Furness Abbey cloister
Piel Castle on Piel Island

Spotlight on Furness Abbey and Piel Castle

At the height of its power, Furness Abbey was the second wealthiest Cistercian monastery in the country behind Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire. The rust-coloured sandstone is ornately carved, and its bell tower still stands impressively high after centuries. In fact, today the abbey is one of the most substantial and majestic ruins in our care.

Standing guard over the entrance to the harbour at Barrow in Furness is Piel Castle - a free site, and an outpost of Furness Abbey's influence. Discover why you should plan a visit to them both.

Gill Jepson, Historic Properties Steward and Chair of the Furness Abbey Fellowship

Why we love Furness Abbey

"Furness Abbey is my favourite place in the world. It never fails to surprise and delight, new features emerge every time I visit. Its towering magnificence and beauty never disappoint in any weather. The innate peace and tranquillity heal the soul and raise the spirits and I never tire of strolling through the ruins. My favourite time is early morning when I check the site, beautiful, calm and silent... and all mine for those few moments." Gill Jepson, Historic Properties Steward and Chair of the Furness Abbey Fellowship

"I love the way the site changes during the seasons - the way the evening sun makes the sandstone glow pink on a summer evening, the misty stillness of an autumn day, the squawking of crows in the winter time then knowing that spring is finally here once the daffodils raise their heads." - Lucy Ronald, Site Manager

"Very pretty ruins. The lady from English heritage was friendly, knowledgeable and informative. Kids enjoyed a bit of history and running around playing tig and hide and seek." - Amreen Kapasi-Chawkevia Furness Abbey Facebook page

Plan your own visit
man tkaing a photo of Piel Castle

Take a closer look: Piel Castle

About 6 miles from Furness Abbey is one of its former holdings: Piel Castle. It was built to oversee the trade through Barrow-in-Furness harbour, and to defend the rich and powerful abbey from raiders.

If you're feeling adventurous, take the boat (which isn't run by English Heritage) over to Piel Island, and explore the ruins. They're surprisingly extensive, with a solid-looking keep which dominates the coastline and the remains of its inner and outer walls. Enjoy a picnic in the outer bailey or scramble down to the bouldery beach.

It's easy to feel like King of the Castle as you roam around the island but really that title belongs to the landlord of the local pub - which is the only other attraction on the island.

Plan a visit to Piel Castle
Ornate red sandstone arches at Furness Abbey

What makes Furness Abbey so special?

There aren't many places in England where you can see such beautifully preserved ruins still standing. And it's the scale of the ruddy sandstone ruins at Furness Abbey that make it such a special place to visit - they're some of the most substantial in our care.

Walking through the ornately chiselled arches of the cloister, you really get a sense of how much influence the abbey would have had. The bell tower is only about half the height it would have been - but it still stands an impressive 18m tall.

Reenactor holding a bird of prey

Experience Medieval Life at Furness Abbey

Every year, we hold a Medieval Fair with the Furness Abbey Fellowship. This year, the event is on Saturday 2 September. There will be a living history encampment, birds of prey, medieval minstrels and craftspeople, stalls and a hogroast. Spend the day exploring the abbey, and get a feeling for life here in the Middle Ages.

Come to the Fair
Top: crozier; below: the abbey ruins with the stream in the foreground and a glimpse of the scaffolding around the church.

Three Things to look out for

  • The abbot's crozier in the museum 
    This ornate gilt crozier (a staff with a crook on top) was the first to be excavated in Britain in over 50 years when it was found in 2012. An impressive gemstone ring was unearthed at the same time, though wearing it wouldn't have been comfortable - there's a spike hidden on the inside.
  • The natural alternative to flushing toilets
    Before the invention of flushing toilets or efficient sewer systems, medieval people devised some ingenious ways of dealing with their waste. At Furness Abbey, the dormitory latrine was built above a stream that runs through the site, which carried everything away downstream.
  • The scaffolding - a sign of conservation in action
    While it's not beautiful, the scaffolding on the abbey church is doing an important job of protecting the future of Furness Abbey. Medieval masons used large pieces of oak in the foundations and after 500 years, this timber is now gradually giving way. We discovered some serious cracks in the walls a few years ago. Since then we've been working to stabilise the site and monitor the ground. When you visit, our site team can explain what's been happening, and share our plans for the site's future care.

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