Earthy Approach To Frost Protection At Rievaulx Abbey

By Culture24 Staff | 14 January 2009
a photo of a man lifting up a piece of turf with a ruined abbey in the background

Rievaulx Custodian Tony Powell peels back the turf. Picture courtesy English Heritage

As the current cold snap catches many of us off guard this winter, experts at Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire have come up with an earthy solution to keep the elements at bay.

Medieval floor tiles at Rievaulx Abbey, near Helmsley, North Yorkshire, are being protected from this year’s wintry weather with the help of an innovative turf sandwich.

Grass turf combined with a waterproof barrier and a breathable membrane have been laid over the valuable tiles, creating an insulating layer while also allowing air to circulate. Sensors, monitor temperature and humidity and help experts gauge the success of the experiment.

The rare ceramics, mostly dating to the 14th century, are the last survivors of thousands that once adorned the church floor at the spectacular 900 year old ruin.

“Over recent weeks the grass ‘duvet’ has been vital – the thermometer at Rievaulx has dipped below minus 8 degrees centigrade,” said Mark Douglas, English Heritage Properties Curator in Yorkshire and the Humber.

“The problem with sub-zero temperatures is that water in tiny holes in the tiles and in the spaces between them turns to ice, which then expands causing damage. The key is to keep frost at bay and prevent the severe chill.

“Polystyrene can do the job, but it isn’t exactly an elegant solution when set against the majesty of the ruins. We think the better answer may be a grassroots one.”

a close up of a medieval tile with decoration and latin script

A Rievaulx tile close up. Picture courtesy English Heritage

Amidst the majestic ruins of the Abbey, the tiles are a tangible and precious reminder of Rievaulx’s medieval glory. The interior of the medieval Abbey church would have been a blaze of colour, with bright walls and vivid floor tiles all contributing to the scene.

The decorative tiles were a luxury item and represented an important status symbol for Rievaulx, Britain’s most prestigious Cistercian monastery, established in 1132.

Following the Abbey’s closure in 1538 rubble and debris soon accumulated, protecting ceramics from the harsh winter weather, but when the site was cleared by de-mobbed soldiers in the 1920s they were exposed to the elements.

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