Furness Abbey

(See also Barrow-In-Furness and Dalton-in-Furness)

Furness Abbey by Barbara Ballard

Sandwiched between Barrow and Dalton are the magnificent and substantial red sandstone remains of Furness Abbey set in the beautiful Vale of Nightshade, a narrow wooded valley. These ruins moved Wordsworth in ‘The Prelude’ to emote:

“...a mouldering Pile, with fractured arch,
belfry, and images, and living trees,
A holy scene!”

Furness Abbey by Barbara BallardThe abbey was founded in 1123 by Stephen, who later became King of England. First belonging to the Order of Savigny, Furness Abbey then became a Cistercian centre when the two orders were merged into one c1150. Robert the Bruce raided the abbey in 1322, promising not to plunder or burn it, upon accepting a ransom from the abbot, John Cockerham.

The abbey's fortunes-based on agricultural and mining interests-declined over the years as famine, plague and war took their toll. Still, at the time of its dissolution in 1537,Furness Abbey courtesy of Barbara Ballardit was the second richest Cistercian monastery in England. Its prestige and wealth bought influence for more than 400 years.

In April 1537 the last abbot, Roger Pyle, not wanting to face trial for treason for his part in the Pilgrimage of Grace (a protest against the suppression of the monasteries), gave the abbey and its possessions to Henry VIII. Thus began the plundering of the lead, the breaking of the window tracery, and the dismantling of the buildings.

Furness Abbey knights by Tony RichardThe extensive ruins-the original abbey was added to from the 12th to 16th centuries-reflect the powerful presence of the abbey's wealth. A tour begins at the modern visitor centre and museum, which houses a detailed exhibition on the history of this splendid abbey. There is much here to capture the visitor's interest. Look for the ‘green man’ carving which was once in the frater, the medieval cresset lamp and the grotesque human head once on a cornice. There are numerous engravings of effigies from the church nave and pieces of architecture.

From the Visitor Centre, a large green expanse approaching the ruins once held buildings, including a guest hall and houses, kitchens and stables.

Furness Abbey by Barbara BallardThe cruciform shaped church-first built in the Romanesque style and later rebuilt in the Early Gothic-is missing most of the nave and central tower, but some of the walls still stand. The Perpendicular western tower was built in the late 15th century. Though only 60 feet remain of its original 160 foot height, it is still a striking sight.

Flanking the high altar are impressive sedilia covered with seven vaulted, Furness Abbey by Barbara Ballardtabernacled canopies. These seats served the priest and his assistants when celebrating mass. In the south transept on the eastern side, just above the arches, is a band of decorative Romanesque mouldings used as facing stones. In the north transept are three surviving Gothic arches supported by columns. These defined three chapels whose ruined altar platforms are still visible.

The large east range of the cloister sports five elaborate moulded, round-headed 13th century arches and was the principal living quarters of the choir monks. To the east is the latrine block, built over a stream. A west range housed a kitchen, refectory, and dormitory. The Furness Abbey by Barbara Ballardchapter house boasted large windows, a ribbed vault, and marble detailing.

Surrounded by trees in a secluded valley, Furness Abbey's magnificent ruins are a ‘not-to-be-missed’ Cumbrian attraction.

Furness Abbey is located one mile north of Barrow-in-Furness, on a minor road off the A590.
Parking on site.
Under the care of English Heritage.
Tel. 01229 823420.
Open: April-end Sep, Thu-Mon, 10am-5pm; Oct-end March, weekends, 10am- 4pm; closed 24-26 Dec and 1 Jan.

Note: Please check opening times and dates before visiting in case of changes.

Photos by Barbara Ballard and courtesy of Tony Richard

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