The Great North Road

The next part of our planned pilgrimage is to drive up to Yorkshire and explore some of the ancient abbeys there. We’ve visited some of them before, but others will be new to us.

And so we pack our bags again, say Goodbye to the Charming Old Chapel, and head off to join the Great North Road. It sounds so romantic, but there’s something about the greater comfort (to say nothing of the speed) with which you can make the journey in the 21st century, which takes away some of that romance. The A1(sometimes M) largely follows the older route of the Great North Road, except that avoids the towns and cities which used to be the major staging posts. We could cover the 84 miles to our next overnight resting place in less than two hours, but we’ve decided (this is Alison’s influence working already!) to stop along the way to see something new.

So we turn off the A1(M) near Doncaster, and join the A19 to take us to Selby where we will have lunch and visit Selby Abbey. If you can’t make a real pilgrimage on foot, perhaps horseback will do as it did for the Canterbury pilgrims. If you haven’t a horse, maybe a car is just about permissible, but you should probably choose to take the B-roads, or as a last resort the A-roads, in preference to motorways. Google Maps is less helpful than I hoped. Its preference is to make you take the motorway. When I tried to drag the proposed route so we could go by the A19, it really has something against the A19, and there was one small section that it absolutely would not let me take, and instead proposed to take me miles around the middle of nowhere to avoid:

Google Maps doesn’t like that bit of the A19

We ignore Google Maps and stay on the A19, without mishap.

Selby is a small Yorkshire town about 12 miles south of York, yet its parish church is one of the greatest of the surviving medieval abbey churches. The abbey was founded by Benedict of Auxerre in 1069 – another work of the conquering Normans, then, imposing their power over the conquered Anglo-Saxons – and was such an important foundation that it was granted the status of a ‘mitred abbey’, which it retained until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Why did some of the dissolved abbey churches continue to serve as parish churches, while so many others were allowed to fall into ruin? I suppose there isn’t one single answer to that question, though I guess it had something to do with whether the church was in a town, and was valued by the townspeople, rather than being in the middle of beautiful countryside that was coveted by one of Henry VIII’s henchmen, and didn’t have a large local population to save the church for its proper purpose.

Arriving in Selby we decide to have lunch before visiting the Abbey. We fancy some Turkish cuisine today, so we choose The Olive Branch in Gowthorpe, where we share the mixed mezze for two. My mouth waters as I write…

Mixed mezze for two

Then to the Abbey, which is indeed grand. It would be easy to make the assumption that it was a small cathedral, and if it’s reminiscent in some ways of Durham Cathedral, that’s because it was modelled on Durham. We would love it for that fact alone. Do we have a strong sense of the beauty of holiness here, then? It is tempered by the fact that we often find small village churches, which tiny congregations struggle and work hard to lovingly maintain, have more of that sense of Presence. So I reflect on how it is that all the parish churches of England are equal in God’s eyes, but in the sight of the world, some of them are much more equal than others.

After a short wander down to look at the River Ouse we return to the car and take the A63 to rejoin the Great North Road. We follow it as far as Wetherby, then turn off onto the A661 which takes us in to Harrogate, where we book in at the Majestic Hotel.

The Majestic Hotel, Harrogate

We’ll take the easy option and eat in the hotel restaurant this evening.

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