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.
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.
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).
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.
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 https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/sawley-abbey/history/
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