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 abbey buildings
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.
Work and pray
The monks at Byland Abbey, like all of their Cistercian brethren, rose at about 2am for the first service, Vigil. Two more services and a meeting followed before they had lunch at midday. They spent the afternoon working at their allotted tasks, and there were three more services, after which they went to bed at around 8.30pm. The choir monks did some of the manual work in the abbey and on its estate, but the Cistercians also had lay brothers to work for them. The lay brothers were vital to the success of the monasteries. They also took vows (though much simpler ones than the monks) and had their own church services. The Black Death in the 14th century, which radically changed the supply of agricultural labour, effectively ended the tradition of lay brothers in English monasteries.
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 (12m) high, 1,146ft (349m) 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.
Visit the abbey, then leave beside the ticket office and turn right along the abbey's north side towards Wass. Opposite a small public footpath sign, go left through a gateway and after 10yds (9m) right, over a stile. Cross the field to a second stile, then bear half left uphill to a waymarked gate behind a bench. Go through two more gates and onto a metalled lane.
Turn left. At the top of the lane go straight on 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 signs to Cam Farm. Go straight on at two junctions, uphill, to reach a large open space.
Turn right and, just before a waymarked metal gate, turn left along the wood edge. Follow the path to Oldstead Observatory, bearing left at a fork through the wood. Pass to the left of the Observatory, go down a slope and follow the path running steeply downhill to reach a signpost.
Turn right on the track, signed 'Oldstead'. Follow the track to turn left at a T-junction, go past a barrier and onto a metalled lane. Turn left at the T-junction, and left again onto the road by a seat. Just before the 'road narrows' sign, turn left.
Go through some gateposts and over a cattle grid. Then, as the avenue of trees ends, take a signposted footpath to the right. The path bends immediately right and goes over a stile. Climb up the hillside, bending around to the left beside the woodland to a gate. After the next gate go straight ahead through two more gates and onto a metalled road.
Turn right, then just beyond the road sign which indicates a bend, take a track to the left by the Oldstead Grange sign. Pass the house and go between barns and ahead onto a track, which bends right, downhill, to a gateway with a waymarked tree.
Follow the track round the field-edge to a Byland Abbey signpost. Follow the path ahead as it bends left by another sign, go over a stile and down the field with the hedge on your left. Bear left over a stile, then right at the end to another signpost. Go through a gateway and along the field with a hedge on your right.
Go over two stiles then bear slightly left to a kissing gate. Go half right across the field to a signpost in the hedge by a metal gate. Follow the fence, then go onto the road by a wooden stile. Turn left to return to the car park opposite the abbey.
Woodland tracks, field paths, 8 stiles
Undulating pasture and woodland on slopes of Hambleton Hills
Dogs can be off lead in woodland where indicated
AA Walker's Map 19 North York Moors (western)
Car park behind Abbey Inn in Byland for abbey visitors (charge)
At Byland Abbey
Walking in safety
Read our tips to look after yourself and the environment when following this walk.
Also in the area
About the area
Discover North Yorkshire
North Yorkshire, with its two National Parks and two designated Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, is England’s largest county and one of the most rural. This is prime walking country, from the heather-clad heights of the North York Moors to the limestone country that is so typical of the Yorkshire Dales – a place of contrasts and discoveries, of history and legend.
The coastline offers its own treasures, from the fishing villages of Staithes and Robin Hood Bay to Scarborough, one time Regency spa and Victorian bathing resort. In the 1890s, the quaint but bustling town of Whitby provided inspiration for Bram Stoker, who set much of his novel, Dracula, in the town. Wizarding enthusiasts head to the village of Goathland, which is the setting for the Hogwarts Express stop at Hogsmeade station in the Harry Potter films.
York is a city of immense historical significance. It was capital of the British province under the Romans in AD 71, a Viking settlement in the 10th century, and in the Middle Ages its prosperity depended on the wool trade. Its city walls date from the 14th century and are among the finest in Europe. However, the gothic Minster, built between 1220 and 1470, is York’s crowning glory.