The site of Kirkstead Abbey is an easy walk or cycle ride from the Petwood Hotel. You can find it on Abbey Lane, a single track road which loops round from the Abbey Lodge Inn on Tattershall Road (B1192) to join Witham Road (B1191) just by the Woodhall Spa football ground.
There is no car park but if you do drive there, you can usually park by the side of the road.
It’s a short trip in miles, but a long one in time, as you travel back nine centuries.
While Woodhall Spa itself is a relatively young village, the nearby settlement of Kirkstead has its origins in the Cistercian monastery founded in 1139 by Hugh Brito, lord of Tattershall, and was originally populated by an abbot and twelve monks from Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire.
The Abbey was one of at least twelve monastic houses sited along both banks of the River Witham between Lincoln and Boston on the coast. Unlike most of them, there is something to see at Kirkstead – a dramatic fragment of the south transept wall of the abbey church, and earthworks of the complex of buildings that once surrounded it.
Why so many monastic houses in such a small geographical area? You need to know that in contrast to today’s placid waterway, the River Witham was a major communication route between one of England’s principal cities and the sea, and that before Henry VIII enforced the dissolution of the monasteries, monastic houses were a major source of wealth and power in the kingdom.
Today, if you stand on the modern bridge at Kirkstead, you may see a few leisure boats moored up or chugging along, but imagine for a moment the river as a busy commercial navigation route with an important impact on the lives of those living along and near its banks. Something like the Thames today.
Commenting on Rod Collins’ excellent blog post, Peter Mullins puts this rather well: “When Lincoln (one of the largest contributors to the ransom for Richard I) was one of the few major cities in the country and Boston (more customs revenue than London) was one of the few major ports, the Witham was not a remote backwater but a principle trading route. As new IT businesses clustered in the M4 corridor in the 1980s and 1990s, so new large wealthy religious houses crowded the Witham valley from the twelfth century onwards.”
Though The Dissolution of the Monasteries brought about the abrupt end of monastic power in England, Wales and Ireland between 1536 and 1541 as Henry VIII disbanded monasteries, priories, convents and friaries, appropriated their income, disposed of their assets, and provided for their former members and functions, it took place in the political context of other attacks on the ecclesiastical institutions of Western Roman Catholicism which had been under way for some time, many of them also underlying the Protestant Reformation in Continental Europe.
Close by you’ll also find St Leonard’s Chapel, also known as “The Chapel Outside the Gates”. It stood just outside the precincts of the abbey itself and was spared when the abbey surrendered in 1537 so as to be used by the local community.
NB: Be careful if you try to find the Abbey using your satnav. Google Maps does not recognise the site itself, but it does show Abbey Lane. The site is on the bend, a few yards south of the marker on this map: