Rievaulx Abbey

Rievaulx Abbey

by Angie Cosey

No tour of England would be complete without a visit to one of the ruined churches that lie scattered across the green island like a child’s broken Legos. On the edge of the North York Moors lies Rievaulx Abbey, a 12th-century Cistercian monastery which, like its religious cousins, saw its fortune collapse in the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII in the 1500s. 

Rievaulx is not as decayed as some of the other monastic ruins but not as popular as some of the more famous ones. This gives it the unique position of being both majestic and beautiful to look at and not very crowded. It sits in a quiet valley along the River Rye, like a precious gem that someone dropped centuries ago, waiting to be rediscovered ever since.

On my visit in 2018, I wandered through the archaic shambles, following ancient holy hallways and treading on stone tiles laid down nearly a thousand years before. The shadows of evening were creeping up the decaying walls of the cloister when I saw a man walk past me carrying a trombone. Curious, I followed him through a maze of crumbling walls and collapsing pillars until we came to the nave, the center of the glorious tall cathedral which housed the chapel and sanctuary and holiest areas of worship. 

Here, where the choir once sang their hymns in bygone times, musicians began to gather. First one, then two, then several; slowly, the transept filled with instruments and players. A lady began arranging folding chairs on the lawn under the soaring, windowless arches. As the sun started to descend, the orchestra took their seats. 

A reverent hush came over the crowd. Though it had seen only a smattering of tourists an hour ago, now the great, venerable hall of Rievaulx was filled with spectators. I joined them, taking a seat on the ground with my back resting on a cracked column of stone. A volunteer handed out programs, and the band began to play.

I always love stumbling onto these unexpected, magical moments of serendipity. The band, Bilsdale Silver Band, consisted of maybe 20 players with various horns, plus a drummer. They played hymns in the evening light, surrounded by the towering remnants of that holy place. We listened to the harmonic melodies ringing off the flagstones and sang along to the psalms with the lyrics on our program. A vicar gave a short sermon; a monk led the makeshift congregation in prayer. For just one night, just one hour, this ancient old ruin came alive again.


Featured in our March 2022 issue, "Structure/Destruction"