Solway Plain - past and present by the Holme St Cuthbert History Group

In 1150 Holm Cultram Abbey was founded by Prince Henry of Scotland who gave the land to monks from Melrose Abbey to settle.

Sketch of abbey with monks in procession

These Cistercian monks organized the clearing of forests and draining of large tracts of the Solway marshes, making the land of the Holm district habitable and profitable. By 1200 the Abbey was well under construction. When finished the Abbey and associated buildings covered ten acres of land.

Throughout the thirteenth century benefactors on both sides of the Solway lavished gifts on the Abbey, the main motivation being a hope that they could buy their way into heaven.

The monks were very successful sheep farmers and became the largest suppliers of wool in the Northwest of England with an estimated flock of over 6,000 sheep. The Abbey became immensely wealthy and was raided and plundered by the Scots on many occasions. Robert the Bruce caused the worst devastation in 1319, despite the fact that his father was buried there.

These photographs of the abbey church date from around 1900. Note the plaster ceiling on the interior view.

In 1538 the Act dissolving the Greater Monasteries was passed. Holm Cultram Abbey along with 1,600 acres of land and all its possessions was surrendered to Henry VIII.

The Abbey Church was not destroyed, as many were, because it served as a parish church and as a refuge against the Scots. Over time the Abbey church fell into disrepair due to lack of local authority and money.

In 1703, when Bishop Nicholson visited Holm Cultram he was shocked at the state the Abbey was in. He appointed Trustees to organise its restoration. The nave was reduced in size and the side aisles were removed. Between 1833 and 1973 further remodelling has taken place.

Plan of present church and its original size This plan shows the outline of the original abbey church with the present building indicated by the thick black lines.

It is claimed that the original church was larger than Carlisle cathedral.

Over eight hundred years, the Abbey had a troubled existence but survived all attempts to destroy it. It became a parish church somewhat reduced in size and circumstances but still a place of great beauty, peace and serenity.

East Window and chancel

All this changed on Friday, June 9, 2006, a very hot day, when the abbey church was badly damaged by fire. Crews from Maryport, Silloth, Wigton and Aspatria were called to the scene.

Fire fighters at blaze

They entered the church wearing breathing apparatus but were unable to prevent the fire spreading to the roof which collapsed completely around 7pm. Although the damage to the interior was extensive, all but one of the stained glass windows were saved. 

 Interior of church showing fire damage

Following the fire, six teenagers were arrested, five were released but one, 17-year-old Shane Walker of Solway Street, Silloth, was charged with arson and the theft of £5 from the church. He appeared at Carlisle Crown Court on November 7 and was sentenced to four years detention. Judge John Phillips told him “Not only have you destroyed a national treasure – you have also severely damaged an entire community.”

Crane lifting new roof timbers into place

Restoration work on the church began in 2007 and is nearing completion at an estimated cost of over £2m.

Aerial view showing outline of original abbey church and cloisters
In 2006, the West Cumbria Archaeological Society made a magnetometry survey of the land around the abbey. They traced the location of the cloisters, shown in black on the picture above. The white lines show the outline of the original abbey church.
Aerial view of trench in field adjoining abbey
During September 2008, the society opened a small trench in the field adjoining the abbey church. Several interesting finds were unearthed and a substantial part of the old cloisters were revealed.
Closeup view of 2008 trench
In 2009, the West Cumbria Archaeological Society received a grant of £50,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Solway AOB to continue the work. A new trench was opened in late August
Aerial view of 2009 trench
This view, taken on September 10th, shows the progress made so far. It is thought that the south-east corner of the cloisters has been located but much of the stone appears to have been "robbed" - probably for use on other buildings in the village.

version of this
Excellent pictures of the restoration work on the 'Visit Cumbria' website
"Register & Records of Holm Cultram" by Francis Grainger & W.G. Collingwood (1929)
"Some Records of a Cistercian Abbey" by G.E. Gilbanks (1899)

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The Abbey