Furness Abbey and Piel Castle

A hidden ecclesiastic marvel and a tumbled island castle await discovery on the edge of the Lake District

Published: June 11th, 2014 at 12:12 pm

Contemporaries William Wordsworth and JMW Turner were equally enthralled by both Furness Abbey and the island castle. Turner worked on atmospheric sketches that captured the drama of the ruins, while Wordsworth looked wistfully back to childhood days spent exploring the area, as well
as composing sonnets celebrating the views.


Narrow lanes slink into the verdant Vale of Nightshade,
cut by glacial meltwaters through the crinkled hills of Low Furness. Here slumber the ruins of one of England’s greatest, yet surprisingly little-known, abbeys. The soaring rose-red walls, arches and cloisters of Furness Abbey are unseen until you’re almost upon them.

This deliberate isolation was standard for the reclusive Cistercian monks who developed the site and sought seclusion, together with an equally practical desire to hide the abbey from Scottish raiders.

Into The Vale

The business of the brothers was prayer and profit; they accrued great wealth from lands in Ireland, by controlling imports and exports across Morecambe Bay – and smuggling wine, wool and grain. At the height of the abbey’s influence the abbot was in charge of the second-wealthiest Cistercian abbey in England. It all ended in 1537 with Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries; over the centuries the structure itself has crumbled and slumped on its oak foundations. It was during restoration work in 2012 that a rare abbot’s crozier and jewelled ring were discovered buried in the grounds. The silver and gilt staff, dating from the 1150s soon after the abbey was built, is one of the finest ever found.

The vast ruins are well worth spending time exploring; Wordsworth’s ‘...mouldering pile...which I could have made my dwelling place and lived there forever’ is a striking wonder of early architecture, glowing red in the sun.

The route south takes you to the beguiling fringes of Morecambe Bay. The vast enclave of saltmarsh, creeks, shifting sands and ferocious currents is particularly atmospheric on a misty day, when the sharp clanking of halyards against the masts of spectral boats mixes with the mournful cry of wading birds drifting in from the expanse. As the fog clears, an ethereal vision appears through the gloaming, floating on the emerging horizon like an apparition.

Piel Castle stands on tiny Fotheray – or Piel Island, rising from the sands half a mile offshore. The approach is via compact Rampside, whose slender Victorian shore-edge lamp-tower shepherds ships towards Barrow, and the causeway leading to Roa Island, an intriguing hamlet set alone amid the marshes.

It was once an early railway/passenger steamer interchange; nowadays it’s the embarkation point for the ferry to Piel. The monks of Furness Abbey built the island castle here in the early 1300s, both to protect and control the Bay and as a fortified storehouse for their empire.

To a secluded realm

The castle was largely derelict by the 1550s. Its real moment in the limelight came when Lambert Simnel, 10-year-old pretender to the English throne, camped here with an army of mercenaries in 1487. Setting off for London to claim Henry VII’s crown, he reached Newark before being defeated.

The sturdy castle and small terrace of cottages are presided over by the King of Piel, traditionally the landlord of the island’s Ship Inn. This archaic title is currently filled by Steve Chattaway; join him on the pub’s terrace for the astonishing views across the Bay to dramatic silhouettes of Lake District peaks; an unforgettable Furness finale.

Useful Information


Furness Abbey is one mile south of Dalton-in-Furness and is signed off the A590 (brown signs). Piel Island is off Roa Island, south of Barrow-in-Furness, and accessed by ferry. There are railway stations at Dalton and Barrow. Buses to Roa Island run from Ulverston and Barrow.


0871 200 2233


Piel Island Ferry

Contact Steve Chattaway at Ship Inn 07516 453784

Easter to September; £5 return, tide and weather dependent.


Furness Abbey

Manor Road, Barrow in Furness, Cumbria LA13 0PJ

01229 823420


Open weekends only until 31 March; then daily. £4 entry, no entry fee to the castle.

Barrow-in-Furness TIC

28 Duke Street, Barrow-in-Furness

01229 876505



The Clarkes Hotel

Rampside, Barrow-in-Furness

Cumbria LA13 0PX

01229 820303



Cosy, welcoming hotel that offers classic, warming dishes.



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