Conishead Priory, Ulverston

The first Kadampa Buddhist centre in the west was established during the 1970's at Conishead Priory, just outside Ulverston, by the Tibetan Buddhist teacher the Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso.  Conishead Priory has become the mother centre from which around 800 Kadampa Buddhist centres (at the latest count) have been set up worldwide in dozens of countries.

The Priory is now a global centre of pilgrimage and teaching, with thousands of Buddhists from around the world attending the two major annual festivals and the many smaller events thoughout the year.

A place of refuge, spirituality and healing
Conishead Priory has a long history as a place of refuge, spirituality and healing. It was founded as a monastery and hospital by Augustinian monks in the twelfth century, but  partially destroyed at the dissolution of the monasteries in the sixteenth century.

It was later rebuilt as a gentleman's residence, its final reconstruction dating from 1820. Since that time it has three times reverted to its original use as a hospital - as a hydropathic spa, then a sanatorium for sick and injured miners, and as a wartime hospital for wounded soldiers.

In the early 1970's Conishead Priory was abandoned and fell into severe disrepair, before being purchased by the Buddhists. Heroic efforts were needed to save the fabric of the building, which had been seriously weakened by dry rot.  The restoration work is still going on, and major structural repairs are being financed with a grant from The Heritage Lottery Fund.

Today Conishead Priory is home to a community of around 100 Buddhists. A temple has been constructed with the design based upon a mandala - a meditational symbol representing the Pure World of a Buddha. 

An ancient sacred site
The house, grounds and temple are pervaded by an atmosphere of deep peace and tranquility. This seems always to have been a characteristic of the site. The poet Wordsworth visited the locality and  remarked that 'As I advanced all that I saw or felt was gentleness and peace'.


Know thyself

Conishead Priory view of stained glass window and Triskeles

The stained glass window from outside

One of the strangest features of the Priory is the stained glass window, which although built 150 years before the Buddhists purchased the house, seems to contain two portents of their arrival.

Conishead Priory stained glass window from inside

The window from inside


Close up view of triskelions at Conishead Priory

Triskeles above window


Cognoies toy mesme - know thyself inscription in stained glass

Detail from window 'Cognoies toy mesme'

An inscription in the glass of the window reads 'Cognoies toy mesme', which is old French for 'Know thyself'.   On the roof above the window are nine stone triskeles.

Now, one of the principal Buddhist meditations is on the nature of the self, and the deluded manner in which it appears to exist. And the triskele is a Buddhist symbol of interdependence and impermanence. So it's almost as if the house knew the Buddhists were coming!


When the iron bird flies and the horses run on wheels
In addition, there's a prophecy made by Padmasambhava, who established Buddhism in Tibet:   'When the iron bird flies and
the horses run on wheels, the Tibetan people will be scattered like ants across the world, and the Dharma will come to the land of the red men' [1].

Padmasambhava seems to have predicted the Maoist invasion as a seminal event in the spread of Tibetan Buddhism from the area he had converted into the rest of the world. The prophecy is usually interpreted as a prediction of the arrival of the Dharma (Buddhist teachings) in America following the flight of Tibetans from the invading genocidal Maoists.

But there is an additional interpretation. Furness was until recently known as the Land of the Red Men [2] and the area around Conishead Priory was particularly important to them, as this was where the haematite from inland was loaded onto coastal ships before the railways [3] were built. 

Anyone who mined, transported or worked with haematite became covered with the dust and turned red from head to toe (see sculpture).

The road from the mines was named Red Lane, because the haematite dust coloured it bright red. Although asphalted over in modern times, whenever there is heavy rain, red-coloured puddles still appear by the roadside.

Red Lane ends a few hundred yards away from Conishead Priory, and the haematite was transported through what are now the grounds of the Priory to a jetty on the shore.  The remains of the jetty are still visible, and there is a raised track through a marshy area of the Priory woods which is coloured red, though the surrounding soil is brown.

Track used to transport iron ore through Conishead Priory grounds

The Red Track in Conishead Priory Grounds


Remains of jetty at Conishead Bank

Remains of the Jetty on Conishead Bank

In The Industrial Archeology of South Ulverston [4]  there is a picture on page 92 (18th or early 19th century painting?) of iron ore being loaded onto a sailing vessel at Conishead Bank, at or very near to the place shown in the photograph.

Of course both interpretations of Padmasambhava's prophecy may be true.  The arrival of the Dharma in Furness was an important stage in its spread to the Western Hemisphere because Conishead Priory has set up many daughter centres throughout North and South America.


