VISITORS to the dramatic ruins of Rievaulx Abbey are often unaware that the best view of the Cistercian monastery is from above.

Carved out of woodland on a steep escarpment behind the historic landmark, a sweeping grass terrace offers panoramic vistas of the abbey from a series of viewpoints.

At either end of this wide swathe of land stand two elegant mid-18th century Palladian temples.

Owned by the National Trust, it is a wonderful spot for an uplifting, non-taxing stroll.

We set off from the small visitor centre selling National Trust products, drinks and confectionery, on a weaving path through the mainly beech woods. A trail for children highlights trees marked with their names: ash, horse chestnut, elderberry, field maple…

The flat route meanders through beech woods, passing picnic tables and a ‘sky glade’ inviting people to take a break and lean back on angled tree trunks to ‘relax and watch the sky go by.’

We did as it asked, my parents, my husband and I, staring up at passing clouds. “It’s actually quite relaxing,” said my dad.

We passed natural children’s play areas, with tree stump stepping stones and dens made from branches. Then, suddenly, you’re out on the terrace, the wide expanse of green opening up before you. It’s quite a sight.

The green promenade was created in 1758 by the aristocrat and politician Thomas Duncombe II who had inherited the land from his father along with the adjoining Helmsley estate, Duncombe Park, some ten years previously.

His intention was to complement, and perhaps even surpass, the more formal terrace and temples laid out in about 1730 by his father at Duncombe Park. It is thought that he may have planned to join the two terraces by a scenic drive along the River Rye.

The river runs along the valley floor, gurgling past the abbey and beneath the Grade ll-listed Rievaulx Bridge, a wonderful view of which opens up beside the Doric or Tuscan Temple at the south-east end of the terrace.

Thought to be a scaled-down version of the mausoleum at Castle Howard a few miles away, the pavement floor came from the abbey choir.

Visitors cannot go in, but a series of mirrors placed on windowsills offers a reflection of the decorative plasterwork on the domed ceiling.

It’s an elegant building, with rams’ heads carved around the roof. Sadly, there is also a lot of carved graffiti on the stonework.

Thomas Duncombe's descendant, the third and last Earl of Feversham, died in 1963. In 1972 the site and adjoining woods were bought by the National Trust.

As we retraced our steps, the elusive sun appeared and we looked down on the abbey and the tourists wandering around its remains. A pleasure in all seasons, the views are at their best when trees are not in leaf, exposing not only the ruin but the land around it and hills beyond.

There were originally 13 views carved out through the woodland. Today there are 12, but, within the next year, the National Trust plans to create another.

At the opposite end stands the Ionic Temple, inspired by the Temple of Fortuna Virilis in Rome. It was intended as a banqueting house and the central table is set as though ready for a meal, with a dinner service of Chamberlain Worcester porcelain.

Above, a magnificent ceiling is painted with mythological scenes.

In its heyday the Duncombe’s would bring guests to this fine building to dine, explained the helpful visitor assistant Chris Lund who answered our many questions. Servants brought food from Duncombe Park, using the basement to prepare it for the table.

With its light-sensitive interior, the temple is open for a number of half-hour periods throughout the day, so it worth looking up the time slots before your visit.

The basement is now home to an interesting exhibition on the history of the terrace. There’s also information on its resident wildlife.

Spring is an ideal time to visit, with flowers adding a shower of colour to the banksides. Wildflower wanders are among the numerous activities taking place throughout the year.

*The Rievaulx Terrace, Rievaulx, Helmsley YO62 5LJ W: T: 01439 748283