A weekend in North Yorkshire
Why visit North Yorkshire?
Perhaps it's not surprising that in 'God's own country' there are so many abbeys and priories to explore. We care for eight ecclesiastical sites in North Yorkshire alone. Today, the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey and its neighbours around the edges of the wild, heather-strewn North York Moors National Park are tranquil places for reflection.
In Medieval England these weren't just places for prayer - the huge amounts of land owned by the monastic orders provided plenty of opportunity for profit too.
And North Yorkshire's story hasn't always been peaceful. Castles march inland from the coast to the Dales. Scarborough Castle, a mighty royal fortress in the Middle Ages, also saw one of the bloodiest sieges of the English Civil War. Richmond Castle was built to subdue the unruly locals soon after the Norman Conquest, and was used as a prison up to the First World War when Conscientious Objectors were held there.
In York itself (which we haven't covered in this guide) you can explore more than a millennium of history, from Jorvik Viking Centre to York Cold War Bunker. See the famous Rose Window in York Minister - which took inspiration from Byland Abbey - and get 360 degree views of the city from the top of Clifford's Tower.
Things to do in North Yorkshire
Day 1: Rievaulx Abbey and Helmsley Castle
Over 800 years ago, Rievaulx Abbey's most famous abbot St Aelred described the place as 'everywhere peace, everywhere serenity.' Perhaps this is even more true now than in the abbey's heyday, when 150 monks and 500 lay brothers lived and worked there.
The soaring remains of Rievaulx Abbey are an awe-inspiring sight. As you wander between the pillars of the old nave, you can really imagine life in this peaceful valley over the centuries. And the museum, which opened last year, has objects on display for the first time that tell the story of the abbey. There's a café with views over the ruins, so you can contemplate them with a cup of tea.
Helmsley Castle is about a two and a half mile walk from Rievaulx Abbey (here's the route). Overlooking the picture-perfect market town of Helmsley, the castle was recently revitalised to make it more accessible. There's a new visitor centre and an exhibition in the mansion range, and nearby the Helmsley Archaeology Store runs a number of behind the scenes guided tours. You can see objects in the collections spanning English history from Prehistory to the modern day. Pre-booking these tours is essential.
You could also squeeze in a visit to nearby Byland Abbey - though this is more of a bike ride or car journey away. This atmospheric ruin inspired church buildings throughout the North. Over the road, the Byland Inn has a fantastic tearoom serving light lunches, sandwiches, cakes and hot and cold drinks.Plan a visit to Rievaulx Abbey
Day 2: Mount Grace Priory and Richmond Castle
Life for a medieval Carthusian monk was simple and as self-sufficient as possible. They lived as hermits alongside each other in individual cells, and you can see reconstructions of these (along with an authentically-planted herb plot) at Mount Grace Priory. The monastery guest house was converted into a manor house after the Suppression, and is a complete contrast to this simplicity. Formerly owned by the family of Gertrude Bell, the influential explorer, archaeologist and diplomat, it was restored and redecorated in the Arts and Crafts style in the early 1900s.
Over on the other side of the A1, less than an hour's drive away, is Richmond Castle - the best preserved example of an early Norman castle in England. Its keep dominates the skyline, with commanding views of the Yorkshire Dales. The cell block where the 'Richmond Sixteen' were held is closed at the moment as our conservators work to protect the fragile graffiti that they left behind. But you can find out more about the project in the exhibition.
Day 3: Whitby Abbey or Scarborough Castle
Whitby Abbey has fired people's imaginations for centuries - from Caedmon the Anglo Saxon poet to Bram Stoker, the Victorian author of Dracula. Looking benignly down on the seaside town, the views are stupendous. Of course, whether or not you bound up the 199 steps up from the town, like Dracula in the novel, is up to you.
The town is about an hour's drive from both Rievaulx and Mount Grace Priory. But you could also arrive in style on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway. The steam train runs daily between Pickering at Whitby (April - October) and takes around 1 hour 45 minutes - so there's time for a visit to Pickering Castle before you board.
Further south is Scarborough Castle. The ancient stronghold stands on the massive rocky headland that divides Scarborough's wide sandy bays. It's the best place to get a view of the Yorkshire coast - especially from the lookout post over the curtain wall.
The castle, which was last attacked during WW1, was one of the greatest royal fortresses of the Middle Ages. Walking up the cobbled barbican to the ruined Great Tower, you get a sense of the power which was once centred here. The expansive site is great for picnics or stretching your legs - there are 16 acres to explore, including the remains of a Roman signal station by the outer wall.Plan a visit to Whitby Abbey
Where to stay
While you're staying at an English Heritage holiday cottage, you'll be welcomed with a hamper on arrival, and receive complimentary entry to all English Heritage sites and most events during your stay. You'll also get discounts in our shops and cafes while you're with us, and online for a month after your stay.
Our two cottages in North Yorkshire - Prior's Lodge at Mount Grace Priory and Refectory Cottage at Rievaulx Abbey - give you a unique chance to experience the serenity of these sites.
Refectory Cottage, Rievaulx Abbey
Built from the reclaimed stone of the abbey, this picturesque holiday cottage sits at the entrance to the soaring ruins of Rievualx. It's the perfect place to absorb the tranquility of the Rye valley. Sleeps: 4 + cot.
Prior's Lodge, Mount Grace Priory
Set at the foot of the Cleveland Hills and overlooking the ruins Mount Grace Priory, staying at Prior's Lodge puts you at the heart of some of the most beautiful scenery in Britain. Sleeps: 4 + cot.
Getting there and getting around
- BY CAR: The A1(M) and A19 are the main highways running north/south. For sites around the south of the North York Moors National Park (Rievaulx Abbey and Helmsley Castle, for example) the A170 connects Thirsk and Scarborough. If you're heading for the north of the national park or the coast, follow the A172/A171.
- ON FOOT: You can walk between Rievaulx Abbey and Helmsley Castle along the Cleveland Way, for example. On the other side of the A1, it's a short stroll between Richmond Castle and Easby Abbey.
- BY BIKE: National Route 65 runs along roads close to Mount Grace Priory (as does its strenuos alternative 656). By the coast, there's the 'Cinder Track' - a 21 mile off-road route along the former Scarborough to Whitby railway.
- ON PUBLIC TRANSPORT: There are high-speed trains to York from around the country - from there, you can continue to Scarborough by train quite easily, or change to a bus. There's a good network of bus services, serving many of the main towns and villages. The North Yorkshire Moors Railway runs steam trains between Pickering Castle and Whitby Abbey, via Goathland station - which doubled as Hogsmeade in the first Harry Potter films.
Extend Your Stay
More places to visit in Yorkshire
The view from the top of Clifford's Tower is incredible - from your vantage point you can see all over York, including a great view of the Minster. The site is part of the old York Castle, built by William the Conqueror, and has plenty of stories to tell.
York Cold War Bunker
The most modern and spine chilling of English Heritage’s properties the York Cold War Bunker uncovers the secret history of Britain’s Cold War. Enter the blast-proof doors and investigate the more unusual side of York’s heritage.
Once the childhood home of Richard III, Middleham Castle is a fascinating place to visit in the Yorkshire Dales. Although roofless, extensive remains of the fortified palace still survive - and are waiting to be explored.
English Heritage Members can also get a range of discounts at our Associated Attractions. Login to our Members' Area to see the full list.
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