museum) explains
some of the history of the site and shares some of the memories of the local people he’s met.
In the heart of a bustling suburb of Leeds stands the iconic ruin of Kirkstall Abbey, which was founded in 1152. Yet while the monks that lived there may have left in 1539, it is still used by visitors from far and wide, and by the community which has grown up on its doorstep. Over the past two years we have collected memories from some of the local people who grew up around it, to get a sense of what the Abbey means to them.
We did sometimes
play in the Crooked Acres field opposite our houses.
For lots of local residents (past and present) the Abbey is synonymous with playing outside and recreation,
especially for those without gardens of their own. Dawn Levine was one such resident. Growing up in the area in the 1960s and 70s, Dawn recalls: “Kirkstall was the centre of our world…. My grandparents lived down the road, I went to school in Kirkstall, I went to church in Kirkstall, I went to the Brownies. My playground was Kirkstall Abbey and the museum, which I loved going to. It was just a lovely place to grow up.” Dawn reveals how vital the Abbey was for local residents and their wellbeing. Talking about a picture showing her being pushed in her pram outside the Abbey she says, “I grew up as a little baby at Beecroft Street, and it was a one up, one down, which were the only houses that were around Kirkstall at that time (unless you were affluent). It had an outside toilet, and we lived there for about four years. It’s just a traditional old Silver Cross pram; they would have taken me out in the pram to Kirkstall Abbey. For many, many years Kirkstall Abbey has been a big part of my childhood and of my family. A lovely place to grow up and I think everyone should remember what the Abbey and the museum give to us.”
Sue Chell was another local, who moved from Burley to Kirkstall when she was 8.
“We did sometimes play in the Crooked Acres field opposite our houses. No playground there then. Or we’d go down to the Abbey to play. We had been told never to go near the river, and I think we were very good and stayed away from it. We did love the Abbey and the museum - and the museum garden. My friend and I used to play in the museum streets, pretending we lived there. I don’t remember anyone taking any notice of us at all. I think I preferred the Abbey as it was then. More of it was railed off and you could never go in, but the cloisters and the church were not railed off at all and you could just wander in any time of day - until the perimeter gates were locked. It seemed more unspoilt somehow then. Those later excavations weren’t done then, that part was all grassed over apart from the ‘sticking up bit’. There was a rusty metal drinking fountain near where the Visitor Centre is now. As a small girl, taking a drink from it, I got rust all over the front of my new white organza best dress and ruined it. The field adjoining the museum was always known as the Cow Field. I think that I can remember seeing cows in it when we visited the Abbey when I was very small. Then we lived along the road in Burley - but maybe I am just imagining it.”
Bill Best worked as a security guard in the 1950s. Image © Leeds Museums & Galleries
Since the Abbey was gifted to the City of Leeds by Colonel J T North in 1888, hundreds of staff have helped welcome visitors over the years and contributed to its upkeep. One such individual was Mr William (Bill) Best, who worked as a security guard at the Abbey in the 1950s. He had previously worked as a wheelwright for the Leeds Industrial Co- Operative Society, until being forced to stop by heart problems. He then worked as a security guard at Kirkstall Abbey until his death in 1957, aged 54.
During the first lockdown in 2020, we were also lucky enough to learn of another ex-employee of the Abbey and its grounds. His granddaughter Ruth explained more:
“My grandad, Eric Woodhead, was known as Charlie, he was the groundsman at Kirkstall Abbey in the 1960s I think. It was something he was very proud of and something his family is still proud of today. It makes a connection for us to the Abbey, especially as we all grew up near there and visited it lots and lots of times.”
As Ruth’s cousin Joanne explained, their grandad had a role in another well-known part of the Abbey grounds at that time - the Geological Garden, which was opened in 1957:
“I believe he had something to do with the construction of the map of the United Kingdom by the regional stones [the Geological Garden], which used to be by the river across towards the bowling green. He used to call it Boot Hill. He was so proud of that and it was a sad day for us when it was removed. My family all live locally still; the tower can be seen from my living room and we all feel a connection to it. Probably because of my grandad.”
