Abbeys, Priories and Cathedrals

 

During the 12th and 13th centuries, the Christian church was the main focus of community life in Britain. Abbeys and priories housed a diverse range of religious orders from Benedictines who committed themselves to learning, poverty and labour, to the Carthusians who lived in silent isolation.

When Henry VIII ordered the 'dissolution of the monasteries' in 1536, many religious houses were closed and much of their wealth was taken by the crown. Some buildings were sold to wealthy landowners, others were required for Henry VIII's new 'Church of England' and cathedrals grew in their place, but lacking the support and funds that they needed to thrive, most of the abbeys and priories fell into disrepair.

Whether you wish to pause for lunch in quiet contemplation, admire exquisite architecture or learn more about the various religious orders; the ruins, chapels, churches, cathedrals and abbeys offer a fascinating insight into Britain's religious heritage. To experience the spirituality and strife, grandeur and austerity of Britain's religious buildings, here are the walks that we recommend.

Cleveland Way

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The Cleveland Way trail has barely left Helmsley when it arrives at Rievaulx Abbey. Set in wonderfully serene countryside on the edge of the North York Moors, Rievaulx was once one of England's wealthiest monasteries. The grand ruins make for an impressive rest stop and there is also a pretty sensory garden, tea room and an indoor exhibition revealing how the monks worked and lived at the abbey.

Further along the Cleveland Way are the ruins of Mount Grace Priory, England's best preserved Carthusian house. The individual cells once housed monks who lived silently in service of God, but today the Priory is inhabited by a famous colony of stoats and is a haven for wildlife.

At Guisborough Priory, there are the ruins of an Augustinian priory founded in the 14th century, but by far the most atmospheric abbey can be found at the end of the Cleveland Way. Overlooking the North Sea above Whitby, Whitby Abbey is a ruined Benedictine abbey. 199 steps lead up to the desolate ruins that are said to have inspired Bram Stoker's gothic novel, Dracula - a final climb to conclude your walk along the Cleveland Way.

 

The Northumberland Coastal Path, St Cuthbert's Way and St Oswald's Way

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Lindisfarne Priory was an important centre of early Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England. The site was founded by St Aidan in AD635, but St Cuthbert became Prior of Lindisfarne and the most celebrated of the priory's inhabitants.

With its remote setting off the coast of Northumberland, accessible only via a causeway that floods at high tide, Lindisfarne Priory stands against a backdrop of coastal views stretching as far as the eye can see. Seals haul out on nearby rocks and seabirds enjoy the tranquil surroundings. Lindisfarne is a haven for animals, pilgrims, history lovers and most importantly, for walkers. What's more, it is visited by not one, but three of our trails: the Northumberland Coastal Path, St Cuthbert's Way and St Oswald's Way.

 

North Downs Way via Canterbury

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The Canterbury World Heritage Site is home to a host of marvellous places. Among these are Canterbury Cathedral and the often overlooked St Augustine's Abbey. Built in AD597 by St Augustine as a burial place for the Anglo-Saxon kings of Kent, St Augustine's Abbey is one of Britain's oldest monastic sites. Over the years it has been used as a school, library, a palace frequented by Henry VIII, a brewery and a pub, but today it is enjoyed as part of a wider exploration of Canterbury and its fascinating sites.

Of course, Canterbury is dominated by its cathedral, which is one of the oldest, most famous buildings in England and the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Thousands of pilgrims visit the cathedral every year, flocking to the shrine of Thomas Becket, who was murdered there in 1170. Walkers of the North Downs Way via Canterbury are sure to be astounded by the architecture of this impressive building.

 

Borders Abbeys Way

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During the 12th century, David I (nicknamed 'The Saint') ruled Scotland. He was a religious reformer and oversaw the building of many abbeys and monasteries including Melrose, Kelso, Jedburgh and Dryburgh and it is these buildings that inspired the route of the Borders Abbeys Way. Though now ruined, it is apparent that the Augustinian abbey of Jedburgh was once a spectacular building. The Romanesque architecture probably once showed the English how powerful a figure David I was in the Scottish Borders.

