The inaugural service of St Mary’s Abbey was held on 15th August 1204, so it seems reasonable to assume that the canons and lay brothers had completed some buildings by that date. However, the latest archaeological opinion is that there is nothing on the site of St Mary’s Abbey which pre-dates 1200. It was usual for Premonstratensians to build the church first, so this must have been done extraordinarily quickly. Some authorities describe the foundations of the arcade between the chancel and St Margaret's chapel and the pillar bases, and the lower walls of the Lady Chapel as 13th century, and one suggests that a complete rebuild was undertaken 50 years after the abbey’s foundation.
We will look at each section of the monastery separately.
There has been a suggestion that the stone used was from the Bunter sandstone quarry, Quarry Hill, Stanton; however an alternative view has it that it was not bunter which was used but some harder rough sandstone found alongside. The most recent (1990) archaeological opinion is that ‘the building stone is crawshaw sandstone, a medium- to coarse-grained sub-arkose containing about 8% felspar; the colour ranges from orange-buff to buff-grey and there is ferric iron staining…The lithology and colour of sandstone at Quarry Hill (SK 471378) offer close parallels with those of the building stone at Dale Abbey’.
Let us start our tour at the East end, with its splendid window. This has been described as Early English, with the tracery dated at between 1250 and 1260, or 1270 and 1285, or late 13th century, depending on the expert you trust. If the existing window really does date from the second half of the 13th century, one does wonder what was there before it, when the church was dedicated in 1204. What now remains appears to be a huge arch, estimated as 45 feet high and measured as 17 feet three inches wide. The window had possibly five lights and a large central rose or traceried circle, with a smaller one at either side lower down. It would have held over 300 square feet of glass.
The mouldings of the ‘arch’ are very fine. The jamb shafts are plain at the exterior, and floriated at the interior. In the angles of the ‘arch’ are triple vaulting-shafts with floriated capitals, low and light, with no vaulting above, as though there had been a