Fleshing out the ruins Premium

16 June 2016 | by Joanna Moorhead


What is most extraordinary about Rievaulx, the twelfth-century Cistercian abbey in Yorkshire, is that it is there at all. One minute you are cruising down a remote country lane, passing hawthorn bushes and fields full of sheep and the occasional cottage; and the next minute, wham! There it is in front of you, vast and majestic, its towering walls rising up towards the heavens, its pointed arches forming a perfect geometric procession against the sky.

Rievaulx (its name means river-valley) would have remained just that, a gentle, tree-filled valley with a stream running languidly through, had it not been for the arrival here in 1132 of a handful of monks who had made the 700-mile journey from Burgundy. They were refugees from what had become a too-cushy lifestyle with the Benedictines; they were ascetics in search of a more demanding, Cistercian, God-centred life; and the moment they arrived at the valley some 20 miles due north of York, they knew they had reached the end of their journey.

For the next 400 years they colonised the valley: they farmed the land and quarried for stone, they built an astonishing and beautiful church and monastery, and they provided a home for, at times, upwards of 600 men.

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