IN SEARCHING for a secluded, tranquil spot to site an abbey, the Cistercian monks could not have made a better choice than Rievaulx.

A deep, wooded valley beside the River Rye - its name originated as Rye (the river) plus the Norman-French val or valle - the spot was chosen to be the setting for French Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux’s first Cistercian outpost in the North.

Now a main historic attraction within the North York Moors National Park, the abbey is celebrated for this idyllic setting, attracting visitors from far and wide.

When you arrive, especially under cloudless skies, its beauty can take your breath away, with leafy hillsides, sheep grazing in surrounding meadows and the river meandering past. Yet its original, religious inhabitants didn’t all see it that way.

In the 12th century - when the abbey was founded - the isolated site was described by one cleric as ‘a horrid and vast solitude’. It was, however, the perfect place for the new Cistercian community to establish a self-sufficient community.

It quickly became one of the wealthiest and spiritually renowned monasteries in medieval England. In its heyday, it housed 600 men, of which 140 were monks.

In common with other monasteries across the country, under Henry VIII, its monastic life ended and the buildings fell into ruins.

Walking around the well-preserved remains, much of the accessible on gravel paths, visitors can imagine the life of those early abbey dwellers. Helpful information posts, some with artists’ impressions of life in the building, describe which part of the abbey you are in and what went on there.

The lofty presbytery, or monks’ church must have been spectacular. One information board shows how it may have looked in its past life, with the monks at prayer.

Similarly, the grand refectory - the finest of its type in Britain - is shown with the monks seated around the edges. Mealtimes were not, as we think of them, a time to wind down and chat - religious readings were given from the pulpit, while the monks ate in silence.

Their diet was largely vegetarian, with the main dish being a thick soup made from beans and vegetables. Bread and ale were also staples. On special occasions fish, eggs and cheese were allowed.

We came across a warming room, with a grand fireplace, and a fascinating tannery with a series of brick tanning pits. The resourceful monks made their own leather for belts, sandals, harnesses, buckets and other useful items. Most monasteries had a tannery but very few have survived.

It is worth seeking out the line of latrines, the lavatory seats backed by a substantial drop to the drain below.

Don’t miss the abbey museum. Opened two years this sensitively designed building looking out on to the abbey, tells the story of the building from its foundation in 1132 to its suppression in 1538, and displays abbey artefacts for the first time in 500 years. Many fragments were unearthed during an excavation in the 1920s.

The museum is well thought out, with just the right number of exhibits and information to hold your interest. I loved the large, 15th century carved stone heads wearing comical expressions and the beautifully crafted stone peacock - used as the crest of the De Ros family, patrons of Rievaulx. Rosary beads made from jet, bone, ivory and amber are also on display.

There’s a quick potted history on film, with facts including how, in the mid-14th century, only 15 monks survived following the Black Death. A temporary exhibition space looks at the importance of the Annunciation - when Angel Gabriel visited the Virgin Mary and told her she was going to miraculously conceive Christ. The display includes a sculpture that survived Henry VIII’s suppression of monasteries that has been digitally recreated and gone on display for the first time. The exhibit allows visitors to see the lost detail and intricacies of the scene from a panel that is too badly eroded to see otherwise.

When you have had your fill of the abbey, a fabulous tea room awaits. Built to reflect the ecclesiastical surroundings, it is light, airy and spacious. We enjoyed tea and scones beside huge floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the ruins.

If you bring your own picnic, there’s plenty of space, with a number of tables in shady spots.

And if you fancy eating out after your visit, or want to indulge in a spot of retail therapy, the pretty market town of Helmsley is nearby. There’s a lovely seven-mile circular walk from Helmsley to Rievaulx, for those who want to stretch their legs.

*Rievaulx Abbey is off the B1257 Helmsley to Stokesley Road.

*Rievaulx Abbey, Rievaulx , Helmsley, YO62 5LB. For more information:; T: 0370 333 1181/01439 798228