Byland Abbey is set in the striking scenery of the Coxwold-Gilling Gap. The Hambleton Hills rise abruptly to the north. Between their limestone escarpment and the wooded Howardian Hills to the south is a landscape of hummocky hillocks separated by flat arable land, once marshland but drained by the monks into a complicated system of watercourses. As McDonnell and Everest say in the first issue of the Ryedale Historian "the key to making a viable monastic site lay in the control of water. This had to be achieved (in Byland's case) by draining the land and capturing and diverting the spring-fed streams" from the limestone slopes.
Distance: 8 miles
Time: 5 hours
Conditions: mostly well signed field paths in the National Park and the Howardian Hills AONB
Refreshments: Wass, Coxwold (tearoom open Fri-Sun in winter)
OS Explorer Map 299
Originally published: 7 October 2011
Our 8 mile walk explores this beautiful area and the monastic waterworks. It starts from Wass village hall on the road to Helmsley via Wass Bank, (GR 554795). Walk down the road to the Wombwell Arms and continue in the direction of Coxwold.
In 300 yards, at a bend in the road, go ahead through a gate on a path which climbs gently and soon reveals the abbey ruins away on the right. After dropping down one field we continue to another little eminence overlooking Low Pasture Farm where there was once a monastic mill.
The path turns left here and is well signed to the foot of Hessle Hill. It then follows a line of power poles across the side of the hill towards Wass Grange. Cattle and sheep still graze here as they must have done for the last 800 years but one wonders what the monks would make of the alpacas which have recently been added to the scene. The path bears right across the field in front of the farm to a stile.
After the next field go right, through a gate, keeping a small wood immediately on the left at first and then some 50 yards distant as the path climbs to a stile. From here there are good views back towards the abbey and the Kilburn White Horse.
Cross the next field before turning right, down the field side to join a farm track. Follow this for about a quarter of a mile to Old Pilfit Farm and beyond to Colley Broach Road.
A one and half mile amble on a level, traffic free, grass grown lane follows. After Acorn Hill it descends on to the flatlands drained by the Byland monks. Look out for a short cut on the left (arrow on the third pole) which passes a lone tree and cuts a corner and, like the lane, takes you over Long Beck, its flood embankments almost certainly raised by monks from both Byland and nearby Newburgh Priory.
The beck flows into Newburgh's great fishpond which is still an attractive feature of the present 17th century house of the Wombwells. It can be enjoyed by following the lane to a junction and turning left for 200 yards. There are glimpses of the house ahead and there's a low stone wall to sit on and contemplate the wildlife.
We now return the 200 yards and continue into Coxwold, described justifiably by AJ Brown in his Fair North Riding as one of the county's jewels, its site on a sloping hill adding to its 'character and quiet dignity'. The church is worth a visit for the grand monuments to the families of Newburgh as well as for the grave of Laurence Sterne who wrote Tristram Shandy at nearby Shandy Hall. There's a tearoom and the 17th century Fauconberg Arms higher up the village street.
Our walk passes all of these and, some 50 yards beyond Shandy Hall, on the far outskirts of the village, turns right on a path signed to the village hall. Go straight across the rough Town's Pasture. Leaving a copse of some half dozen trees on the left head for some windblown bushes, remnants of an ancient hedge.
The path continues over 2 stiles, turns left along a field side and then right, following a sign to Cams Head. After two wooden bridges with stiles it comes to a junction. Go right but look over left for an earthen bank, built by the monks for a fishpond by damming Wakendale Beck.
The path passes through a small wood to Cams Head Farm. Turn right here for Byland Abbey which soon comes into view. As you pass the houses in the final field look left to spot the remains of another pond bank built to provide water for a second abbey mill.
Turn left at the road to reach the abbey, now open at weekends in the winter. It's one of Yorkshire's finest monastic ruins. Famous for its early Gothic architecture, it also has notable stone carvings, an outstanding collection of medieval tiles and of course is instantly recognisable by its broken rose window which once had a diameter of 28ft.
To return to Wass follow the road around the corner from the abbey entrance and go left up the drive of Abbey House. You immediately cross a tiny stream, yet another example of the ingenuity of the monastic surveyors. The stream rises at a spring in the hills ahead and originally flowed east into the Vale of Pickering. It was diverted around the field you are about to cross to join another stream, also diverted from the hills, in order to fill the pond by the abbey, provide running water for the monks and power their mill.
The path in a few yards goes right, over a stile, before heading left up a slope to a seat with a fine view back to the abbey. It then recrosses our little stream and joins a lane. Turn right back into Wass.