It’s not a long walk from the Yorkshire town of Richmond to the ruins of Easby Abbey, but you do go back a long way into medieval history. And there’s some fine scenery along the River Swale along the journey. Not to mention the chance of seeing some particularly fine medieval wall paintings in the church at Easby.
The town of Richmond is a wonderful place to just stroll around, with one of the best castles in England – I mentioned it in my blog of September 27th last year. I won’t say much about Richmond here, as I intend to describe a town walk in the near future, but enough to say it’s worth a visit.
We walked down to the River Swale and took the path to Easby. Not far along the way is the Drummer Boy Stone. Legend has it that towards the end of the 18th century soldiers in Richmond Castle discovered a tunnel under the keep. As it was very tiny, they selected a drummer boy to explore its depths, telling him to keep drumming as he walked, so that they could track his progress by following him above ground.
After half a mile, in Easby Wood, they heard no more drumming and the drummer boy was never seen again. The stone marks the place where the drumming ceased. Is it true? Who knows?
A footpath leads on to the ruins of Easby Abbey. The Abbey of St Agatha, is a Premonstratensian house right on the banks of the Swale. founded in 1152 by Roald, Constable of Richmond Castle. The white canons must have led a very quiet life here in general, though there were interruptions to the tranquillity. An English army camped on their way north to the Battle of Neville’s Cross and caused a great deal of damage.
Unfortunately for the canons, they opposed Henry VIII during the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1537. The vengeful king instructed the duke of Norfolk who was leading the royal army to crush the rebels to “at your repair to … St Agatha and such other places as have made resistance … you shall without pity or circumstance … cause the monks to be tied up [hanged] without further delay.”
It’s unclear whether the canons were so executed or not, but their resistance did strengthen Henry’s hand during the suppresion of the monasteries. The possession of the monastery was handed back to the Scrope family of Castle Bolton and by 1539, the abbey had already had the lead stripped from the roof.
Even so, this romantic ruin gives a good idea of the layout of the abbey and monastery. Turner painted it (he seems to have gone everywhere!) and there’s still a lot to see.
The parish church of St Agatha, once part of the religious complex, and almost certainly pre-dating the abbey, remains as a place of worship. A modest church building, it retains some quite excellent wall paintings, dating back to around 1250. Very well worth making the journey to see. They were rediscovered during the Victorian restoration of the church, having been covered up during the Reformation.
They were, of course, probably never intended to be permanent, and might have been replaced from time to time by journeyman painters. They were an instruction to probably illiterate worshippers of the Christian message.
The wall paintings show the birth of Christ and the resurrection, the Annunciation, the fall of Adam and Eve and expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
But the paintings that get to you the most are those illustrating early medieval life. There’s a gentlemen out hawking, labouring peasants back-breakingly digging the land.
My favourite is the painting of a labourer sowing seed, watched by a hungry crow even as he scatters the seed.
It’s like time-travel, you are looking back almost through a window at the medieval world. You could study these paintings a thousand times and always find something new. It was hard to tear ourselves away.
But as you leave, on the side of the church door, are some very clear scratch marks. I may be wrong, but I suspect they were made by medieval archers sharpening their arrow heads.
We crossed the Swale and followed the course of the disused railway line back to Richmond, enjoying the walk but rather mourning the fact that Dr Beeching scrapped the railway line – a source of regret, though the old station has been imaginatively transformed into a rather pleasant community centre, complete with cafe and cinema.
You wonder what the Richmond drummer boy, the white canons and the journeyman painter of the medieval wall painters would have made of that?