There are few things as awe-inspiring as old ruins – from abbeys to castles, country homes and mills, there are loads to discover across God’s Own Country.
Yorkshire is one of the most historic counties in the UK and that means you can find relics of the past all over the region. Some are in fine condition, and still used to this day, but there are plenty more that have been left to ruin – and while they may have lost their polish, they’re still a beautiful sight to behold.
Deep within the grounds of the famous Harewood House, there’s another important old building – Harewood Castle is a 12th-century house and fortress, and although it’s a shell of what it once was, it’s still a wonderful find.
It had been a residence for a number of important families for over 500 years up until the 1630s and it was considered such a picturesque landmark that it was even the subject of several paintings by J.M.W. Turner. Until the past decade, it was in a perilous state, but a £1 million renovation has protected it for future generations – this is a Yorkshire ruin you need to see to really appreciate.
Just a few miles outside of Ripon, Fountains Abbey is a Cistercian abbey that has been remarkably well preserved. Built in 1132, it was a working abbey for over 400 years, until the Dissolution of the Monasteries came along and shut it down.
What’s left is quite remarkable – so much so that it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The precinct covers around 70 acres, making it one of the biggest sites in the country and the nave offers an incredible view as the abbey towers over you. Whether you’re looking at it from afar, or deep within, Fountains Abbey will make your jaw drop.
Built during the reign of William the Conqueror, Sandal Castle has played a significant role in Yorkshire’s history. It was the scene of important battles on the sandstone ridge known as Oaks Top, and it’s an extraordinary setting overlooking Wakefield.
The remains of the moat and barbican are impressive and give you an insight into its rich past. It was owned by the influential Warrenne family before it became a key location in the English Civil War and as part of The Battle of Wakefield during the Wars of the Roses – after all the bloodshed, the castle was left to ruin, but Shakespeare deemed it important enough to include in Henry VI, Part III, so go and feast your eyes.
Kirkstall Abbey is the most iconic ruin you’ll come across in Leeds. The Cistercian monastery was founded in 1152, and the group of monks that lived there would go on to have a major role to play in the community for many years.
That was until it became a target of Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which forced its surrender in 1539. Its stonework was taken away to help build other landmarks in the city not long after, including Leeds Bridge, but it’s recognised today as being one of the best preserved abbeys of its kind left in the UK. Such is its haunting beauty, it’s been the subject of artwork by the likes of Turner, Cotman and Girtin, and it’s still a huge landmark for locals and tourists alike.
How about a ruin that is believed to be where a former King of England died? Pontefract Castle was built in 1070 by Ilbert de Lacy on land he was awarded for his help during the Norman Conquest. In the centuries that followed, it became the home of John of Gaunt, the son of Edward III.
It was Edward’s predecessor, Richard II who is believed to have been murdered here, but while it has a grisly history, Pontefract Castle is still a sight to behold. It has been ruined since 1644, when it was pummelled during the English Civil War. The keep is a particularly well-preserved part of the site, which looks over the rest of the town and offers up some great views.
Byland Abbey was once described as one of the shining lights’ of Northern monasticism and it became one of the largest priories of the Cistercian order in the UK.
You can still see its incredible ruins to this day, from the magnificent west front to the brightly coloured medieval tiles and the only stone lectern base of its kind ever recovered. It was these features that made it such an influential building. The early Gothic architecture inspired church buildings across the North for centuries, including the design of York Minster’s famous rose window. Round your visit off with a trip to The Byland Abbey Inn, which sits in the shadow of the ruins.
Set in a peaceful valley in the North York Moors, Rievaulx Abbey was one of the most powerful Cistercian monasteries in England. It was the first to be set up in the North and held great influence across the region until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538.
The towering ruins became a source of inspiration in the centuries that followed, acting as an iconic landmark for romantic writers and artists. It’s a huge site and you can walk through the two-storey presbytery as well as the south transept, before wandering amongst the foundations of the chapter house and the infirmary. There’s a museum here too where you can see artefacts like chess pieces, gold coins and stone carvings recovered from the site.
Rectory Park in Dewsbury is one of the most historic green spaces in Yorkshire and that’s down to the ruins of Thornhill Hall that are hidden within. The Hall dates back as far as the 13th century, and during the reigns of Edward I, Edward II, Henry III and Edward III, it was one of the most powerful seats in the region as home to the Thornhill family and then the Savilles.
It stayed in the Savilles’ possession until the English Civil War, when it was taken by the Parliamentarians, burned and destroyed. All that’s left today are the ruins of the house and the moat, but a trip to the picturesque park will give a glimpse into the area’s once-vital status.
Thornhill Hall, Rectory Park, Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, WF12 0JY. It’s open to walk-ins only.
Bolton Abbey is a bit of a one-off, in that it still functions in its original purpose from when it was founded in 1120, regularly hosting services. The Wharfedale estate is centred around Bolton Priory, an Augustinian order monastery that was still being built when the Dissolution of the Monasteries took place.
Only the east end of the Priory remains, but it is in much the same shape as it was back then, with earlier generations maintaining, and even adding to it in parts, including windows by Victorian Gothic pioneer August Pugin. It still hosts services on Sundays and certain holidays, which makes for a unique opportunity to experience one of these ruins as it was meant to be when it was first built.
Just north of Bolton Abbey is another slightly smaller, but just as striking ruin. Barden Tower was one of six hunting lodges built for the administration of the Barden Hunting Forest in the late 15th century.
It was restored in 1659, but soon fell into disrepair and by the 18th century it was left to nature. It’s still a striking building and an impressive hunting lodge, built more like a miniature castle. While you’re there, visit the adjacent Priests Lodge, built in 1515. It’s also ruined, but it’s now a popular wedding venue and you can see why.
Old Gang Mill
The heart of the Yorkshire Dales may seem like an odd place to look for old ruins, but for many years the countryside helped power the region’s industrial growth and there are still some reminders left to this day.
One example is the Old Gang Mill on Reeth High Moor. It started smelting lead and other metals from the late 18th century until 1913 when the ore was sold off to other mines in the area. There are well-preserved remains of the site left in the Dales that make for a great day out, including two surviving mill buildings as well as a number of structures and towers.
Old Gang Smelt Mill, Swaledale, North Yorkshire, near DL11 6PF. It’s open to walk-ins only.