The Venerable Mark Ireland, Archdeacon of Blackburn and chair of the Whalley Abbey Steering Group, looks at an exciting time for the abbey

Whalley Abbey is set to reopen from Easter (pandemic restrictions permitting of course) as a Centre for Christian Discipleship and Prayer. The Church of England in Lancashire announced the plans recently. There will also be a new religious community on site – the first for many centuries.

While all this activity may sound innovative, it is very much in keeping with the site’s medieval roots as a Cistercian monastery.

In the Middle Ages, 30 choir monks prayed in the Abbey church seven times a day and devoted themselves to study, whilst a larger number of lay brothers did the chores and looked after the farm and the estate.

After the Black Death decimated the rural labour force in England many lay brothers left the abbey because they could get better a living on local farms.

Lay brothers dormitory, Whalley Abbey

Lay brothers' dormitory, Whalley Abbey

The medieval lay brothers’ dormitory is in the care of the adjoining Roman Catholic parish, which has recently begun extensive restoration work. As the only medieval lay brothers’ dormitory still standing in Britain this is one of the site’s very special features.

After the abbey was dissolved the dormitory was sold off with the farm and was used to house cattle, before being acquired eventually by the RC Church.

The history of Whalley Abbey began in 1283, when a group of monks were given permission to move from a poor, marshy site at Stanlaw, near Ellesmere Port. Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, granted them land to build a new monastery at Whalley.

However work on starting to build the new abbey was delayed for 50 years because monks at nearby Sawley didn’t want another monastery only a few miles away, and the Rector of Whalley Parish Church also resisted.

Whalley was already an ancient Christian site, with records of worship going back to the early seventh century.

The parish church, adjacent to the abbey, is a beautiful example of early English architecture, and in the grounds are three ancient preaching crosses, which have stood there since before the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

The Abbey church took 50 years to build and was the same size as Ripon Cathedral. The lay brothers’ dormitory and other monastic buildings took another 150 years to complete.

A particular feature of the abbey ruins, currently hidden from view, is the original tiled floor of the chapter house where the monks met each morning to listen to a chapter of the ‘Rule of St Benedict’ and be given their daily tasks.

The first monks lived a simple and austere life as part of the Cistercian order, founded by Bernard of Clairvaux. There was no heating in the church or the dormitories, minimal washing, and a simple diet of mostly vegetables.

However as time went on Whalley Abbey, like so many medieval monasteries, became wealthy from its farms. The life of the monks became more comfortable and their spiritual fervour weakened.

Sadly, the wealth in which they had begun to trust became the means of their undoing, as King Henry VIII, always short of money, saw the monasteries as easy pickings and ordered their dissolution.

When the retreat house at Whalley Abbey reopens in April, visitors will have a very different experience from the medieval monks, but in four key respects the Abbey’s Cistercian tradition will continue; reimagined for today.

ON SONG: The choir pits, Whalley Abbey

ON SONG: The choir pits, Whalley Abbey

First, it will be a place of prayer. One of the unique features of the ruins of the abbey church are the choir pits, over which stood the wooden choir stalls, some of which are preserved in Whalley Parish Church. The choir stalls have beautifully carved misericords, or mercy seats, on which the monks could perch when they sang the daily offices.

The Cistercian order had a particular focus on simplicity and prayer, and St Bernard taught that we should love God for his own sake rather than for any reward. Meanwhile, the chapel in the nearby Retreat House is being refurbished and will once again be the centre of the Abbey’s life.

Second, it will be a place of study. Visitors to the abbey ruins are fascinated by the alcoves in the cloister which were not fireplaces but cupboards for books and parchments. Here the monks would have copied out the Scriptures by hand and studied other books to deepen their faith. When the Abbey reopens it will have an enlarged library of theological books for personal study, retreat and courses in discipleship.

FACILITIES: Abbot’s kitchen, Whalley Abbey and (right) the infirmary chapel dedicated to Peter of Chester

FACILITIES: Abbot’s kitchen, Whalley Abbey and (right) the infirmary chapel dedicated to Peter of Chester

Third, it will be a place of hospitality. The old Abbot’s Kitchen in the ruins features three large fireplaces where meat and fish were cooked and bread was baked for visitors. The Rule of St Benedict specifies that wayfarers and visitors to a monastery were to be entertained by the Abbot and treated as if they were Christ himself. The abbot had a separate kitchen, so that wayfarers could be offered richer food than the monks ate. The new catering team will be keen to maintain this tradition of excellent hospitality.

Infirmary chapel dedicated to Peter of Chester at Whalley Abbey

Infirmary chapel dedicated to Peter of Chester at Whalley Abbey

Fourth, it will be a place of healing. The gatehouse to the abbey was the place where the sick were brought for healing and food and dole given to the poor. The medieval abbey had an infirmary with 24 beds and the infirmary chapel, dedicated to Peter of Chester, can still be seen, attached to the east wing of the retreat house.

We believe as we recover from the pandemic the need for healing will be greater than ever and that many will want to come and visit this ancient place to find healing of body, mind and spirit.

If you want to know more, and to make booking enquiries, email Revd Adam Thomas, Abbey Director, on or visit