Spirituality in the North York Moors National Park
As we launch our Green Traveller's Guide to the North York Moors, Paul Bloomfield wanders the ruins of the North York Moors' iconic monasteries Rievaulx and Byland, as well as some of the park's lesser-known but equally beautiful abbeys and priories.
“Everywhere peace, everywhere serenity.”
It sounds like it could be a marketing slogan for the moors themselves; in large swathes, apart from birdsong and the distant tootle of a steam train on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, tranquillity reigns supreme.
But these words were actually written by Aelred, 12th-century abbot of Rievaulx Abbey, the Cistercian Monastery that nestles in the Rye Valley just west of Helmsley at the national park’s south-eastern corner. They seem apt even today – but why was it that Yorkshire as a whole, and this patch in particular, attracted so many religious orders to build such imposing edifices? It’s hard to say, exactly – but even now, new spiritual communities are settling here.
Thanks to Henry VIII’s tender attentions during the repression of the monasteries, most of Yorkshire’s (and indeed the UK’s) ancient abbeys, priories and monasteries now lie in spectacular ruins. Rievaulx was the first Cistercian monastery in the area, and arguably the finest; certainly its remains today still inspire the kind of reverence they were intended to induce when built in the first half of the 12th century. To my eye they are the closest thing we have to an English Angkor: a mighty religious ruin, towering stone and vast in scope, redolent with power and peace. The abbey church, which still retains its transept and soaring eastern walls and arches, inspires and awes in equal measure, and you can easily imagine the monks going about their lives in the cloisters, infirmary and refectory.
Nearby Byland Abbey, though less extensive, is – if possible – even more calm. The stone outline of its massive rose window, now half-gone but still impressive, can be made out from some distance away; reputedly it inspired York Minster’s famous rose window. More imagination is required to picture the Savigniac community at its peak, but some elements – notably the fine, intricate mosaic tiles in the abbey church – are both unique and uniquely beautiful.
Mount Grace Priory, to the north-west, is different again: a Carthusian monastery, it is smaller and more intimate in scale. A reconstructed monk’s cell gives a good idea of life for this austere order, and wildlife is abundant here – watch for the stoats!
Just outside the national park, the spookily gothic ruins of Whitby Abbey are famed for their Dracula connection, while the remains of Kirkham Priory boast a gatehouse beautifully decorated with the arms of the De Roos family.
It’s not all ancient history, though; two contemporary religious communities continue the monastic tradition. Ampleforth Abbey has hosted Benedictine monks for over two centuries; as well as running a respected college, it’s also known for its excellent cider, continuing a tradition of brewing and beverage production stretching back to the earliest days of monasteries. Stanbrook Abbey is a modern eco-friendly community of Benedictine nuns, relocated from Worcestershire to a new site close to Byland, that welcomes visitors who wish to join in contemplation and worship.
As well as these large communities, the unusual, beautiful and fascinating churches scattered across the moors deserve a mention. Many have Norman or even Saxon features, with ancient fonts, ceiling bosses and monuments honouring local noble families from centuries past. Worthy of special note are the medieval wall paintings in Pickering’s Church of St Peter and St Paul.
Dating from the 15th century, these depict scenes both biblical – the beheading of John the Baptist, the passion and resurrection of Jesus – saintly, including the martyrdom of St Edmund and a colossal St Christopher carrying the infant Christ, and mythical (St George’s lances pierces the cheek of a ferocious dragon).
If more modern ecclesiastical architecture inspires you, look out for the marvels built by Temple Moore, one of Victorian England’s finest church architects whose apogee is found in Gothic Revival sites around the North York Moors. The Temple Moore Trail website and app leads you to the various spot where you can admire his work.