architecture, eyecatcher, Folly, Lancashire, landscape

The Arches, Sawley, Lancashire

Sawley (or Salley) Abbey was established by monks from Newminster Abbey in Northumberland at the beginning of the 12th century. It stood not far from the river Ribble in what was the West Riding of Yorkshire until the 20th century county boundary changes gave it to Lancashire. Little of the abbey remains today, but at the entrance to an adjoining field there is a curious gateway with a fascinating history.

Samuel Buck’s 1721 South View of Sawley Abbey. Courtesy of the British Library, Cartographic Items Maps K.Top.45.70. Public domain.

Much of the village of Sawley, is built from stone plundered from the abbey ruins after it was abandoned in the 16th century. By the second half of the 18th century nothing remained ‘but a few old walls overgrown with Ivy’. Not far from the abbey stood what the historian Thomas Dunham Whittaker described in 1805 as a ‘gateway, a mean building’. Whittaker noted that the walls were dotted with carved masonry from the abbey, including a ‘richly ornamented tabernacle’ which contained a statue of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus.

This is the building which was recorded by William Richardson and illustrated in his The Monastic Ruins of Yorkshire, published in 1843, shortly before major ‘improvements’ were to begin at the abbey.

The gateway as illustrated in William Richardson’s ‘The Monastic Ruins of Yorkshire’, 1843.

At the time this view was published the abbey was owned by Earl de Grey, gentleman archaeologist and antiquarian. In the 1840s he began excavations at Sawley Abbey, having already worked on Fountains Abbey which just happened to stand in his back garden at Studley, near Ripon in Yorkshire. When work began the abbey site was described as a ‘great rubbish heap’, and in the fashion of the time Lord de Grey tidied up the site to create a pristine and aesthetically pleasing (if not necessarily historically accurate) ruin.

Lord de Grey pulled down the ‘old dilapidation’ known as the gateway and in its place erected two neat arches incorporating the carved fragments of masonry from the abbey. Although some believed that this was an ancient structure restored, others were more sceptical, and an 1882 guidebook called it a ‘modern construction’ built ‘without taste or judgment.’ The most distinguished fragment was the niche containing the statue of the headless Virgin and Child, carefully moved from the older building, and there were also shields bearing arms and other decorative enrichments (some of which were later criticised for being placed upside-down).

Card postmarked 1905, courtesy of a private collection. By this date traffic passed in two lanes both through and alongside the arch.

A century later, on Saturday 29 December 1951, a brewery wagon hit one of the arches and ‘a section of one of Ribblesdale’s most picturesque landmarks crashed in ruins’. The damaged arch was the one housing the statue, but this was already lost, having apparently ‘fallen to the ground’ and mysteriously disappeared in 1934.

Locals were keen to see the arch re-erected within the abbey grounds, and the Ministry of Works was approached for help, but the costs were prohibitive, and there was a further complication as no-one seemed to know exactly who owned the structures. A Mr Ingham declared he was going to remove the damaged arch to Bamber Bridge (sadly the newspapers provide no clue as to what he wanted to do with it there), but Bowland Council sternly declared he had ‘no authority’ to touch the ruin.

Nothing happened until the end of the 1950s, when the council became concerned that the arches, one standing and one in ruins, were a danger to public and road safety. Again there were discussions about pulling them down, and the Ministry of Works declared they had no objection to this, although the villagers remained keen to see the arches saved. In July 1960 there was a further accident when a van struck the surviving arch and a youth was later charged with driving without due care and attention. The arches were demolished in the autumn of that year.

Detail of the arch today, showing the use of the decorative fragments, with Sawley Abbey in the background.

But very happily that wasn’t the end of the story. After the Ministry of Works had collected the most important fragments of masonry, George Braithwaite, farmer and heritage hero, collected the residue and had the present arch built as a grand gateway to one of his fields.

Sawley Abbey is in the care of English Heritage and you can read more here

The arch and abbey ruins with a backdrop of Pendle hill.

Thanks for reading. Your thoughts are always welcome, so please scroll down to the comments box at the foot of the page to get in touch.


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9 thoughts on “The Arches, Sawley, Lancashire”

  1. Gwyn Headley says:

    This didn’t ring any bells, so I checked it out in my ‘Follies of Lancashire’ ebook. There it is, Sawley, clearly marked on the map, and listed in the picture credits as ‘Sawley Eyecatcher Arch’, but as for the text — nothing, nada, zilch. A magical mystery, The Missing Folly. Well done for nailing it!

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Gwyn. I would think the issue arose because of its proximity to the Yorkshire border – there’s also confusion because there is a second Sawley in North Yorkshire, very close to Fountains Abbey. It’s so pleasing to know that a local man rebuilt (again) the arch, although I suspect a good look in local rock gardens would uncover some interesting fragments.

  2. James Selway says:

    A really fascinating story, thanks for your hard work documenting these!

    1. Editor says:

      Good morning James. Thank you for taking the time to comment. I’m pleased you enjoyed the post – it’s good to have a happy ending!

  3. Gand says:

    No doubt the arches were Sawley missed until at least 1 was revived happily.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Gand. I knew I could reply on you for an arch comment.

      1. Ivan Burrows says:

        Even if it a bit under the eves.

  4. Valerie Greaves says:

    We used to visit when I was growing up in Darwen in the 1960s as my dad was very keen on history and ruins but I didn’t know the arch was a reconstruction.

    1. Editor says:

      Good evening Valerie. If your father visited Sawley Abbey when he was younger he would have seen the two arches over the road. The arch, the abbey and the backdrop of Pendle Hill make a lovely ensemble.

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