I’ll be totally honest, I’ve been to a lot of heritage sites in the UK over the years, some I love, others do little for me, but Rievaulx Abbey is one of the few places to make me fall utterly under its spell.
I’ve tried hard to work out what it is that excites me so much and the thing that keeps coming to mind it its unexpectedness. It is a massive ruin, dominant in so many ways, but also incongruous, sitting as it does the rural depths of North Yorkshire. It’s like stumbling across the Royal Albert Hall in the middle of the Sahara – it shouldn’t be there.
But the fact is, this tiny village, approached via quintessential country lanes, hosts one of England’s most glorious relics of the monastic past. Established in 1132, it was one of the Cistercians most impressive and successful foundations.
I suppose that being built on a hillside and therefore forcing the visitor to walk uphill towards it, helps maintain that sensation of dominance, I for one was overwhelmed. Goodness knows how it must have made our medieval ancestors feel before it was ‘reformed’, if it can still evoke such strong emotions five hundred years later.
Although it was heavily robbed-out after the Reformation, so much still remains and at such height, it makes understanding how the Abbey once looked relatively easy.
But it isn’t only the grandeur that’s impressive. Everywhere you look, there are pieces of carved masonry, so delicate or expressive, I just ache to know who the masons were who carved them, and to understand a little of how they saw the world around them.
Perhaps after all, it is because Rievaulx retains both its religious and domestic buildings, that it manages to convey a deep sense of what life was like on a remote Yorkshire hillside pre-Reformation.
(It also happens to be one of the very best ruins for playing hide-and-seek in).
Even my youngest daughter, not a push-over when it comes to visiting ruins, was enthralled – and that’s saying something. Perhaps she picked up a sense of its magic too.
And as if all that isn’t enough, it also happens to have a wonderful tea-room, serving some of the best cake I’ve ever had at a heritage site – in fact if it hadn’t been for the tea-room and the call of the cake, I might still be wandering around the ruins, attempting to commune with those medieval monks!
For more information…
Opening times, prices etc are all here at the English Heritage information pages.
Wiki has the facts and figures about Rievaulx here.
With time on your hands, you could do the walk from Helmsley to Rievaulx – there’s a lovely description of the route at the Walking English Man website.