Magazine article The Spectator

Notes On. Yorkshire's Ruined Abbeys

Magazine article The Spectator

Notes On. Yorkshire's Ruined Abbeys

Article excerpt

We're so used to looking at the abbeys smashed up by Henry VIII -- particularly Rievaulx and Byland, in north Yorkshire -- that we forget quite how odd they are.

It's not just that they've been preserved as ruins for 500 years, although that's odd enough in a country that's only saved ruins properly for a century. What's odder is that these vast structures were built in such remote spots. It's like finding a ruined Westminster Abbey in the middle of nowhere. When the Cistercians left Clairvaux in Burgundy, they were so desperate for peace that they came all the way north to found Rievaulx in 1132, and Byland a few years later.

For 400 years, before the abbeys were smashed, they were the biggest buildings for miles, with vast flocks of monks and lay brothers. And yet the valleys around remained deserted. Today, Byland and Rievaulx are still tiny settlements. I lay in the evening sun and stared at Rievaulx's ruins for an hour without hearing a single car. Only the swifts and pigeons broke the silence. No mobile signal either -- irritating when you want to muck about on the internet; heaven when you're channelling Cistercian calm.

We had Rievaulx to ourselves that evening because we were staying in the old caretaker's cottage, built out of the ruined abbey's stone, which gives you access to the abbey after closing. That emptiness is a gift in the busy summer season; even busier, now there's a visitors' centre and a small stylish museum. The museum's star feature is a 13th-century Christ in Majesty sculpture, his head chopped off by iconoclasts, leaving a decapitated Christ in a crisply carved belted gown. …

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