A view of Rievaulx, North Yorkshire

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By Tom Salmon:

“Here hills with vales, here woods with water vie;
Here art with nature strives to feast the eye;
Here Espec’s tow’ring fabric, clad with green
and monkish grandeur, decorates the scene;
Here architects engrave th’ Ionic scroll,
and fam’d Burnice’s pencil crowns the whole.”

– An anonymous contemporary description of Rievaulx Terrace and its Ionic temple.

It felt like spring had finally arrived as we drove through the North York Moors National Park. The low sun, flickering through the bare trees, gave the woods an almost stroboscopic quality. Daffodils lined the lanes and snowdrops nodded in the March breeze. We were heading to Rievaulx Terrace, a landmark created by a wealthy landowner in 1758 to stroll, entertain and impress his friends. Every landscape tells a story, especially when they cost as much as this must have done to create.

Unloading three kids and a buggy from the car, we headed through the woods towards the old coach gate which used to be the arrival point for the original horse-drawn visitors back in the eighteenth century, marking the point that the dense woods open out onto a grassy terrace. This, and the spring sunshine, invited the kids to run from the woods, their speed tempered only by our shouted instruction to slow down as they shot towards the steep edge of the terrace.

The Terrace was created by Thomas Duncombe II, whose family had made their wealth as financiers and bankers in the City in London, buying the Helmsley estate in 1694. He used to bring people to it by coach from his manor, about a mile away.  These days visitors like us, clutching their National Trust membership cards like passports, travel from further afield but leave with the same impression; what wealth these people must have had.

His terrace overlooks the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey, a twelfth century Cistercian abbey that was once one of the wealthiest in England until raiders from Scotland, black plague and debt dealt it a series of heavy blows before Henry VIII dissolved it in 1538. The Espec named in the poem above was its patron. Apparently the abbey owned an early experimental blast furnace that could produce cast iron and some academics believe that its dissolution put the industrial revolution back by 250 years.

Duncombe built a temple at either end of the terrace, encouraging you to walk its full length and take in the views over the Abbey and up the Ryedale valley. The two temples were inspired by Grand Tour visits to far-off places like the Temple of Fortuna Virilis in Rome. Another effort to leave his visitors in no doubt about his means, taste and influence.  We talk about the kids, take photos and enjoy the warmth of the early spring sunshine as we walk. I wonder what Duncombe would have been discussing with his guests about in 1758. It’s certainly a place of careful design, communicating mastery and influence.

As you look beyond the ruins, it’s easy to forget that you’re looking at a valley that bears the marks of thousands of years of human shaping and to buy into Duncombe’s vision of his family’s ability to romanticise the past to tame nature and all that lies before them. But of course, it’s a folly. The last descendent died in the 1960s and the National Trust has looked after the terrace and woodland since the 1970s. Perhaps ironically, they (and English Heritage who operate the abbey below) are preserving a reminder of the impermanence of people and their empires, which would have been fated to decay and oblivion without them and the last descendants of Duncombe’s family.

Neither the abbey nor the terrace holds their original power. It is gone, leaving only the aesthetic to be photographed and their original meaning preserved only on acrylic history boards, tucked under one of the temples and ignored by most visitors.

“We wonder, and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.”

– Ozymandias, Horace Smith

But the spring bulbs flowered on as the low sun set and we travelled home.

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Words & Pictures: Tom Salmon

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