‘Thurifer’ ventures into the Northern Province

Travel offers opportunities for pleasure; also occasions of frustration: delayed flights, missing hotel bookings, gippy tummy, cutpurses, and rogues. Now I find that lunch on Grand Central Trains is not complimentary in First Class: not that grand, then. A good dinner in The Nag’s Head, Pickhill (recommended) restored equilibrium: the excursion could begin.

‘Sheep may safely graze’ in North Yorkshire. They were the backbone of the medieval agricultural economy, not least its religious houses. For unworthy political reasons these were despoiled during the Reformation and now stand magnificent ruins, eloquent testimony to the impiety and grotesque self indulgent concupiscence of a ruthless monarch. Visit these ‘Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang’ and be moved by their timeless, silent witness.

Rievaulx Abbey, which set the style for monastic architecture, and Fountains Abbey are substantial remains of Cistercian houses in remote, sheltered valley settings. At Rievaulx, the remains of St Aelred’s original church are modest, but the presbyterium has soaring pointed arches, flights of swallows swooping through them. The walls of the lay brothers’ nave at Fountains are so high they would need only a roof to make it serviceable. Towering walls, a breath-taking undercroft, and generous remains of the domestic ranges make it an outstanding site.

Byland is less sheltered, as a keen wind proved. In its heyday this most ambitious of abbeys had 150 monks, 200 lay brothers, and a church larger than some cathedrals. In contrast, at Jervaulx only the foundations of the church survive. Perhaps it suffered because the last Abbot was executed for his part in the Pilgrimage of Grace; but more survives of the domestic buildings. It was amongst the wealthiest of abbeys, and produced a distinctive cheese that evolved into today’s Wensleydale. Another contrast, and much of its charm, is that its ruined walls have been allowed to be overtaken by nature: wallflowers proliferate, and moss and grass act form protection against the elements as they enfold the stonework.

Mount Grace Priory is a different experience. A Carthusian house, its monks lived as hermits coming together only for worship. Modest and domestic in scale, their accommodation was commodious: generous endowment enabled comfortable living, which may have made the rigorous timetable of work and prayer easier to bear. A present-day Brother of Charterhouse was envious.

St Mary’s, Studley Royal, by the controversial architect William Burges, was sublime. Beautifully restored, there is no better example of his work. It was paid for by the 3rd Marquis of Ripon, who moved from an Evangelical youth, through Anglo-Catholicism, and was finally converted to Rome. He also contributed to a church a few miles away, previously unknown to me and also by Burges: Christ the Consoler, Skelton. This mournful ‘companion’ piece was built as a memorial by a grieving mother for a son murdered by Greek brigands. Pevsner, no great admirer of Burges, thought that its ‘tremendous ornateness[and] excessive relief [was]somewhat elephantine’; but the sympathetic Harry Goodhardt-Rendel thought it ‘one of the most remarkable churches of the nineteenth century [and] one of the most beautiful.’

A secular diversion: Newby Hall has been owned continuously by one family. It was designed by Wren, although he did not visit the site. Regency and Victorian additions followed and formed a coherent building. All rooms, bar one, remain in family use. There is much work by Robert Adam and furniture by Chippendale to admire. Meanwhile, Beningbrough is similarly attractive but with a less settled history: a succession of families bought and sold it until the final occupant died and crippling death duties were due. A sale of the contents failed to raise the sum required, and the House passed to the National Trust without endowment. Eighteenth-century portraits from the National Portrait Gallery hang in the rooms. Although those portrayed have no connection, they seem at home. In one room crockery cascades from a fireplace across the carpet, and over a sofa: I am undecided whether that curatorial ésprit was clever or crass.

Surrounded by its moat, Markenfield Hall is an eccentrically charming house. More farmhouse than stately home, it is open only on 32 days each year. It has been restored by its present owners Lady Deidre Curteis and her husband, the playwright Ian. Built in the early 14th century, it remained a Catholic house during the Henrician Reformation, but was confiscated by Elizabeth I when its owner Sir Thomas Markenfield fled after the failure of the Rising of the North (1569). Before they set out Mass of the Five Wounds of Christ was offered in the Chapel. The estate was a parochial peculiar, and it became a civil parish in 1858. Its population is ten.

Sunday obligation was satisfied at Temple Moore’s stunning St Wilfrid’s, Harrogate. It featured in Private Eye’s ‘Nooks and Corners’ column some months ago, which lamented proposals to lower the baptistry floor and remove the rood screen. Plans for the former will not go ahead, I understand. The screen, not by Moore, was installed a year after the church was completed: a drawing of Moore’s completed scheme persuades me that the removal would restore his original intentions. The choir sang well, and the organ was played superbly by Leonard Sanderman: top marks. Evensong at Ripon Cathedral (is it still one?) was replaced by Pentecost Praise. We preferred the sepulchral quiet of the graveyard.