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Monks and an Astronomer at Byland Abbey

From the romantic ruins of Byland Abbey to an old observatory - and back through the fish pond.

Distance 5 miles (8km)

Minimum time 2hrs 30min

Ascent/gradient 623ft (190m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Woodland tracks, field paths, 11 stiles

Landscape Undulating pasture and woodland on slopes of Hambleton Hills

Suggested map aqua3 OS Outdoor Leisure 26 North York Moors - Western

Start/finish SE 548789

Dog friendliness Dogs can be off lead in woodland where indicated

Parking Signed car park behind Abbey Inn in Byland

Public toilets At Byland Abbey

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1 From the car park, walk towards the abbey ruins, then turn left along the abbey's north side. At a public footpath sign, go left through a gateway, and right through a waymarked gate just before the second set of gateposts. After a second gateway bear half left to a waymarked gate behind a bench. Go through two more gates and on to a metalled lane.

2 Turn left. At the top of the lane go through a gate signed 'Cam Farm, Observatory'. The path climbs then leaves the wood edge to rise to a terrace. After a stile take the left-hand path, following Cam Farm. Where three paths meet, turn right, climbing uphill on a track which levels out to reach a large open space.

3 Turn right and, just before a waymarked metal gate, turn left along the wood edge. Follow the path to Oldstead Observatory. Pass to the left of the Observatory and go down a slope to a track running steeply downhill to a signpost.

4 Turn right, signed 'Oldstead'. Follow the track as it curves left to become a metalled lane. Turn left at the T-junction, and left again on to the road by a seat. Just before the road narrows sign, turn left.

5 Go through some gateposts and over a cattle grid. Then, as the avenue of trees ends, take a waymarked footpath to the right, uphill. Climb up to a stile, bending around to the left beside the woodland to another stile, marked by a fingerpost. Continue past another waymarker and over a waymarked stile. The footpath goes between a hedge and a wire fence, then over another stile on to a metalled road.

6 Turn right then, just beyond the road sign which indicates a bend, take a track to the left by the Oldstead Grange sign. As you near the house, turn left towards some barns and wind your way through the farmyard to a stile by a metal gate. Bear right downhill on the track, then bend slightly right to a waymarked stile.

7 Over the stile turn left and go through the wood to a Byland Abbey signpost. Follow the path as it bends left by another sign, go over a stile and down the field with the hedge on your left to another signpost. Go over a stile beside a metal gate and along the field with a hedge on your right.

8 Go over two stiles then bear slightly left to another stile. Go half left to a signpost in the hedge by a metal gate. Follow the fence, then on to the road by a wooden stile. Turn left, then left again past the Abbey Inn to the car park.

In 1134 a party of Savigniac monks set out from their English mother house in Furness on the west coast of Cumbria to found a new monastery. Forty-three years and six moves later, Byland was founded as their permanent home, and by then they had become part of the Cistercian Order. The final move was from nearby Stocking, where they had settled in 1147. The relocation to Byland in 1177 must have been long planned, for Byland's earliest buildings, the lay brothers' quarters, were complete by 1165; everything had to be in order for the arrival of the monks themselves.

The most impressive parts of the ruins remaining today are in the church - and especially the remnants of the fine rose window in the west front. Beneath it the main door leads into the nave, the lay brothers' portion of the church. The monks used the east end. Although the walls of the south transept collapsed in 1822, that area of the church still retains one of Byland's greatest treasures - the geometrically tiled floors, with their delicate patterns in red, cream and black.

At the highest point of the walk is Oldstead Observatory, built on the splendidly-named Mount Snever by John Wormald, who lived at Oldstead Hall in the valley below. It was a celebration, as the rather worn inscription tells us, of Queen Victoria's accession to the throne. At just over 40ft (12 m) high, 1,146ft (399m) above sea level, it is high enough to scan the heavens, though history does not record if Mr Wormald made any startling astronomical discoveries through his roof-mounted telescope.

What to look for

The lumps and bumps of the final field you cross on the walk are the remains of the monks' ponds. It is difficult to visualise the abbey in the Middle Ages almost surrounded by water. There was a large pond that stretched almost ½ mile (800m) from east to west, to the north of the abbey buildings, which was used to flush the drains, and two more south and south east. To the south west, where this walk passes through, was a roughly triangular pond, bounded by a bank supporting the abbey's mill. The ponds were also used for breeding fish, one of the most important staples of the monks' diet. They practiced large-scale fish farming at nearby Oldstead Grange.

Where to eat and drink

There are two country inns with good food on the walk. The Abbey Inn in Byland, directly opposite the Abbey, has old beams and flagged floors, and offers sandwiches and meals at lunchtime, and fine dinners. The Wombwell Arms at Wass has bistro-style food, with sandwiches and ploughman's at lunchtime. Both serve good traditional Yorkshire beers.

While you're there

Take a trip to nearby Kilburn to visit the Mouseman Visitor Centre. Here Robert Thompson, born in 1876, worked at his now-famous furniture, each piece carved with his characteristic mouse. Oak furniture is still made by his successors, and the centre demonstrates the history of the firm and its work.

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