[1]  'When the iron bird flies .... '
from Buddha for Beginners by Jane Hope and Borin Van Loon (1994), page 155, publ Icon Books, Duxford
ISBN 1 874166 18 8.    Also here.

[2] The Land of the Red Men

'Miners and steelworkers returning home from work, covered in red ore dust....Because of the colour of the iron ore, the miners were known as the red men. The sculpture will mark the beginning of the Redman’s Way, a path once trodden by steel workers and now widely used for leisure activity by walkers, runners and cyclists.' From

'Miners were easily identifiable by their greasy red appearance, with face, hands and clothes stained red by the iron oxide' From

'Just outside Egremont is the FLORENCE MINE Heritage Centre, the last working iron ore mine of its type in Europe. Iron ore, known as haematite because of its blood-red colouring, has played a significant role in the industrial development of the western fells and coast since the Iron Age. The Centre tells the history of the ore's extraction and the miners - the 'Red Men of Cumbria'. From

'The miners were nicknamed 'The Red Men of Cumbria' after the red colour of the iron ore.' From

'Large-scale mining has taken place at a number of locations between the towns of Barrow and Ulverston. The major ore deposits were situated at Askham, Roanhead, Park, Yarlside, Stank, Mouzell, Crossgates, Marton and Lindal;  with peripheral deposits at Urswick, Stainton, Pennington and Plumpton. Across the Duddon Estuary, in the carboniferous limestone between Millom and Haverigg, ore was mined at Hodbarrow from one of the largest bodies of haematite ever discovered. Three miles to the north-west an outlying vein in the Wicham Valley yielded haematite ore from the fault between the limestone and the older Skiddaw slate.' From

'The wealth of Barrow was based on the rich haematite mines of Furness - at Lindal, Swarthmoor, Askam, Park, Dalton, Newton, Stank and Roanhead. Because of the colour of the iron ore, the miners were known as the red men.' From


[3]  Conishead Priory Branch Line

Conishead Priory once had its own railway station. The Conishead branch was built as the first section of a low gradient line which was intended to ease the transport of heavy mineral trains between Plumpton Junction and the south of the Furness Peninsula, by avoiding the steep gradients over Lindal Moor on the existing mainline.

Remains of the line are still visible in the grounds.

Conishead branch line old railway bridge

Bridge under dismantled Conishead branch


Site of Conishead station

Site of Conishead station


John Marshall [5] states that the Conishead Branch was opened on the 27th June 1883 and Conishead station was closed on 1st January 1917. The station was situated at 307756 and the formation continued to 307752, but evidently never carried track.

It is possible that the line continued in use for freight, such as coal deliveries for Conishead and Bardsea into the 1920's. However by 1960 the line seems to have been abandoned beyond North Lonsdale crossing.

In its heyday the Conishead branch was more than just a short branch line. It was a mini-network with some unusual characteristics. The line was linked to, and some times separated from, the rest of the British rail network by a low-level rolling bridge across the Ulverston canal, which could be retracted to allow vessels to pass.

The line continued from this bridge alongside the North Lonsdale Ironworks, into which sidings branched off to serve the furnaces and foundries, and lines also diverged to Gascow Quarry, where limestone was extracted, and to Ainslie Pier, where pig iron was loaded onto small seagoing ships.

There was a passenger halt at North Lonsdale crossing from where the line continued along Carter Pool and then through fields and woodland to Conishead station.

Part of the Conishead branch continued in use into the early 1990's for freight deliveries to the Glaxo factory, which had occupied the iron works site since 1948. The tank cars of fuel and chemicals were delivered to the the canal bridge by British Rail locomotives, but were then shunted by one of the last, longest-lived and strangest working industrial steam locomotives in Britain - the affectionately named 'Puffing Billy'.

Puffing Billy was a fireless steam locomotive, an 0-4-0 built by Andrew Barclay. He had to be fireless because of solvents in the factory. The locomotive visited the factory's boiler house to be recharged with steam at the end of his daily duties.

Alas, Puffing Billy puffs no more. He languishes rusting and immobile in a siding for derelict rolling stock in Carnforth.


[4] The Industrial Archeology of South Ulverston. Rob Mckeever and Jack Layfield (2004). Publisher not stated

[5] Forgotten Railways of North West England. John Marshall (1981) publ David and Charles, Newton Abbott, ISBN 0 7153 8003 6

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