Review by Fiona Duncan, published 4th May 2008.
This is heaven. I haven’t been so bouleversée by a new find for ages. I keep thinking, obtusely, as I sit in the Abbey Inn’s rustic, stone-walled Wass Room, that I must be in France, in one of those vieux logis overlooking some elegiac monument historique, for the pairing of isolated inn with starkly beautiful Cistercian ruins is not a common one in Britain.
The place is as romantic as you want to make it. Sometimes, I’m told, the full moon is suspended behind the great church, bathing its majestic remains in ghostly light. “You think it’s romantic now?” says the waitress. “Wait till you see that.”
The ruins are those of Byland Abbey. From the North Yorkshire Moors I’ve driven the helter-skelter road that descends from the A170 and Sutton Bank, with its astonishing views. Close by is the village of Kilburn, home of handmade “Mouseman” country furniture, which features large at the Abbey Inn.
I’m trying to avoid the naughtier excesses of chef John Malia’s hearty menu (venison T-Bone with fat-cut chips; Valrhona chocolate fondant) but succumb to his savoury version of Fat Rascal (local scone) served with a soft poached egg and roast cod wrapped in Parma ham. As dinner progresses, the abbey ruins are first mellowed by the setting sun and then dramatised by floodlight.
Byland Abbey, once one of the “shining lights of the North” along with Rievaulx and Fountains, is owned by English Heritage and is today the quietest of the three monuments.
Two years ago, English Heritage also purchased the diminutive 19th-century inn opposite and now it has emerged from a conscientious makeover that errs on the side of precious, and markets itself as a smart country restaurant, thereby mistakenly (in my view) excluding walkers and locals (unless it’s summer and they can sit in the garden for snacks). The three superb bedrooms upstairs remain a little-known secret.
They shouldn’t. One of them, Prior’s Lynn, is notable for its specially commissioned Mouseman furniture, but I’m in the Abbot’s Retreat, more suite than room. There are mighty beams and exposed bricks, as well as two pretty windows overlooking the abbey, plus a cosy four-poster bed, sofa, table and chairs and a huge, positively glamorous black-and-white bathroom with a luxurious free-standing tub.
Attention to detail is considerable: fresh tulips and a complimentary decanter of sherry, home-made flapjacks and a potpourri of sweets in glass jars, a selection of wines, tea and coffee things neatly stowed in a leather box and a compendium of guest information that makes you feel genuinely welcome. In the bathroom there are thick, fluffy towels and bathrobes.
Next morning, you can have breakfast in bed, gazing at the view. And then you can wander among the ruins, free of charge, probably alone, and marvel at the passage of time. I’ve got a scary wedding anniversary coming up, and I can’t think of a better place to spend it.