Further along the trail, Melrose Abbey makes for a beguiling visit. The Cistercian monastery is believed to be the resting place of Robert Bruce's heart and humorous gargoyles include a pig playing the bagpipes. In contrast, Dryburgh Abbey is a more subdued example of abbey. Its architectural splendour never competed with the area's other monasteries, but being located in a peaceful spot on the banks of the River Tweed, Dryburgh is a place for quiet reflection.

Finally, the Borders Abbeys Way visits Kelso Abbey, once one of the largest and wealthiest of Scotland's monasteries. The Romanesque architecture rivals some of the finest in Britain and concludes the walk's visits to abbeys perfectly.

 

Wicklow Way

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In the 6th century, a hermit monk called St Kevin founded a monastery at Glendalough. Despite abandonment and raids by Vikings, the settlement became one of Ireland's most important religious sites until it was destroyed in 1398. Today, many of the stone buildings remain and the site boasts seven churches, Priest's House, a cave, a round tower rising to 30 metres, a gateway, old ruined cathedral and ancient crosses.

The site is renowned for its beauty. Indeed, Glendalough means 'valley of two lakes' and as the Wicklow Way arrives across the footbridge and passes St Kevin's Church, it is easy to see why St Kevin chose to spend his life here in quiet contemplation, surrounded only by nature and splendid countryside.

 

Pembrokeshire Coast Path

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St David's is the smallest city in Britain, yet it has a lot to offer. The Cathedral that has dominated the city since the 12th century was built on the site of a monastery that was founded by St David himself in the 6th century. Inside, it boasts breath-taking carvings in stone and wood, as well as effigies of bishops from centuries gone by and the shrine of Wales' patron saint. Nestled on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path and home to a host of restaurants, cafes and charming shops, the city of St David's is one of our favourite locations and the cathedral is sure to be a memorable stop on your walk.

 

Other Sites of Interest:

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Castle acre priory on the Norfolk Coast Path - One of the largest and best preserved monastic sites in England with recreated herb gardens, a beautiful 12th century church and prior's lodging with traces of ancient paintings.

Jervaulx abbey on the Six Dales Trail - Was once deemed the most dangerous place in the UK, but after loving restoration by the Burdon family, Jervaulx Abbey is once again a fine example of the peace and tranquillity found at these grand monastic sites. The abbey has a tea room and visitor centre.

Fountains Abbey near Ripley on the Nidderdale Way - Set in over 800 acres of glorious North Yorkshire countryside, Fountains Abbey was once one of the largest and richest Cistercian abbeys in Britain and its ruins are now some of the most significant in Europe. Alone, the abbey offers enough to keep you occupied for hours, but also on site, and part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, are the Studley Royal Water Gardens and medieval deer park, where carefully tendered ponds, fountains and gardens add to this majestic setting. The Nidderdale Way does not directly pass through Fountains Abbey, but by taking an extra night in Ripley, you can explore to your heart's content.

Wells Cathedral on the Mendip Way - Wells Cathedral is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful in the country. Its gothic architecture is striking and many of the original buildings still remain, including the Vicar's Clost, Chapter House and Cloisters. The interior of the cathedral is equally grand, with impressive Scissor Arches and one of the oldest clocks in the world.

Winchester cathedral on the South Downs Way - Winchester Cathedral is one of the largest cathedrals in England. Over 15 centuries, the cathedral has welcomed many famous people including Jane Austen, who was buried there, St Swithun, who was Bishop for 10 years and many famous kings and queens, who were buried, married or held their coronation under the incredible vaulted ceiling of Winchester. The Cathedral is also home to a number of rare and fascinating treasures, including The Winchester Bible, the largest and best preserved example of a 12th century English bible.