Rievaulx Abbey, North Yorkshire

The majestic, almost regal, appearance of Rievaulx Abbey looming from the depths of a narrow river valley symbolises the power and importance of monasticism in medieval England. This enormous Cistercian house, numbering some 150 monks and 500 lay brethren at one time, was the nucleus from which several other northern abbeys were colonised.

Although the early 13th century church - reputed to have been one of the finest monastic churches in the North - remains substantially intact, less than half of the outbuildings, recorded at the time of the suppression in 1538, are still in existence.

Rarely did the Cistercians break with convention when planning the layout of a monastery, but at Rievaulx Abbey the church had to be built more on a north-south axis (as opposed to the traditional east-west) because of severely sloping ground levels. The model for the first church built c1135 to 1145 was probably based on the Mother House at Clairvaulx in France, and certainly reflected the functional austerity of that time. However, following partial demolition of the 'eastern end', the community undertook a rebuilding programme in a far more elaborate style with clustered columns, heavily moulded arches and elegant lancet windows.

Across the 15 acre site, there are many outbuildings standing to a good height and virtually the whole range can be identified at foundation level. Another of the impressive architectural treasures still very much in evidence, apart from the abbey church, is the monks' refectory. This beautiful dining hall, some 124ft (37.5m) long and an amazing 50ft (15.2m) high, was supported by an undercroft built into the terraced ground. A good deal of the arcading, and several of the gracefully, arched lancet windows of the refectory survive to give a clear indication of the former glory of this communal hall.

Fragmented sections of the ancient precinct wall can still be seen, although depending on the time of year, they are often obscured by spreading climbers and over zealous weeds. On one occasion when we visited Rievaulx Abbey in the spring, we are able to capture this colourful image of delicate, deep pink blossom bursting over the crumbling stones.

As a young lad, I can recall feeling completely mesmerised by a photograph of this enormous medieval structure and knew, even then, that one day I would find this mystical place and explore its fascinating history for myself. Having made several visits in recent years, I have never been disappointed with the sheer enormity, the magnificent detail, and the sense of timelessness at an abbey that has stood redundant for over 450 years.

Rievaulx Abbey is now in the hands of English Heritage, but running along the eastern edge of the site is Rievaulx Terrace, owned by the National Trust. This elevated, grassy ridge provides an excellent vantage point for viewing and understanding the monastic complex.


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