Furness Abbey

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Furness Abbey, or what remains of it, is a Cistercian Abbey just outside Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria. It was built by a community of monks in the 12th century and dissolved by Thomas Cromwell about 400 years later. Like other religious buildings which were destroyed during Henry VIII’s ‘Dissolution’, parts of it were left intact as a reminder of the power of the king.

I have this fascination with ancient English buildings, especially ruins. There is something about them; an atmosphere; some connection with the past. I love to visit them and to soak up my surroundings.

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Whalley Abbey in east Lancashire is one of my very favourite places, so I had high expectations of Furness, which had been described to me as being even more splendid.

I discovered a local bus service would take me from the train station at Dalton-in-Furness and drop me off half a mile from the entrance to the Abbey. The stop for this bus was, according to the Abbey website,‘outside the station’; that wasn’t true, but it was only a short walk away outside the tiniest town hall I’ve ever seen, in which resided the tourist information centre. The two staff members seemed a little surprised to meet an actual tourist and although helpful, were not particularly knowledgeable. One of them went online and found me the numbers of three local taxi firms. We’ll come back to that later.

After leaving the bus I enjoyed the short walk (it didn’t even seem like half a mile) along a peaceful lane to the Abbey entrance. As I strolled along I could smell the wild garlic mixed in with the roadside vegetation. Some farm animals grazed and lazed in a small field.

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As Furness Abbey is owned by the English Heritage this means the admission price is higher than at similar sites not owned by them, and that their people are on hand to give information and sell you merchandise – whether you want these things or not. The entrance was inside a modern brick and glass annexe. I paid my admission fee and was invited to buy an information booklet. I declined, but was then made to wait whilst the young man flicked through the aforementioned booklet, summarising its main points. The poor soul had clearly been instructed to go through this script with each visitor and dared not deviate from it. Still within the entrance area was an interesting display and collection of artefacts, archaeological finds and photographs illustrating the Abbey’s history.

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Furness Abbey ruins were impressive. I spent some time sitting in the blazing heat just contemplating how magnificent the structure must once have been. The experience was marred slightly for me by quite high levels of noise coming from outside the Abbey site; some adjacent farm land was being used by picnicking families and what looked like a children’s summer camp,  and two motorcyclists performed seemingly endless circuits of a surrounding road. I guess ancient remains must defer to the here and now. Being in a more isolated location, Whalley Abbey in Lancashire is much more serene which is why it is also a popular retreat.

Nevertheless, Furness Abbey held its own and had some interesting little features such as troughs of wild herbs planted amongst the ruined stone walls.

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Due to some structural instability, investigations and reparation work were being carried out and part of the main church building was surrounded by scaffold. This will be in place until 2016. I hope to go back and enter the ancient church, scaffold free.

When I’d looked around and spent some quiet time I decided to use the taxi numbers I’d been given to get back to the station. This turned out to be a waste of time: the first one-man enterprise was in Manchester; the second wouldn’t be free for two hours and the third didn’t even answer. This was to be my first encounter with unreliable single driver taxi firms in Cumbria, though not my last. The bus arrived just at the right time for me to head home whilst reflecting on my day.

 

Conishead Priory, Cumbria: a magical place

Conishead Priory, home of the Majushri Kadampa Buddhist Temple and learning and meditation centre, has experienced several incarnations in its own right. On a hot day in August in a secluded corner of the temple’s wild flower garden, it is easy to experience a sense of nirvana.

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Built on the original site of a 12th century Augustinian priory, the grade 2 listed Victorian gothic house was for hundreds of years home to many generations of Cumbrian aristocracy. It has also been a hydro-hotel, described as the ‘paradise of Furness’, a convalescent home for miners and was used as a hospital in World War II.

The Priory is about 2 miles from Ulverston Station. On their website, Conishead Priory recommends travelling there by taxi and even provides an ample list of local taxi numbers. Based on prior (no pun intended!) experience of poor taxi services in parts of Cumbria l had looked up a few more for good measure. Onthe fourth attempt I got through to a chap who sounded quite put-out that I had disturbed him, but said he would be with me in 10 minutes and was good to his word, though surly with it.

I was surprised at first that the Priory house was not older; I had misunderstood the blurb and had thought it was 12th century, but that was the when the original Augustinian building was erected. The existing house is early Victorian. Tours are available but I didn’t partake.

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A short walk across the car park leads straight into the gardens and outdoor dining area. The café is situated inside the conservatory. Monks and visitors alike sit and chat, appreciating the vibrancy of the garden and enjoying food together. The café offers a selection of vegetarian sandwiches, snacks, homemade soups, cream teas and cold drinks and ice creams.

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The gardens are beautiful in a very understated and natural way, not artistic or flamboyant, but tranquil and vibrant without trying too hard. I particularly enjoyed walking in the wildflower garden (as wildflowers are my favourites) and the many and varied pots on the terrace.

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The pleasant stroll to the beach is by way of a path which is a bit steep at the start and probably not suitable wheelchairs or prams. Follow the signs through the wood to the pebble beach; although it’s an inlet, you can see out to open sea.

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In one sense, the temple seemed so strangely incongruous in that English-country-house setting, yet it is perfectly at ease there. It wasn’t as large as I had expected and not as ornate. It’s modern and airy and has some religious art and beautiful displays. On entering, I was welcomed and given the choice of removing my shoes or covering them with the disposable covers provided. Everybody is made welcome, Buddhist or non-Buddhist alike.

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After more peace and quiet time spent looking out over the lawns behind the temple, I decided to call a taxi in plenty time to get back to Ulverston Station. After four unsuccessful attempts I managed to book a taxi which arrived about 20 minutes later.

Conishead is well worth a visit and I would defy anybody to not find something there that appeals to them, be it the grand house, the beach, the temple or the wonderful gardens.

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