There’s something calm and peaceful about the ruins of Egglestone Abbey. They huddle on top of a small hill above the River Tees, just outside the old market town of Barnard Castle, in County Durham. The location feels almost as secluded these days as it must have been when the abbey was founded eight centuries ago. There are a few, handsome, private houses nearby – one of which has the ruins of the Abbey’s water mill in its grounds – but the place feels pretty much off the beaten track, despite the presence of the busy A66 less than a mile to the south. You won’t find any facilities – just a small car park – and the informality is simply perfect.
Approaching it from the narrow lane at the bottom of the valley, your first view is the silhouette of the building against the skyline, with the vast, empty, east window of the abbey church dominating. Egglestone Abbey – more properly, the Abbey of St Mary and John the Evangelist – was a relatively poor religious house, often straining to survive, yet it still managed to acquire some magnificent architecture. Even in its present state, that window is impressive. We wandered through the broken church. Where the nave had been were some graves, including the table tomb of Sir Rafe Bowes of Streatlam (no idea, but he might have owned Bernard Castle at one time). There were hardly any other people about. I was leaning on the tomb, contemplating it, when a little girl skipped over, grinned broadly at me and peered down into the gloom with obvious interest. Maybe she thought it was a fish-tank. Then, to my alarm, I got the impression she wanted to clamber inside; fortunately, I was spared the decision as to whether or not to intervene by the timely arrival of her mother, who ushered her quickly away – though I did think that the baleful glance at The Strange Man and the Creepy Tomb was a little unfair.
The abbey was established around the year 1195 by white canons (lest this be misunderstood, this refers to the colour of the habits they wore) of the Premonstratensian order, founded by St Norbert in 1120 at Prémontré in France. The canons were ordained priests who lived an austere, frugal, existence – most of the time in silence. They were strict vegetarians and largely self-sufficient; but Egglestone often struggled to maintain the minimum apostolic number of 12 canons, plus an abbot, and the abbey’s finances were so bad that it was often excused paying taxes. It did not help that this part of the country was repeatedly at the mercy of attacks from England’s northern neighbour. In 1315, capitalising on the success of their decisive victory at Bannockburn the previous year, the Scots wreaked such havoc at Egglestone that the canons’ taxes were halved. In 1327, it was reported that the devastation caused by subsequent Scottish raids was so bad that there was nothing left worth taxing. To cap it all, the English Army, camped at the abbey en route to the Battle of Neville Cross in 1346, caused so much damage that one of the commanders, local landowner Sir Thomas Rokeby, was moved to give compensation.
The story from the Reformation onward is a familiar one; Britain’s abbeys were sold off, often turned into residences, and either survived as stately homes or deteriorated into ruins – depending on owners’ fortunes. In 1540, Egglestone Abbey was dissolved by King Henry VIII’s commissioners and the abbot, sub-prior, sub-deacon and 6 priests were each given a pension. The property was then bought by a Robert Strelly, who converted it to a family home. But Egglestone Abbey appears to have soon fallen into a state of decay and by the 18th century what remained was neglected and choked by weeds. Many of the stones from the cloister and church were used at nearby Rokeby Hall in the 19th century. In 1927, care of Egglestone Abbey passed into the hands of the State.
Arguably the most interesting visible relics are what used to be the dormitory block, later converted to domestic use by Strelly in the 16th century. Beyond this is an impressive vaulted room – possibly used by the community as a warming room or hospital – and an intriguing insight into the abbey’s latrines and drainage system, flushed by the adjacent Thorsgill Beck. The Tees flows gently by in the valley below, where you will also see a 17th century packhorse bridge, Bow Bridge, next to the modern one.
Time and again, I find visiting obscure ruins as rewarding as touring the potentially over-hyped, infinitely more crowded, better-known, larger attractions; I enjoyed Egglestone Abbey very much.