Kirkstall Abbey is cleaner than it used to be, I swear. When I was a child it was a great black hulk of a ruin, its stone darkened by the soot that used to fill the Aire Valley from thousands of coal fires.

When you visited Fountains Abbey, set in the fresh air of the open countryside close by non-industrial Ripon, the stone glowed beige and pink. But at Kirkstall it was the colour of coal.

With the passing of the mill chimneys and the clean-air legislation of the Fifties and Sixties, new layers of soot have stopped being added to the abbey's mucky mantle. And I'm sure that nature has been doing a cleaning job ever since.

Now, the natural stonework is starting to glow through the dirt. The impressive bulk of the abbey, founded in 1152 by the Cistercians, is no longer as gloomy as it used to be even 25 years ago.

I saw it the other day in morning sunshine and it was rather attractive. It was easy to understand the appeal it had to Romantic artists, among them Turner.

There is actually rather a lot of the abbey left, although sadly you can't explore it at the same close proximity as you can Fountains Abbey. You have to peep at the interior of it through locked gates and railings, and wonder at the skill and dedication of the people who built it 850 years ago alongside a trout-filled river when Kirkstall was still in the heart of the countryside.

Despite the coming of the railway and the roads, and the building of factories and the red-brick streets of workers' houses, Kirkstall still has a rural aspect especially if you walk along the canal towpath, which is where this route took us on a morning stroll into the heart of Leeds.

We had parked by the Abbey House Museum and walked down to cross the busy Abbey Road with care and enter the abbey grounds.

We strolled down in the direction of the river, with the abbey on our left, then swung left with the railings to skirt the ruin and follow the path that led parallel to the Kirkstall Light Railway.

The path swung right, crossing the footbridge and continuing left at the other side to emerge at the busy road junction of Kirkstall traffic lights, opposite what used to be the Star and Garter pub but is now merely a frontage, with an industrial unit being built behind it.

We crossed over here then turned right, heading for the bridge over the River Aire before joining the canal towpath and going eastwards.

From here the route was straightforward. We strolled along enjoying this green corridor with, across the canal, its woodland backdrop which soon became the rolling greenery of Gott's Park, much of which is now a golf course.

Further on, just past a milestone sign which advised us that Leeds was 2 miles away, we came to the Aire Valley Marina a line-up of narrow boats in a canal inlet from where coal used to be unloaded from barges for Kirkstall Power Sta-tion, which was razed 16 years ago.

The towpath is well used. We met Sunday morning joggers, anglers, dog walkers and fellow strollers as we continued to pass the 18th century Armley Mills, once part of the empire of Benjamin Gott, owner of Gott's Park, and now home to the splendid Leeds Industrial Museum.

From here into the heart of Leeds we passed crumbling relics of Leeds's industrial past and bright new buildings which represented its prosperous present.

We walked beneath a succession of viaducts and bridges representing the construction industry through the ages some made of great blocks of blackened stone that had been hauled into place by Victorian labourers, some made up of a million red bricks, some massive iron girders, others assembled from vast slabs of pre-cast concrete, all carrying main roads and railways across the canal and adjacent river.

And then we were in the heart of Leeds, where the canal ends before joining the River Aire. We wandered around the stalls and cafs of Granary Wharf before making our way past the always impressive Dark Arches, where the river thunders spectacularly through the tall tunnels which support Leeds City Station, to reach the city centre and catch a bus back to Kirkstall.

Step by Step

  1. From car park next to Abbey House Museum in Abbey Road, walk down to main road, cross with care, and go into Kirkstall Abbey grounds. Walk ahead with abbey on left, then skirt left, following path around ruin and swinging right to pass to left of Kirkstall Light Railway. Follow path, swinging right to cross footbridge then left and walk on to meet road.
  2. Cross towards what used to be Star and Garter pub, then turn right and walk along pavement, crossing entrance and exit roads for trading estate and keeping on to pass Bridge Inn across road and cross River Aire. Follow road to left, then at next fork cross over left-most road and take path down to canal towpath.
  3. Turn left on towpath and keep walking until you reach Leeds-Liverpool Canal Office and lock and bridge with canal basin beyond, in heart of Leeds. Bear left into Granary Wharf, then go right to pass Dark Arches, pictured above, and emerge into Neville Street. Go left to arrive at City Square.

Fact File

  • Time for 4-mile walk: 1 hours.
  • Going: easy.
  • Map: not necessary.
  • Parking: free alongside Abbey House Museum, travelling back to Kirkstall by bus from Leeds. Or catch a bus to start and travel home by either bus or train from Leeds.
  • Refreshments: not much along route, but plenty of pubs at Kirkstall and loads of everything in Leeds.
  • Toilets: none along route until you arrive at Granary Wharf.
  • Abbey House Museum: open Sunday, then Tues-Fri, 10am-5pm, Saturday 12pm-5pm (closed Monday). Adults £3, children £1, seniors £2 (family ticket £5).