The Abbeys of Yorkshire – 3

It’s Thursday May 14th and today we’re making an early start. We have miles to go before we sleep, and we want to make four stops along the way. So it’s a full English breakfast to keep us going, pack up the suitcases and the car, and we’re on our way. Goodbye to the capital of Northern posh, as we head north on the A61 to Ripon, the A168 to Sowerby, then a short stretch of the A19 before turning off on some miles of minor roads to reach our first stopping place, Byland Abbey (shown above). This was founded in 1135 as a Savigniac abbey, but was absorbed not long after by that Borg among monastic orders, the Cistercians.

The ruins are impressive, especially the remains of the West front with a rose window which was the model for the similar window at York Minster. We also read about one of the manuscripts owned by Byland Abbey in the Middle Ages, now held by the British Library (Royal MS 15 A xx). Primarily a 12th-13th century copy of the Elucidarium and some tracts by Cicero, it also contains a collection of twelve ghost stories. These have been edited by M. R. James, leaving us to wonder how much his own wonderful ghost stories were influenced by those old tales, and what those old monks thought of them. Did they hear them at mealtimes in the refectory? Tell them to one another in the Chapter House? Read them secretly in the scriptorium, when they were supposed to be studying medieval theology and folk belief?

From Byland it’s a short hop of nine miles to Rievaulx Abbey, the first Cistercian monastery in the north of England, founded in 1132 by twelve monks from Clairvaux Abbey. Under its second abbot, it became a large community of around 140 monks and 500 lay brothers. And this was a man we’ve heard of, Aelred of Rievaulx, who is celebrated in the Church of England’s calendar of saints on January 12th. He is remembered largely for his writings, some of which are still in print, the best known of them being De spirituali amicitia (Spiritual Friendship). It’s not a subject I’ve heard preached or spoken about as much as it deserves to be. Aelred’s shrine was in the abbey church until the Dissolution, and though we don’t find where it might have been we say a prayer in remembrance of him, and give thanks for the gift of spiritual friendship.

By this time we’re feeling peckish, but we’re not going to eat just yet. First we drive the 23 miles to Mount Grace Priory, where in addition to the ruins of the abbey church there is a mansion, adapted from the priory’s guest house, and extensive gardens. First, a bread and soup lunch in the Orchard Café, then to explore.

Ruins of Mount Grace Priory church

Mount Grace Priory was one of the few Carthusian monasteries in England and is the best preserved. The Carthusians lived and worshipped communally, but differed from other monastic orders in that they were semi-hermits. Each monk lived in solitude in one of the cottage-like cells that are ranged around the Great Cloister. One of these has been reconstructed and looks quite comfortable. Maybe if you had to choose, it’s the Carthusians you would want to join?

There’s lots more to see in the gardens and house, which was remodelled in the early 20th century on Arts and Crafts principles, but little time to see it before we have to set off again. Alison has specially asked that we include the Saxon church at Escomb on our way.

Here it is. Built around 675 it is one of the oldest and most complete Saxon churches in Europe. It’s also still in use for weekly services, so it has more of a holy feel to it.

Then we leave on the last stage of today’s journey, to drive the 35 miles to Jarrow where we have booked a two-night stay at The Old Rectory. We’re pretty tired by now so we check in, unpack and wander out to eat at the nearest place we can find which is Martino’s Italian restaurant. That’s OK by us.

And so to bed.

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