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Relics tell of abbey's golden age

[Thursday 13 April 2006]

AN ARTEFACT possibly used by monks who fancied an illicit tipple, or in pursuit of the alchemist's dream, is one of the stunning objects going on display for the first time at a 12th century North Yorkshire abbey.

The relics will go on show as part of the recently completed refurbishment of the museum at Byland Abbey, near Thirsk. The historic Abbey Inn, which overlooks the site, is also set to open its doors for its first full season as English Heritage's only gastro-pub.

Anna Keay, English Heritage Director of Properties, with 15th century ceramic hood
Anna Keay, English Heritage Director of Properties,
with 15th century ceramic hood

The heritage watchdog is hoping the developments will reinvigorate the ruins, some of the most extensive in Northern England, and prove the abbey a fascinating day out for visitors.

The museum revamp has allowed the monks' story to be re-told using relics previously kept under lock and key. They include a remarkable 15th century ceramic hood used in a distillation process. A similar find in Lincolnshire was linked with the forlorn pursuit of turning base metal into gold, while others were used in the forbidden practice of making spirits to fortify the flesh against the perishing Yorkshire chill. It may also have been used to prepare medicines.

Susan Harrison, English Heritage Archaeology Curator for the North, said: "Byland has a magnificent collection of well preserved artefacts and the museum gives us chance to share their story with the public.

"Apart from the ceramic hood, we've been able to re-display rare painted stone and more of the medieval tiles for which the Abbey is famous throughout Europe."

The museum project is part of English Heritage's wider vision for the site, which last year saw it purchase the Abbey Inn to protect the ancient setting and reinvest profits in the upkeep of monuments like Byland.

The initiative is the first of its kind for English Heritage with the pub joining a portfolio of over 400 properties in its care.

Jeremy Reed, Visitor Director for English Heritage, said: "We want to give visitors to this beautiful part of North Yorkshire a real sense of time and place, complete with five star facilities. People can dine and sleep in the monastic precinct, discover more about the Abbey's fascinating story, while helping us preserve the wonderful setting."

Abbey Inn was built in the 1845 by monks from Ampleforth, under the leadership of Abbott Father John Molyneux, known as 'Honest John'.

Although often regarded as austere places, large monastic houses like Byland were also famed for their hospitality. King Edward II called for dinner in the 13th century, but ditched dessert when Robert the Bruce attacked with his Scottish army.

Even after dissolution, it didn't take long for pilgrims to be replaced by tourists.

New research by English Heritage has revealed that a massive earthwork, reckoned to be a monastic dam, may have been part of a 17th century walk-way through 'lost' pleasure grounds, offering aristocrats fine views of the ruins.

Gardens incorporating picturesque ruins became very popular, with fine examples at Fountains and Jervaulx Abbeys. But until now, no one suspected Byland may have had a landscaped garden of its own.

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