Video: From rack to ruin for Yorkshire’s own Rievaulx Abbey

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English Heritage saved Rievaulx Abbey from crumbling into history. Now the site is marking its custodianship with a new exhibition and a little help from Queen’s Brian May. Sarah Freeman reports.

Kevin Booth admits it wasn’t quite what he was expecting. “It’s funny what you find while trawling eBay,” says the senior curator at Rievaulx Abbey. Kevin had gone online in the hope of tracking down some photographs of the site prior to 1917. That was the year English Heritage took charge and soon afterwards the ruins became the subject of a major maintenance and restoration project. “In our own archive we had a few photographs of men with pipes working on the ruins, but I really wanted to find out what the place had looked like beforehand. That’s when I came across these beautiful stereoscopic images and they led me to Brian May.”

Kevin Booth at Rievaulx Abbey. PIC: Simon Hulme

Kevin Booth at Rievaulx Abbey. PIC: Simon Hulme

As well as being lead guitarist in Queen and a vocal supporter of badgers’ rights, May also happens to be a co-founder of the London Stereoscopic Company and one of the country’s leading collectors of the images taken using the 3D photographic technique which became popular during the Victorian period.

“They had a number of images relating to Rievaulx which we were able to buy, but when I told them that I wanted to put them in an exhibition looking back at the 100 years since English Heritage began looking after the abbey, they told me Brian May had around 20 more in his own private collection. I couldn’t believe it and even better than that is that he has generously let us use them.”

The images date back to around the time Rievaulx was facing an uncertain future. Today visitors to the site are often momentarily awestruck when they are first confronted by the imposing ruins, near Helmsley, but at the turn of the 20th century the abbey had become hidden behind blankets of ivy and scrub.

For 300 years, unconscious neglect by successive generations of landed gentry who lived on nearby Duncombe Park had also caused the layout of the monastic buildings to disappear beneath piles of soil and rubble.

“That wasn’t unique to Rievaulx,” says Kevin, who says he first went to the abbey in a pram before joining in a professional capacity 12 years ago. “It’s wasn’t that they didn’t care, it was more that these places weren’t viewed as public sites and the idea of curating them is a relatively new concept.”

While Dorothy Wordsworth, sister of Romantic poet William, had recalled of a visit to the ruins in her journal from 1802: “Thrushes were singing, cattle feeding amongst the green grown hillocks about the ruins. These hillocks were scattered over with 
wild roses and other shrubs, and covered with wild flowers”, time wasn’t kind to the place in the decades which followed.

From the 1870s the abbey’s owner, William Duncombe, 1st Earl Feversham, did arrange for his estate workers to carry out minor works on the ruins. He was responding to the very real risk of collapse but it did little to stop the buildings slowly settling further into ruin. However, the arrival of the railway in Helmsley ended up saving Rievaulx from even further damage.

“The first trains pulled into the station at Helmsley in 1871 and quite quickly Rievaulx became a popular tourist destination,” says Kevin. “It soon attracted the attentions of newly emerging conservation bodies. From 1900 the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) made polite enquiries to Lord Feversham offering assistance in surveying the ruins.”

When the society received little response SPAB’s comments became more public, with one report stating “the condition of things is disgraceful. (The ruin) is used as a sort of sheepfold and is in a horribly filthy condition”.

An increasingly frustrated William St John Hope, who was involved in the Society of Antiquaries, also wrote to the society, complaining: “The whole place is falling to rack and ruin, no care is taken of anything and the owner will not say whether or not he will let the place be put in order for him.” The abbey’s condition, which for 250 years was a private matter for the Feversham estate gradually became a public matter and when the 1913 Ancient Monuments Act became law it meant historic sites like Rievaulx could be taken into the guardianship of the state.

“The Office of Works put pressure on an ageing Lord Feversham and they basically made him an offer he couldn’t refuse,” says Kevin. “They told him he could remain the owner, but the office would take on responsibility for the finances and care of the abbey.”

The start of the First World War in 1914 meant negotiations stalled and when Lord Feversham died the following year his grandson Charles inherited the estate. Charles was killed along with many enlisted local men at the Somme in 1916, leaving his young child as heir. The trustees of the estate quickly recognised the challenge of the abbey ruins, and transfer to state guardianship followed on July 20, 1917.

“Rievaulx was a golden opportunity for the Office of Works to test new ways of thinking about the conservation and presentation of ruins,” says Kevin. “Vegetation was stripped from the walls and tonnes of debris cleared to reveal the site. Engineer Frank Baines devised ingenious schemes to consolidate the remains; even going so far as taking down walls and rebuilding them stone by stone.

“Of course techniques and best practice change – there is a huge lump of reinforced concrete holding up one part of the abbey and at some point in the future that is going to cause a huge headache for English Heritage.

“Many in SPAB also felt there was too much intervention and that the ruined character of the monument was being cleared along with the rubble, but what everyone agreed was that the abbey needed to be made more accessible.”

By 1930 the Office of Works had transformed the abbey from its pre-guardianship state. Reclaimed from nature, Rievaulx, with its starkly repointed walls and manicured lawns, became a monument for public understanding and appreciation.”

The exhibition, which opened yesterday, will give people the chance to see how Rievaulx looked before English Heritage moved in and there will also be the opportunity to view May’s stereoscopic images.

“We tell the story of what life was like when the monks were here really well, but that isn’t the only interesting chapter in the history of the abbey,” adds Kevin. “What’s really lovely about the stereoscopic images is that you can take the viewers outside and you can step back in time to the Victorian age and have a before and after image of the place.

“It’s really interesting to see what Rievaulx looked like all those years ago and also spot what was removed when English Heritage took over. Each time they come we want our visitors to find a different story and to explore a different chapter in this beautiful corner of Yorkshire.”

Rievaulx Reviewed runs to October 31. english-heritage.org.uk