Roche Abbey, South Yorkshire

The joint founders of Roche Abbey owned lands on both sides of the Maltby Beck, so when the colony of monks arrived in South Yorkshire from Newminster Abbey in Northumberland, they could choose the most suitable bank of the stream on which to build their new Cistercian monastery. Officially founded in 1147, the stone buildings were began on the north side of the Beck some 25 years later. By the end of the 12th century the great Norman and Gothic church had been completed, as well as most of the claustral buildings.

From the cliff footpath running along the site boundary, a very good view across the whole site enables the visitor to understand the plan of Roche Abbey. Although many of the buildings now survive only as low standing walls, the transepts of the church remain almost to their full height and are a magnificent example of the French-influenced early Gothic architecture. Later buildings were constructed on the other side of the stream, including the Abbot's lodging, kitchen and infirmary, and a 13th century arched bridge still spans the Maltby Beck. It is perhaps more difficult to understand what kind of life the Cistercian monks experienced at Roche Abbey for nearly 400 years, as no recorded history has been discovered. What is known is that there were 14 monks and 4 novices at the monastery at the time of the Dissolution in 1538.

Once in Crown possession, it was usual for anything of value to be sold off before rendering the buildings unusable. However, the local community apparently decided they would have first claim on Roche Abbey, and a very detailed account exists describing the terrible destruction of the abbey and its artefacts, and subsequent quarrying away of stones, lead and timber. Neglected and ruined, the site subsequently passed through many private hands but it was when it eventually came to the 4th Earl of Scarborough that it was almost lost forever. As part of a programme to enhance his adjoining family seat at Sandbeck Park, in 1775 Lord Scarborough commissioned Capability Brown to landscape the area.

With little regard to the archaeological importance of Roche Abbey, Brown extensively demolished the remaining buildings, constructed huge earth terraces, and turfed across the entire site, leaving only the two transepts as 'romantic' features in the grounds. Until the end of the 19th century the remains of Roche Abbey lay disguised beneath Brown's wooded parkland, but with a successful programme of excavation during the 1920s, Roche Abbey was 'reborn' out of the ground.

Secluded in the deep valley, and contained within the natural boundaries of magnesium limestone cliffs, Roche Abbey is almost as inaccessible today as it might have been over 800 years ago. There is a small parking area just off the main road but from here it is a short trek down a roughly cobbled, winding lane that eventually leads to the valley floor. We can only imagine how picturesque the location is on a typically warm and bright Spring day because we had planned our visit during the persistently wet, windy and dismal conditions around Easter 1998. Despite the inclement weather we experienced, Roche Abbey was an extremely peaceful site buried with the secrets of its history in an area of great beauty.


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