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Yorkshire’s Abbeys explored

There are few things more beautiful, more impressive, than medieval church architecture.  No matter what your religious beliefs, the domination of the Catholic Church in this area is an incredible thing.  The intricate carvings, the size and scale of the interiors and the very real and intimate feeling of being in a sacred space cannot fail to impress a visitor.

Fountains Abbey

Abbeys were more than just places of worship in the medieval mind.  They were also centers of administration, judgment, and law.  They were, to all intents and purposes, the local castle or lordship during this time, as the few literate souls lived there, and the church’s word was usually the final say in any dispute.  They were also a beacon across wooded dales, the spires shooting up out of the trees to all the surrounding farmland.

In the north of England, among the lovely, heather-scented rolling hills of Yorkshire, there are many such gems of stone, in varying degrees of health and ruin.  What follows is a review of several of these centers of worship.

Yorkminster Abbey (

Often York has been called the quintessential medieval town; certainly it has its share of winding alleys, cobblestone streets, and sagging half-timber store fronts.  However, the jewel in its crown, the beacon of beauty is York Minster. 

York Minster

This wonder of architecture is one of the best preserved churches in England, as it was maintained as a center of the Church of England when Henry VIII ordered the destruction of many abbeys throughout his realm.  Technically this is a cathedral rather than an abbey. It is said that there are so many small chapels within the church that there is one for every day of the week.  I can well believe it!  

When you enter this special place, your first reaction will be to see it all in a sweeping glance, but that is impossible.  Stop and breathe in the air, notice the play of light on the floors and walls, hear the chorus sing, and discover the beauty within. 
Things to see:

• Visit when the chorus is practicing or performing.  The haunting melodies of the hymns ring out through the halls, acoustically reverberating in the space like the inside of a drum.
• Look up into the high ceilings, and see the incredibly detailed carvings above you.  Conveniently, there are mirrors placed on tables in the hallways, allowing you to see the detail without straining your neck or tripping while walking. 
• Explore the undercroft crypts, and feel the weight of hundreds of years on your shoulders as you wend your way through the dusty tombs.  There are artifacts here of Viking and Roman occupation, and is still used for special services.
• Along the center wall of the main church, there are carvings of the kings of England, from William I to Henry VI, formed into a Quire Screen. 
• Try to arrive when the sun is shining through one of the spectacular stained glass windows, such as the five sister’s window in the north, the great east window, or the rose window in the south.  The colors and artistry of these windows is sublime, and with light streaming in it changes the floating dusty air into a kaleidoscope.
• Don’t miss the imposing exterior to this Abbey!  Walk around and see the gothic flying buttresses, the statue to Constantine I (he was crowned emperor in York) and the towering spires against the Yorkshire sky.

You can spend an hour in Yorkminster, barely skimming the sites, or you can spend days there, seeing each morsel of art you can find.  Either way, you cannot fail to be impressed by the artistry, the time, the effort, and the beauty that went into creating this wonderful abbey.

Fountains Abbey (

This ruined Cistercian Abbey is situated in a wonderful estate which includes gardens, a deer park, and holiday cottages for rental.  The abbey itself is placed next to a babbling river. 

Fountains Abbey

As you climb the hill into the valley that houses this place, you will notice the amber colored stone cut away from the side of the hill – the very stone that was used to construct this abbey, honey-colored and warm in the sunlight.  The tower reaches up into the sky, and the unroofed hallways echo with the sounds of monks past.

Things to see:

• Climb into the various open air towers, to get a feel of the size and scale of this settlement.  Surrounded as it is by trees, hills and river, it gives a much different feeling than Yorkminster, in the middle of a bustling city.  Graceful arches give way to the despair of a broken stone, a forgotten prayer, and a ruined life.
• The haunting arches of the refectory take you back in time, as the thick walls drown out the sounds of tourists picnicking on the green lawn outside.  You feel as if you have fallen down the rabbit hole into a dark, musty age of chanting monks and fading light.
• Don’t miss the Warming Room, where you can see the remains of the great hearths, and imagine them stoked with fires to warm the Abbey rooms.
• In addition to the abbey itself, take some time to visit the water garden at Studley Royal.  Its manicured elegance is something straight out of a Jane Austen novel, and is perfect for quiet contemplation or stunning photographs.  This area is also studded with follies and temples from the same period.

The approach to the Abbey is a bit of a walk, and has a slight hill.  However, for those that find such a walk tiresome, there is a small bench to rest under a shady tree on the way in.  It is very much worth the trek to this lovely piece of history.

Rievaulx Abbey ( 

This Abbey is nestled in the middle of Yorkshire, miles from any significant settlement, seeming to be screened from the modern world by hills of purple heather and rows of tall thin trees. 


This Eden is surrounded only by a few small farms and herds of livestock, leaving it as a lone jewel in the tapestry of greens and browns.  It is difficult to find without a good map, so be prepared!

Also destroyed by Henry VIII, this particular church is one of the best preserved, keeping much of its original structure intact.  It also has many interesting exhibits and archeological finds.

Things to see:

• Explore the massive amount of outbuildings, still outlined in stone from their original locations
• Seek out the unusual carvings, such as the triple faced cornice stones, or the fluted columns.
• Sit on the rounded dais steps that lead down to a lower level, and imagine the bustling community of Cistercian monks that settled here in the 12th century.
• Count the hundreds of arches still visible in the clerestory and walls, doorways and hallways of the structure

The serenity and tranquility of this valley is only broken by the occasional baa of the sheep and the crunch of gravel as a tourist exits the parking lot towards the Abbey itself.  No matter what time of year you visit the abbey, you will be filled with a longing for the time it left behind.

Whitby Abbey (

Dramatically situated on a cliff above the town of Whitby, this elegant abbey has been a Christian site since the 7th Century.  Sacked by Danes, rebuilt, and famous for its association with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, this is surely a haunting and notorious spot. 


The fishing town of Whitby is on the north east coast of England, overlooking the cold North Sea.  From the vantage point of the abbey, with a staircase of 199 steps rising above the town, it truly seems to loom in the wide sky.

Things to see:

• See the color variations in the stone used for the pillars in the ruins.  There are shades of yellow, brown, green, blue and grey throughout the building.
• Explore small St. Mary’s Church down below the main abbey, with its majestic Celtic crosses in the graveyard, and a simple, honest spirituality inside
• Don’t miss the Anglo-Saxon gravestones that were excavated next to the abbey itself, proof of the age of the site
• Nearby Cholmley House has been converted into a museum and tea room for the abbey and its history
• Explore Whitby town itself, from where Captain Cook set sail, and where Dracula docked on English soil.  There are walking tours that cater to the macabre imagination as well.
• Have some incredibly fresh fish & chips by the dockside
• Go into town and have fun at the wharf side arcade, and watch the pirate ship come into port.  Don’t be startled when the cannon goes off!

Whitby is a delightful seaside town, complete with a working relationship with the sea, and of course with tourists.  The looming presence of the ruined abbey above it gives it a preternatural, gloomy feel, as if you are in the middle of some gothic horror novel.  Oh, wait – you are!

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