After winding down a very narrow country lane in the heart of North Yorkshire, having passed a 14th century gatehouse that is essentially intact, and the delightful parish church of St Agatha, the substantial ruins of Easby Abbey are an imposing sight. Huddled together in this tranquil setting deep in the valley of the River Swale this little group of buildings present a truly picturesque image. The Norman church, with its pretty graveyard spilling onto land immediately in front of the monastic refectory, was in place even before Easby Abbey was built, and it is home to some beautiful wall paintings.
Just a mile or so from Richmond, Easby Abbey was founded c1155 by the Constable of Richmond Castle. Originally intended for 13 canons of the Premonstratensian Order, generous endowments during the late 14th century soon meant that Easby Abbey was being extended to accommodate more canons, and a hospital for 22 poor men. At its peak there were some thirty canons in residence but by the time the house was dissolved in 1537 there were just 17.
The layout of Easby Abbey does not conform to the standard plan, mainly because of the lie of the land, and with nothing remaining of the abbey church it gives the site a strangely 'out of kilter' feel. Moreover, the cloister is not the regular four-sided affair that is instantly recognisable and this, in turn, has determined the higgledy-piggledy arrangement of the claustral buildings. Much of what remains standing can be dated to the 13th century, albeit with some 15th century alterations and additions, but unlike many monastic sites it was never converted for domestic accommodation after the Dissolution.
Visually the most striking feature to remain standing at Easby Abbey is the refectory with its magnificent windows, one of which still retains a good deal of geometric tracery. This monastic dining hall was rebuilt at the beginning of the 14th century and must have provided a wonderfully light environment where the canons would eat in silence. Inside, along the south wall, the remains of the reader's pulpit are visible, the only voice to be heard during meal times. If this part is the most attractive architecturally, then the west range is the most innovative structurally. A complex set of accommodation was arranged on different levels, and was largely determined by the drainage facilities. The latrine drains now appear to provide a less functional use for the numerous rabbits on site, who delight in scurrying along their course, thoroughly enjoying the solitude amongst these ruins.
First impressions of Easby Abbey lead you to believe that more of the buildings survive than they actually do, but what has stood the test of time is well worth seeing. Some of the carved stonework is exquisite, the site is all the more interesting for its unorthodox plan, and the vast backdrop of hills make it one of England's true romantic ruins.