Jervaulx Abbey - a real family affair

Having one of the country's oldest surviving abbeys in your back garden might sound romantic, but for the Burdon family Jervaulx Abbey has been a real labour of love, as Catherine Scott discovers.

Anna Burdon,Ian Burdon, and Gayle Hussan and Carol Burdon own Jervaulx Abbey.Picture by Simon Hulme
Anna Burdon,Ian Burdon, and Gayle Hussan and Carol Burdon own Jervaulx Abbey.Picture by Simon Hulme

There is something magical about Jervaulx Abbey.

It is this sense of being in the presence of something extraordinary that has kept its private owners, the Burdon family, going even when the going got tough, which over the years it has. None more so than in 1982 when the precursor to English Heritage pronounced Jervaulx, in Wensleydale, one of the most dangerous sites in Britain, and said that it should be closed down immediately.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Jervaulx’s future hung in the balance.

Burden family at Jevaulx Abbey

“We didn’t even know they had been round,” says current owner, Ian Burdon. “We then got this 60-page report saying the abbey should be closed and taken off the OS map. At the time we were just dealing with death duties.”

Rather than wash their hands of the abbey, which dates back to the 1100s, Ian employed a York architect to draw up an eight-phase plan, to restore, renovate and conserve the abbey.

Since then Ian estimates more than £1 million has been spent making the abbey safe and keeping it open to the public. Some of that has come from grants, but not all of it. The rest the family has had to find through diversifying.

An honesty box at the entrance to the abbey is the only contribution the family gets towards keeping the abbey open ‘dusk ‘til dawn’. But they rely on just that – people’s honesty – to help them maintain an important part of this country’s heritage.

Privately owned Jervaulx Abbey will be lit up this month to raise money for charity

Despite this Ian, who is registered disabled after a car crash 40 years ago, and his wife Carol, have felt they have a duty of care to the abbey, which they have passed on to the next generation, their daughters Anna and Gayle.

“It isn’t just the fact that it is an important part of our heritage. There is something so special about the abbey,” says Anna, the youngest member of the family. “It is hard to put into words but nearly everyone who visits feels the same and we get generations of families visiting year after year. It means so much to so many people, not just us.”

Jervaulx Abbey is the country’s largest privately owned Cistercian Abbey. It was plundered and pillaged during the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII and, since then, the remains of the abbey have been passed down through numerous families who owned Jervaulx Hall, eventually being turned into a romantic garden for the Hall before being opened to the public.

Ian’s parents, Major and Mrs Burdon returned to Yorkshire from the Borders of Scotland in 1971 to retire. They bought part of the Jervaulx Estate and included in the purchase were 500 acres of farm and parkland, and the ruins of the abbey. Following the death of Major Burdon in 1980, the abbey passed onto his eldest son Rae, who was in business in the south of England and so allowed his younger brother Ian to manage the site. Just two years later they received the devastating English Heritage report. And despite this Ian completed the purchase of the Abbey from his brother in 2001. Then the foot and mouth crisis hit and they had to close for seven months.

Anna Burdon,Ian Burdon, and Gayle Hussan and Carol Burdon in the tearooms at Jervaulx Abbey Picture by Simon Hulme

But this tenacious and determined family were undeterred.

They opened the award-winning Jervaulx Abbey Tearooms in 1994. Building up a reputation for great baking, the income generated went in to maintaining the abbey. Carol also had a B&B adjacent to the tearooms for a number of years, and they also have a caravan site.

Despite Ian’s disability, he maintains the abbey, mowing and tending the 200 types of wild flowers that adorn the abbey and its grounds.

Jervaulx Abbey is a real family affair and, as Ian and Carol start to think possibly about taking things a bit easier, Anna and Gayle are starting to take a bigger role in the running of the abbey.

Having seen her daughters grow up in the shadows of the abbey and working in the tearooms in their school holidays and at weekends, Carol was keen not to put pressure on her girls to put their future in the abbey. “This was our dream not theirs.” she says.

Initially both girls left to go to college and work in York, where Gayle met her future husband Alan.

But when Ian fell seriously ill and was hospitalised, Anna in particular took stock of what she really wanted to do.

“I was doing an art and design course and wasn’t really that happy. I knew Mum needed help with the abbey and the tearooms when Dad was ill and initially I said I’d come home for a few months. I was 21 and that was eight years ago.”

She now lives in a cottage next door to the tearooms and has just helped her mum produce a cookbook celebrating 25 years of baking at Jervaulx. In their Footsteps, published by Meze Publishing follows the Burdons’ journey with Jervaulx and references the monks who would have once made things at the abbey such as cheese and beer, as well as personal family favourites.

Gayle, who had started her own wedding cake business Where the Ribbon Ends, “moved home” in 2014 and found Jervaulx was the perfect place to base her fledgling business, with Anna baking the cakes that Gayle then intricately decorates.

The women realised that they needed to develop the business if it was to survive and maintain the abbey.

Carol had the idea of expanding the tearoom site to create the Chapter House event room and obtained a license to be able to hold weddings which the couples could then have blessed in the magical surrounds of the ancient abbey.

Gayle’s marriage to Alan was the first one held at the abbey. Having joined the family, Alan now helps Ian to maintain the historic structure.

The Budons gained permission to have a marquee in the ground of the abbey ten times a year. They have plan to convert the chapel into an area where Gayle vcan expand her cake decorating business.

Des[pite being custodians of a piece of the country’s history, the Burdons say some members fo the public do not help them.

“We have signs warning people not to climb on the ruins and not to go in after dark, mainly for their own safety but also to protect the abbey,” 
says Carol.

“But people still allow their children to climb and can get quite angry when you ask them not to.

“I don’t think a lot of people realise that it is privately owned and that we are trying to protect it and them.”

They even have a growing problem with graffiti.

But despite all this, they have no intention of stopping people enjoying somewhere they feel is so special.

In fact they are encouraging more people to visit. This weekend and next they are holding a Jervaulx In Lights event for the second year running.

It started last year as a fund-raiser for Help for Heroes after Anna decided to trek to Everest base camp for the charity.

This year it is to raise funds for the local Herriot Hospice.

“When the abbey is all lit up in different colours it becomes even more magical,” says Anna.

As the third generation to care for Jervaulx Abbey the two young women are clearly passionate about its survival into the future.

Anna adds: “What more would we want from our lives than to make sure we are preserving such an amazing part of our history.”

Jervaulx In Lights takes place on October 26 and 27 ,from 5pm to 9pm. See the abbey in a celebration of lights courtesy of Countryside Events. £7.50 for adults and £5 for children, pay on entry. All proceeds to the Herriot Hospice.

In Their Footsteps costs £15 and is available from the Jervaulx Abbey Tearoom and, Amazon and as well as in book shops including Waterstones.