Monday, May 17th
By now the wife and I are ready for a more relaxed day of sightseeing so we planned a very limited itinerary…Rievaulx Abbey and Helmsley Castle. This trip would take us farther east than we had yet been and into North York Moors National Park. I also wanted to see Thirsk and Alf Wight’s surgery on the way. After we entered Thirsk we happened upon a Tesco and decided to pop in for a few sundries. What I actually got were some UK automobile magazines and more Irn Bru. For those coming from the USA who want a perspective on the car situation in the UK, go out and buy an annual new cars magazine or something like that. I buy one everytime I’m there and bring it back to show my friends. It really punctuates how silly we are (IMHO) about our large and fast cars (he says that with an 8MPG old Porsche in the garage).
Whether fortunate or not, it was Monday and therefore market day in Thirsk. The town center was impossibly packed with cars and people and it totally put me off doing the whole Alf Wight experience. I am not afraid of crowds mind you. I was just undecided about whether or not I really wanted to do it and the sheer number of people I’d have to navigate helped me make up my mind. So we drove straight through Thirsk and headed for the hills.
We headed out the A170 and up Sutton Bank. We stopped at the Visitors’ Center to take a few photos looking back across the valley. What a stunning view. I’m hoping my stitching program works so I can print out a panorama of what I was seeing. Really beautiful and worth a few minutes of your time (if the weather is cooperating) to walk to the overlook and look down on the world below. After leaving the parking lot we continued on with our AA directions for a mile or so when my wife saw a brown sign for Rievaulx Abbey. It was the road that leads through Scawton to Rievaulx. It was on this road that we realized we were in a slice of heaven. The road down through the woods is beyond beautiful. I’d suggest taking this route to the abbey to anyone looking for a little serenity on the drive.
Before long we turned onto the little road that goes up to the village of Rievaulx and the abbey. Words fail me in trying to describe what this area looks like. I can tell you that if I could choose anywhere on Earth in which to plant myself for old age, Rievaulx would be it. I know it can’t be easy living so far away from the amenities like shops, petrol, etc. But honestly, when I got out of my car, sniffed the air and listened to the birds and wind rustling through the trees, I felt a sense of peace in my heart and mind that I have never felt before. A sense of calm washed through every pore of my body and whispered, “this is what heaven must be like.” Even now thinking about the place I feel a swelling in my chest and hear a voice in my head begging me to return (and no, it’s not the same voice that tells me to try one more piece of the apple & blackberry crumble with custard).
If you only see one abbey ruin in England, Rievaulx has to be it. Not only is the setting outstanding, the buildings themselves are in incredible shape and complete on a level I had not previously seen. I recommend getting the audio tour for this location (it’s free) even if you don’t get it for others. There are a lot of things you’ll miss if you don’t. Keep your eyes open for the medieval tiles (which you’re not to walk on) as you enter the church from the east. We also really liked the tannery. You have to go into the museum before going through the abbey so you can appreciate what tanning hides entails. Pretty gross actually.
If I may get on my soapbox for a moment. The parking lot is a pay and display and costs £4. You can get it refunded by English Heritage in the shop where you purchase your entrance tickets. But seriously folks, that £4 goes to English Heritage which It will use to help preserve these monuments. I think we should all let them keep that £4 because it will certainly help their cause…and isn’t likely to hurt our wallets so much. Remember that without organizations like EH, you likely wouldn’t have these places to visit. OK…enough of that.
We left Rievaulx and headed for Helmsley and the castle. Helmsley is a cute town. This is one of the few we actually walked around. The market square was a nice place to sit back with a sandwich and people watch. There was a fair amount of activity and people seemed to be friendlier and happier as they were puttering about. The people minding the shops didn’t have the same sort of happiness about them but it was getting towards the end of the day so perhaps they were tired from being on their feet all day. Regardless, it didn’t put us off and was totally outweighed by the kind older gentlemen running the small news shop that called my wife “Love.” That was the first time anyone had called her that and she really got a charge out of it.
Helmsley Castle is another impressive site. As you’re walking to the gatehouse from the English Heritage entrance you’re actually walking in the outer defenses. I can’t recall if they said it was a moat filled with water or not but holy shmoly was this thing deep. You can see just how tough it would have been to cross through this to get to the castle (only to find there was an inner moat as well). I get tired climbing a flight of stairs so can’t imaging hauling your tail up the hill with weapons and other items. The grit of our ancestors really amazes me sometimes.
In the castle are the remains of the mighty tower and what was once a nice residence. Of course there are the walls and foundations of the great hall and chapel but it’s the tower and residence that really make the site. The tower was destroyed during the civil war (if I recall correctly) and part of the tower’s outer wall still lies in the inner moat where it landed when it was blown up after the castle was surrendered. Good ol’ Lord Fairfax really did a number on Helmsley. On a side note but not interesting, my wife and I lived in Fairfax, Virginia (named after Lord Fairfax) before moving to Colorado so we kind of identified with the situation.
We left Helmsley and headed for Swaledale. We stopped in Reeth for dinner this night. We ate at the Copper Kettle Tea Room. It was a delicious home cooked meal. My wife had lasagne and I had a gammon steak with a jacket potato. We wanted to get back there and eat again but it didn’t work out. Be aware that if you’re going to eat here, they don’t take credit cards. They do have cheap prices though so it’s not going to break the bank. Then it was off to the B&B for a little relaxation in the garden with the cats and chickens and more BBC before bed.
Next – Part 6 – Where did that rock come from?!?!?