One of the more fascinating sets of photographs of the Abbey in our own collections relate to a series of digs that took part in the ruins in the latter half of the 20th century. The first official archaeological excavations at Kirkstall Abbey were carried out between 1950 and 1964. The dig concentrated on the south and east areas, including the refectory, kitchens, infirmary and a section of the cloister. The excavations revealed more buildings and yards at the south side of the Abbey, more of the drainage system, and a wide range of fascinating Medieval objects which are in the Leeds collection (and many are on display).
Barrie was born in 1941 and recalls the dig: “I read of the excavations in the Yorkshire Evening Post. The
excavations were about 3-foot-deep. The earth colour was a little lighter brown than I had expected. It was
very disappointing. I was expecting the remnants of ‘finds’ or even treasure, but saw nothing, a few small
stones, pebbles and clumps in the bottom. I visited again with a small balsa-wood aeroplane – and it fell into the trench! I sought the permission of the Custodian standing near (who looked and dressed just like Blakey from On the Buses) He said, "OK" and I jumped down into the trench, retrieved it, and got out”.
Dawn Levine’s mother pushes her pram around the Abbey in the 1960s. Image © Dawn Levine
Changes to the Abbey Visitor Centre
One part of the Abbey that has changed a lot over the years is the Abbey Visitor Centre. Did you know that in monastic times it was originally the reredorter – or in other words, the place where monks went to the toilet? Its use may have varied over the years, but it has long been a welcoming place for visitors.
One photo from our collections dating from 1955 shows what was probably one of the digging groups from the excavations. Easy to pick out at the head of the table is Dr David Owen, Museum Director. The group look to be taking a well-earned break from their hard work. Behind them you can glimpse the café counter, with its tantalising glimpse of cakes on offer.
In the 1950s the Abbey also held special exhibitions on a first-floor space above the café. These were often tied to a particular event, such as the 800th anniversary of the Abbey’s founding in 1952, or the Queen’s coronation the following year. Photographs in our collections show snapshots from The Monks of Kirkstall Abbey (1954), Monastic Life in the Middle Ages (1955) and Monastic Arts and Crafts (1956), including two gentlemen posing in monastic habits. A photograph from the 1980s, when the guesthouse was excavated by West Yorkshire County Archaeology Unit, clearly shows a staircase leading to the first floor.
Archaeologists (and helpers) at the Abbey excavations in the 1950s.
Image © Leeds Museums & Galleries
An eventful place
For a lot of people, the Abbey is a cherished venue for events. The ruins have played host to music, theatre
and get togethers for the whole community since at least as far back as the 1920s when Miracle Plays were
performed by Leeds Civic Playhouse in the Abbey grounds.
The Abbey has held a range of community events through its long history. The Kirkstall Festival is a huge annual event organised by the Kirkstall Village Community Association that has taken place every year since 1981 (apart from in 2020). Also fondly remembered are the summer Shakespeare plays. One local resident, Susan Jayne, has good memories of both:
“The Kirkstall Festival has punctuated most years and we almost always managed to not be away for them.
Bank Holiday Mondays are generally Abbey days because we can visit Abbey House and get lunch before grocery shopping! There is an old snap of me holding the programme for one of the Robert J. Williams Shakespeare Festival plays at the Abbey – I think they came for around 10 years from the 90s to the noughties. They were magical evenings.”
The Abbey also used to host the annual Classical Fantasia, a spectacular evening of music and fireworks which was much loved by all. 2011 was a bumper year for events: March saw a BBC Three production of ‘Frankenstein’s Wedding’ filmed at the Abbey in front of a live audience, and in September Leeds-born band
the Kaiser Chiefs memorably rocked the Abbey ruins. And of course it is still a vibrant venue for deli markets, outdoor cinema, carol singing and many other things.
In May, Abbey House Museum will be launching an exhibition called ‘Kirkstall Lives’. We are keen to hear from anyone who may have photos or objects relating to growing up, living, working or socialising in the Kirkstall area, and you can look out for more Kirkstall related articles in. Did you use the Abbey as a playground? Do you remember groundsman Charlie Woodhead? Were you around when archaeological excavations were taking place?
Perhaps you took part in them! Or were you part of a theatrical production at the abbey? Whatever your story, we’d love to hear from you.
Please contact Patrick.Bourne@leeds.gov.uk
(tel: 0113 3784079) if you would like to get in touch.
With thanks to Sue Chell, Maureen Howie, Susan Jayne, Dawn Levine, Ruth Warden and Joanne Woodhead for their contributions to this article.
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