Day Tripping Yorkshire: Rievaulx and Helmsley

It’s official – I’m back. I have made my return!

Yes, after finishing my undergraduate degree and taking a few weeks longer than was strictly necessary to recover, I’m in writing-mode once more… and whilst I absolutely loved my time at university (so much so that I’ve signed up to start a Masters course in September, eek!) it feels great to be able to spend time writing and reading and visiting sites just for the fun of it.

One of the weirdest parts of being a student is that you sometimes exist in a bit of a university bubble. When you spend all your time living and working on campus, only talking to other students, it almost feels like the outside world doesn’t exist. I’m always super excited to get out of the city and see more of Yorkshire, so when my family visited and suggested a trip to the very beautiful archaeological sites of Rievaulx Abbey and Helmsley Castle, I jumped at the opportunity.

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Rievaulx Abbey was founded in 1132 with the arrival of the Cistercian monks in the north of England and went on to become one of the most renowned monastic centres of Britain. Although the community here was disbanded in 1538 as a result of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, there’s still a surprising amount of abbey left to explore.

Rievaulx also has a brand new exhibition which opened this year as part of a ‘£1.8 million investment project’ undertaken by English Heritage. I visited the old exhibition in 2013 when I started my degree, so I was pretty excited to see what had changed. It was nice – lots of calm colours and subtly illuminated artefacts – but I wasn’t massively impressed. To start with, all the information within the exhibition was communicated using written text. The one exception was a snazzy video, which looked beautiful but again only conveyed information through text that appeared on screen. Overall, it seemed as though everything was aimed at a very specific type of visitor, rather than being inclusive to all.

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The new exhibition centre, Rievaulx

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Snazzy-looking films… one of my museum weaknesses!

Whilst we were in the area, we also visited Helmsley Castle, which is very close by. Based on the view from the road, I wasn’t expecting very much, but more and more of the castle is revealed as you approach, walking up through defensive ditches towards the imposing double gatehouse.

It’s really interesting to see how the different functions of buildings like Helmsley Castle affect their design and development. I guess most of us would view the castle as a powerful defensive structure – but there is actually a lot of debate about the relative importance of the military, administrative and domestic functions of these buildings. Helmsley is a good example. As I’ve already mentioned, the castle has two gatehouses, one in front of the other, and anyone trying to attack the castle must (in theory) pass through both to get inside. However, the wall joining the two buildings together was actually a later addition, and any early attackers could simply bypass first gatehouse and walk straight up to the second – not particularly effective! But part of the castle’s power is derived from its imposing appearance, and gatehouses (even those that you can technically walk straight past) still look intimidating enough to put off most would-be attackers.

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Helmsley’s Outer Gatehouse

Still, if there’s power in building castles, there’s power in knocking them down too. The visitor’s first view of Helmsley Castle includes the main tower, which looks almost like it has been sliced in half. This was the work of Cromwell, who captured the castle during the English Civil Wars, first sending away the defenders and then destroying the tower – sending a clear message to anyone nearby about who was now in charge.

There’s also an exhibition at Helmsley, although it probably could use an investment project of its own… but while the exhibition needed updating, it was still more interactive and inclusive than the one at Rievaulx. Unfortunately, I think studying archaeology has wrecked my chances of ever visiting a museum again without over-analysing its exhibition display techniques. Thanks very much, New Museum Theory!

Still, both Helmsley Castle and Rievaulx Abbey are such beautiful sites that I think they’re worth visiting just for the atmosphere. You can’t beat day trips, after all.

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