‘Three Shining Lights of the North’
Fountains, Rievaulx, Byland; Cistercian Abbeys

by David Murray on 27 January 2016

in Abbeys, History, Visitor Attractions, Yorkshire

For centuries Yorkshire was divided into “Ridings”. Then in 1974 a modernising generation of politicians and bureaucrats decided that history had to be replaced by administrative convenience. New counties were created, among them North Yorkshire and East Yorkshire. Historic names and boundaries may have gone, but fear not. History refuses to be sidelined.

There is a lot of history in the areas around and to the east of Harrogate, Knaresborough and Ripon. Combined with beautiful countryside the history of this area makes for an excellent holiday. Castles and abbeys, on their hills and in their river valleys, add interest to country walking. Indeed for many people they are the focal points for their visits; pleasant walks simply add to the enjoyment of the history.

North York Moors Sutton Bank

North York Moors National Park Information Centre, Sutton Bank

Cistercian Abbeys – “Three Shining Lights”

In the Summer of 2015 I spent a few days in the area, based on the outskirts of Harrogate. I’ll leave that attractive spa town for another article and concentrate on a day of Cistercian abbeys. Incidentally, I don’t recommend following my example and packing all this into one day. I was short of time but a more leisurely visit would, I think, be preferable.

At that time I’d never come across the phrase, “The three shining lights of the North”. It was more recently that, while reading about northern abbeys I noticed that this title had been given to the three Yorkshire Cistercian abbeys of Fountains, Rievaulx and Byland in the centuries before their dissolution.

Fountains Abbey

Fountains Abbey Yorkshire Northern England

One corner of the Fountains Abbey grounds

I’d been to Fountains Abbey before, more than thirty years ago. On reaching what I remembered as the entrance I was surprised to find a sign pointing round a corner, up a hill and along a lane to the visitor centre. This leads me to my one and only criticism. The visitor centre could scarcely have been built at a more inconvenient place for anyone with limited walking ability, and that’s a lot of National Trust members.

I looked around at the people. Other than two groups of school children with their teachers the average age must have been well over sixty. The ruins are beautifully preserved in a wonderful valley setting, but the visitor has a lengthy walk down a steep hillside – and of course the return is up that same steep slope. Just as I was leaving I discovered that it is still possible to get in via the old entrance down in the valley – but only if you are eligible to use the disabled car park.

I’ll not go on about this at length but am disappointed in the National Trust for its seeming thoughtlessness. I say “seeming” because I know that location decisions can be complex. Now that things are as they are, however, much more attention should be paid to the needs of families with small children and of the elderly. Many who are not registered disabled nevertheless find steep slopes a problem. True, there is a courtesy bus, but I only spotted it as I was leaving. How well is its existence advertised?

Fountains Abbey – The Abbey Ruins.

Fountains Abbey - Yorkshire Cistercian Abbeys

Fountains Abbey – More of the Ruins

The abbey ruins are extensive and really need an article to themselves, but here’s a shot taken at the opposite end from the first one above. I must also in the not too distant future take a walk around the adjacent Studley Royal 18th century water garden. The combination of abbey and water garden are classed as a World Heritage Site. There’s also a watermill that I’m told is well worth an hour or so, and I love old watermills. That alone is a good enough reason for a return visit.

And so to another abbey …

Rievaulx Abbey

Rievaulx Abbey Yorkshire

Rievaulx from the road coming up the valley

This was my first visit to Rievaulx Abbey, although I had read about the remarkable combination of industry and spirituality demonstrated by the monks of the Cistercian abbeys. Of course that applied also to Fountains, but Rievaulx, to use what I recall of the language of one of the information displays, was their “Northern England business headquarters”. Founded in 1132 Rievaulx became one of the major abbeys of the North.

Northern England Rievaulx Abbey

Rievaulx Abbey – Some of the Abbey ruins

This was a major international agribusiness enterprise. It had its ups and downs. Like agricultural businesses nowadays it was vulnerable to the weather and to diseases of crops and animals, not to mention the predations of bands of Scots coming down over the border. Then there were the uncertainties of futures trading on the medieval European wool market which, just like commodity markets today, was not without serious risk.

In the case of Rievaulx it was the combined problems of animal health and market risk that led at one period to its having to be rescued from bankruptcy by the king. But Rievaulx bounced back until the monastic closures in the reign of Henry VIII. In 1538 Rievaulx, after more than four hundred years, ceased to function either as a place of prayer or of business, and its buildings were made uninhabitable.

Rievaulx Abbey Ruins Yorkshire

More of Rievaulx Abbey

Although above I’ve emphasised the business side of things it must not be forgotten that the abbey was at its heart a centre of Christian prayer and worship. In those days there was no secularist pressure to push faith into the margins of life, away from business and public affairs. Life, both public and personal, was less compartmentalised, more integrated. One of the early abbots, Aelred, was not only an effective administrator but also a much appreciated writer of both historical and spiritual literature, some of which is still in print today.

To my mind, though I admit that it is a matter of taste, the ruins of Rievaulx are even more impressive than those of Fountains, and much more accessible. The standard of upkeep is a credit to English Heritage. But now we must move on to …

Byland Abbey

Byland Abbey, Yorkshire

Byland Abbey

My third abbey of the day was Byland which also belonged to the Cistercian order, although not initially. The community was formed under the Savigniac order in 1134. Initially based in the North West, the monks moved several times before eventually settling at Byland in 1177. By this time the Savigniacs had been absorbed by the much larger Cistercian order.

Sadly Byland Abbey is not open every day, and I’d arrived on a day when the gate was securely locked. Further exploration will have to wait but here’s a second photo taken from the road alongside the site. Byland did not reach the eminence of Fountains and Rievaulx, and there’s not as much left of the ruins, but it was a significant centre for the Yorkshire Cistercians and I’m sure another visit will be well worthwhile.

Byland Abbey Yorkshire Northern England

Byland Abbey Ruins

Rievaulx and Byland are both within one of Yorkshire’s two national parks, The North York Moors. There’s a lot more to be said about this in later posts, and also about nearby Helmsley and Thirsk. I’ve got the photos and just have write the words.

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