Bolton Abbey Priory

By way of a light break between the last post, arguably intended to start an argument, and the likely next one, intended to record a conference, here’s some pictures. At the end of April 2017, with a relative visiting, m’partner and I went to do something we’d been meaning to do for a while, which was visit Bolton Abbey. This is well worth doing, but arguably the abbey’s not the main thing to go for, as it’s set in acres of gorgeous landscape and parkland that one could spend a whole day exploring…

Waterfall in the Bolton Abbey Grounds

The so-called Valley of Desolation in the Bolton Abbey grounds

This was also the first place that I encountered a touristic phenomenon I’ve since seen elsewhere, which I suppose I call the ‘money tree’.

Money tree in Bolton Abbey grounds

It’s not easy to see what’s going on there from a picture that size, I admit, and I might not have realised had we not encountered less egregious examples already on the walk, but what has happened here is that into this fallen tree, at pretty much every crack and opportunity, people have hammered coins, edge-on, into the wood.

Coins hammered into a tree at Bolton Abbey


Take a numismatist near such a thing and of course they will analyse it. The coinage was mostly recent; we saw nothing that couldn’t have been put there inside the last twenty years, but it did go back at least before the new UK designs of 2008, of which not many were present, suggesting that this was largely complete before then. Only a very few foreign coins were identifiable. But why do people do it? Once lots of people have, I understand the urge to participate, but what made it seem like a good idea for the first few? Given the probably-thousands of coins here there must have been a hundred quid or more thus demonetised. As with coins thrown down wells in heritage sites, often despite signs asking people please not to, I wonder why this seemed like a better idea than putting the same bits of small change into a collection box at the site. But there were four or five of these deposition sites. The next time someone asks me why on earth ancient German warriors would throw a load of weaponry into a swamp, I’m going to show them one of these photos and ask what they think was going on here…

Approach to Bolton Abbey Priory ruins

Approach to the Priory ruins from the south-east

Anyway, that’s not what I came to tell you about. The centre of the parkland is this, a twelfth- and thirteenth-century Augustinian priory that suffered quite badly at the Dissolution of the Monasteries, albeit better than some. The east end still stands in some sense…

East End of Bolton Abbey Priory seen from the south

The east end from the south

Inside the east end of Bolton Abbey Priory

Inside the east end

But rather a lot fell down and has been more, well, managed, than restored.

Fallen stonework at Bolton Abbey Priory

Fallen stonework, collected

It’s easy enough to see where this has come from when you compare what’s left in the upper courses and windows of the east end.

Surviving upper courses and window tracery in the east end at Bolton Abbey Priory

Surviving upper courses and window tracery in the east end

To the south, however, where the signage makes it helpfully clear (as does their website) that there was once the full panoply of monastic buildings, including a rather fancy chapter-house and hostel, now, just foundation courses that are quite hard to puzzle out.

Two visitors pondering the remains at Bolton Abbey Priory

Two visitors pondering the signage amid the foundations of the chapter house

Now, to the west, things are more fortunate. The church was, apparently, already divided by 1520; the canons worshipped in the east end and the west end was already serving as a normal church for the local population. And come 1520 it was left up to continue doing so, although it was taken off the incumbent and reclassified as a parish church a few years later. Nonetheless, it survives when everything east of it was demolished or left to fall down.

West end of Bolton Abbey Priory church

Outside the west end

As a result of this, it presents a weirdly foreshortened nave, albeit still pretty grand.

Nave of Bolton Abbey Priory Church

Inside the nave of the west end

But the weirdest thing for this medievalist, weirder even than the money trees, is the portal. Look at this…

East arch of the West Tower at Bolton Abbey Priory

This portal… seems to have a church behind it

The inner archway, as you can see, is tremendous, but there’s this entirely complete church front behind it. The two don’t even touch.

Space between the west front and West Tower at Bolton Abbey Priory

Space between the west wall of the west end of Bolton Abbey Priory and the east arch of the West Tower

It turns out that there is a simple explanation (kind of). The last prior fancied that he would build himself a new tower for the west end. The plan was that it would be built on its own foundations, and then when it was complete they would demolish the old west wall of the nave and join the two up. It was supposed to be about three times the height it now is, but this is as far as they had got by 1539, and so the demolition never happened and the parts were never mated. The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley, I guess! But, if you are at a loose end, a plan to go and see this place would be well advised: they are now doing bookings again, and it’s pretty easy to stay distant from people. I may have been more impressed by the landscape than by the church, but take that as a commendation of the landscape, for as you can see, the church is fairly impressive too!

6 responses to “Bolton Abbey Priory

  1. “The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley” Urgh!

    It’s not “plans” it’s “schemes”.

    Try saying it: in the correct version the sibilants sing. The “m”s are playful too.

    The wrong version just plonks along. He had an ear for music, Mr Burns.

    • I apologise both to you and my Scottish ancestors! I have somehow internalised that line as spoken in Eddie Izzard’s skit about it, which I should have guessed might not be quite true to the letter.

  2. On a more serious note:

    (i) Why is a Viking warrior hiding in the first photo?

    (ii) Are money trees more likely to be coniferous or deciduous?

    • I think the ones we saw were all Scots pine, just to stay on some kind of thread, but anything with the right kind of bark would do, I guess. As for the Viking, I am dumbfounded and now see how people manage to find UFOs and.or Jesus in photos. I can assure you he was not there in person! I did, last weekend, however, discover a Rapanui moai on a North Yorkshire crag, so who knows what’s possible?

  3. Allan McKinley

    Thanks. Now whenever I read about a dispersed hoard I’m going to think “money tree”! Probably a good teaching tool for showing that a hoard need not all be deposited at once by one person though.

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