Days out: Watch your step after a drop of the abbot's ale

A hike to Byland Abbey in Yorkshire

By Stephen Goodwin
Monday 20 January 2014 02:39

On first glimpsing Byland Abbey it is not difficult to imagine yourself as a medieval pilgrim come upon one of the great monasteries of England.

The west front of the abbey stands proud of the valley haze and there is the agreeable prospect of beer in one of the guesthouses by the outer walls.

This will be the view if you follow to the letter Walk 1 of the Yorkshire volume of a new series of hikes from English Heritage. Initial sight of the abbey is from about a mile, across a ragged hawthorn hedge as you walk along a field edge towards the end of the six-mile hike.

Closer, too, of course, Byland is revealed as a romantic ruin. The Black Death and Henry VIII's Suppression Commissioners put paid to a once thriving community of Cistercian monks, and time and the elements have undone the magnificent masonry. Nonetheless, it is an impressive site. The remains of the high west front of the church predominate; the arched windows along the nave still look towards wooded hills, and the outline of cloisters and kitchens is there in stone.

English Heritage's object has been to devise easy, circular routes that take in some of its finest old properties along with places to eat and drink. The Byland route actually includes three pubs, though too much liquid indulgence and Yorkshire pudding could extend the walk well beyond the estimated three hours.

So far two sets of six walks each have been published ­ Yorkshire and the South-West ­ and more will follow. The Yorkshire walks have a strong monastic flavour, including majestic Rievaulx Abbey and the atmospheric cliff-top ruin at Whitby. The South-West walks go much further back in time to sites which include Stonehenge and the 4,500-year-old Avebury stone circle.

Detailed directions for each walk, along with a sketch map, are printed on a laminated card small enough to slot into a coat pocket. I hesitate to say the directions are idiot-proof, but on the basis of the Byland circuit it would be hard to get lost. English Heritages recommends taking a proper map and compass "in case of difficulties".

We deliberately did not look at the Ordnance Survey map while on the walk ­ relying only on the printed directions ­ but it makes a good read afterwards. Such a rich crop of names; the woodland path at the start of the walk is marked as "Abbey Bank Noddle" and on to "Snever Scar", but I am relieved we avoided a ravine known as "Hell Hole".

The Byland Walk starts in the village of Wass, with street parking close by a pub named after the Wombwell family, which in centuries past owned the crumbling abbey buildings.

The uphill toil is over within the first third of the walk, a steady ascent through mixed woodland where, for us, bluebells were emerging and the larches flushing with a new green. It is a shooting estate, with numerous reared pheasants and shy roe deer.

Over a distance of about two miles, the walk climbs some 500 feet on to Byland Moor. Though this, like the whole of the route, is part of the North York Moors National Park, it is not an expanse of heather but vast sheep pasture. Wool was one of the foundations of the abbey's wealth and plainly sheep have outlasted the monks. There were hundreds of ewes and lambs around Cam Farm, on the moor top, more a sprawling sheep ranch than a cosy hill farm.

Turning south, the route ambles down through Cockerdale Wood and the village of Oldstead ­ another pub ­ then across farmland with the abbey coming into view. Though it was fine weather, we saw nobody on the whole walk beyond the abbey grounds. Even within the abbey there were fewer than half a dozen sightseers. Not every Heritage Hike will be so exclusive, but all offer an opportunity to discover splendid landscape and thought-provoking history.

To buy a set of Heritage Hikes, priced £5.95, contact English Heritage (01761 452966). Map: Ordnance Survey Explorer OL26 North York Moors, western area, £6.99. For National Park information visit

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