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Exhibit of the Week: Stonemason’s mark, Byland Abbey, English Heritage

The stonemason's mark revealed during the restoration project of Byland Abbey.
The stonemason's mark revealed during the restoration project of Byland Abbey.

Autumn 2017 saw major conservation work take place on the stonework at Byland Abbey, near Helmsley, and whilst the results might not now be immediately obvious, it was vital work on one of Yorkshire’s greatest Cistercian monasteries and one of the country’s most impressive ruined sites. The building was the most ambitious Cistercian church in 12thcentury Europe and unusual in that construction of the majority was confined to a short time period. Planned to the grandest of designs, Byland helped to pioneer the new Gothic style of architecture in northern England. This is evident today in the combination of round Norman and pointed Gothic arches and a cloister that is one of the largest in England.

In September 2017, the walls were accessed via a 25 metre scaffold with 12 platforms at the highest point – not for the faint hearted – and with the site remaining open to the public, visitors were able to see conservation in action – albeit from a safe distance. The 21st century stone masons also found some carvings made by previous masons who looked after the building in 1822 – hidden from view, at almost the pinnacle of the ruins, these carvings were never made to be seen, but just to mark the work by ‘J.N’ who may well have understood the privilege of conserving such an important site.

A view of Byland Abbey site from the top of the scaffolding structure.

A view of Byland Abbey site from the top of the scaffolding structure.

English Heritage masons predominantly worked on the stonework of the towering West Front which included the remains of the great circular rose window – a window which would have had a diameter of eight metres. The West Front is part of the immense church, which today dominates the ruins. This part of the building benefited from consolidation stonework repairs, re-pointing of defective mortar, the removal of loose stonework flakes, clearance of vegetation and inspection of protective lead work capping. Work continued through a raft of weather and with the building wrapped to help protect the workers and showcase the abbey, work was completed on time.

English Heritage certainly considered the project commensurate with the significance of this site in Europe and essential to preserve this historically important building. A worthy recipient of much effort and hard work.

The ruined remains of the Cistercian abbey of Byland are situated to the north-east of the village of Wass, Ryedale, North Yorkshire. Byland was one of Yorkshires largest monasteries, the plan of which is exceptionally complete and also significant in the fact that it almost totally dates to the 12th century.

The abbey was suppressed in 1539. It was stripped of its fittings and leadwork and its buildings used as a convenient quarry for building stone. The abbey estate was granted to Sir William Pickering in 1540 at which time part of the eastern range was converted into a dwelling. After passing through several hands the abbey estate was finally acquired by the Wombwell family in the 19th century.

Decorative tiled floors still adorn many parts of the church, among the most extensive displays of monastic tiling to be seen anywhere today. Also located on site are the remains of the monastic buildings which originally housed some 300 monks and lay brothers, later reduced to just 14 by plague and Scots raiders.